A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord

Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2014.

Liel Leiovitz, assistant professor of Communications at New York University, argues that his book on Leonard Cohen is not a biography. In a similar vein this post is not a book review. Whatever else Leibovitz’s book is, it is certainly a sympathetic account of Cohen. Throughout reading it, the reader is continually reassured that the author has a concern and warmth for his subject. In the preface we read that:

“You feel the same hum at a Cohen concert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too can somehow transcend.”

We soon learn that Cohen is not a simple traditional religious type, however, given the fact that rock and roll, and orgasms, make up, along with theology, the three core themes of his canon. After the brief Prelude, the rather lengthier Preface portrays Cohen as the the only person with a sense of perspective and wisdom in a massive Festival (the first Isle of Wight one) gone seriously bad. The account has all the marks of a Legend, yet like all the best legends it has that ring of truth that gives you confidence that Cohen is in a somewhat special league of popular musicians, or indeed human beings.

The story of Cohen’s Jewish upbringing is warmly described, perhaps working especially well given our narrator is also a Jew. A Gentile would have found difficulty in expressing some of the captivating perspective given here:

“It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had the strange question to ponder: Why us? And what now?”

Cohen’s Jewishness is the key reason what I was drawn to this book. I wanted to find out more about a singer/songwriter whose lyrics exuded the Psalms of Israel, which are a passion of mine. I am still convinced that, Hallelujah, Cohen’s truly iconic song, is a profound meditative reflection on the Biblical Psalter. Surely this is a Holy and yet broken Hallelujah; the words of ‘men’ become the word of God in this treasured collection. Like Cohen’s work they are both poems and songs. Whether my reasons make sense, or not, I have certainly a greater knowledge of, and I hope insight into, Cohen. The reader like myself, who knew little of Cohen, will not be surprised to find out he was a poet long before he was a songwriter. Those like me who have enjoyed the echoes of the soul of the Psalms will find support for their experience in Leibovitz’s claim that duende (a Spanish term for ‘deep song’, similar to the concept of blues) is a key force behind his poetry and songs. For those that know the Psalms this is of course the thread of Lament, or Complaint, so prevalent there.

Throughout the book there are some cameos from major figures of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two stand out in particular. When Bob Dylan enters the story you can’t help but feel for Cohen who discovers that Dylan write’s his songs in minutes, whilst Cohen trims and refines over years. When Phil Spector crosses Cohen’s path to work on an album, the reader is moved again. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was always going to being incoherent with Cohen’s minimalism. Why did on one realise this at the outset?

At one point I felt that the episodic nature of Leibovitz’s account yields a picture of Cohen as a intellectual Forrest Gump. For it is not only the big players like Dylan and Spector who arrive on stage, but big world events too. Cohen was the only Westerner in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs debacle who could claim he was just there on a prolonged holiday. Some twelve years later he spent months touring for the Israeli armed forces engaged in the Yom Kippur War.

When the reader reaches the final chapter, A Secret Chord, they are surprised that Cohen’s most infamous song was written as recently as 1984. This song is so many things, not least it is perhaps the most explicit vehicle for the quest for redemption that, Leibovitz suggests, underpins Cohen’s ongoing critique of Jewish and Gentile culture through poetry, novel and song.

I am grateful to Leibovitz for this book, and I commend it to anyone with a passing interest in Cohen as well as those already familiar with this unique artist. On the 23rd September 2014, 2 days after his 80th birthday, he will release his 13th album. Lucky for us.

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul

The Psalms: Language for All Seasons of the Soul, Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard (editors), Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2013.

With an edited collection like this the reader will probably look at who the contributors are as their first engagement not with the book. The list of contributors is encouraging indeed. Whilst all the contributors are based in North America they are some of the very best Old Testament scholars of the Evangelical tradition. Many have already made highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. Importantly there is also the right balance of some newer voices here too.

Such collections are prone to be somewhat uneven. In my view this is very much the case here. Some of the papers contribute little that is new, with very similar material available elsewhere. This is not necessarily a major problem as the book, quite naturally aims to capture something of a snapshot of the latest consensus on psalms scholarship and thus some overlap with previous work is inevitable. What I found more problematic was the idiosyncratic or cursory nature of a small number of the contributions. I will single out two which I found less helpful, before making some more positive comments on what I found to be the strongest chapters in this collection.

The collection opens with a contribution from Bruce K. Waltke titled Biblical Theology of the Psalms Today: A Personal Perspective. This chapter certainly achieves its subtitle, it is a highly personal account, indeed the word autobiographical springs to mind. I am not sure I’ve encountered something quite like this before in a serious work of this type. The personal approach would not be a problem if it lived up to its main title. Putting the matter bluntly it really does not leave the reader with a clear appreciation of what a Biblical Theology of the Psalms looks like today. Given the very nature of the consultation, of which this volume is the fruit, it is puzzling that so little is made of the canonical approach to the Psalter by Waltke. Michael K. Snearly’s contribution on Book V as a Witness to Messianic Hope in the Psalter is problematic for quite different reasons. His paper is a highly intriguing proposal and yet the use of the five keywords in book V, critical to his argument, occupies less than half a page! The interested reader will have to obtain a copy of his thesis.

I am pleased to say that this book has far more good contributions than idiosycratic ones. Chapter 2 by Willem A. Vangemeren is an excellent overview of some key contributions to the more literary aspects of Psalms scholarship. Anyone embarking on serious engagement with the Psalms would do well to heed his selection and evaluation of some key scholars. His call to an appreciation and use of the imagination in theological interpretation is in my view also of vital importance. Both the older form-critical approach and the more recent canonical approach, championed in this book, can lead to a distancing between biblical text and the present without such an awareness. Appropriate use of the imagination in theological interpretation enables the Bible to be used as Scripture and ensures that the word of the academy is coherent with the life of the Church. Although of course as Vangemeren makes clear some scholars, such as Barton, would see such an approach or goal as illegitimate.

The five chapters on the Psalms of Lament are diverse in nature, and together highlight just how central these psalms are to the Psalter. Each of these chapters contribute to emphasising that any account of the Psalms for today must enable a fuller engagement with the more difficult seasons of the soul. The theme of lament is also ably picked up later in the volume by David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of that most peculiar of psalms, psalm 88.

For me, the two highlights of the book both focus on the Psalter as a book. Robert L. Cole, who has written a magisterial monograph on psalms 1 and 2 (reviewed in my previous post), convincingly explores the role of these two psalms as an introduction to the Psalter. He helpfully highlights how the two psalms have been meticulously integrated and yet remain distinct in their specific introductory roles. The list of verbal parallels is especially helpful for those who are not familiar with Hebrew and would otherwise find it difficult to spot this intentional linking of the two psalms in English translation.

Cole’s chapter leads very helpfully into David M. Howard Jr.’s examination of how the motifs of Divine and human kingship are central concerns of the Psalter. Although a short contribution it demonstrates the importance of the motif of kingship within the Psalter. He shows that the theme goes beyond being just pervasive and, as the title of his chapter indicates, is a key organisational principle. In this way he points back to the seminal contribution of Gerald Wilson, who in a sense initiated the movement of which the current volume is one outcome. Unlike Wilson, however, Howard captures a more convincing overall narrative of the development of the theme of kingship in the Psalter. Indeed Howard helpfully captures the messianic expectation which was so prevalent in Israel at the time of the Psalter’s final editing. In this way the motifs of divine and human kingship understood aright help establish a bridge between the Testaments, rather than the gulf opened up by some adherents of form-criticism.

Coles’ chapter and Howard’s two contributions in this volume, in particular, have made me go back to the Psalter afresh, and what more could a book on the Psalms hope to do for its readers?

Psalms 1 and 2: Gateway to the Psalter by Robert Cole

Robert L. Cole, Psalms 1–2: Gateway to the Psalter, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

This monograph, I must confess at the outset, is of very special interest to me. I have been convinced for a number of years now that the first two psalms are in some sense a deliberate introduction to the Psalter. Such a view was thought to be ridiculous by many scholars until quite recently. Over the past couple of decades, however, it has been discovered (perhaps rediscovered is more appropriate) that the Psalter is not a random anthology, but has been edited with purpose and intent. Last year I published a paper to this effect: Mark J. Whiting, 2013, Psalms 1 and 2 as a hermeneutical lens for reading the Psalter, Evangelical Quarterly, 85, 246. This paper was written before the publication of Cole’s book.

Cole’s work is a meticulous study and is written for the Academy. Fortunately, for those who want to understand Cole’s concerns without all the technical evidence, discussion and indeed cost inherent in this study, he has written a chapter in The Psalms: Language for all Seasons of the Soul, edited by Andrew J. Schmutzer and David M. Howard. The non-expert will find this book challenging but also rewarding. Challenging, because of the discussion of the Hebrew text, but rewarding too, because of the fruit yielded in seeing scholarly work which ‘feels’ like a meditation on the text. In this book review, it is not my intention to examine Cole’s technical argument in detail. This is not least because I do not have the requisite grounding in Biblical Hebrew.

Cole’s monograph has a straightforward structure, comprising four chapters whose headings reveal all, 1: Introduction, 2: Psalm 1, 3: Psalm 2 and perhaps more surprisingly 4: Psalm 3. In the first chapter, Cole starts by demonstrating that the idea that Psalms 1 and 2 function as an introduction to the Psalter is hardly novel. His survey covers textual variants of Acts, the works of numerous Church Father, the Babylonian Talmud before moving on to evidence from medieval Jewish commentators. He notes that the Reformation and Enlightenment periods represent something of a hiatus on this topic. Most of the chapter explores nineteenth-century and especially twentieth-century discussion of the role of these two psalms within the Psalter. His survey, and critical appraisal, of this material highlights how Gunkel’s major contribution to scholarship, i.e. form criticism, in Cole’s words, had a ‘stultifying effect’ on the exploration of the Psalms in their canonical order. He follows the well-known story of how first Childs, and then Wilson, challenged the hegemony of form criticism in the academy. More unusually he paints a fuller picture of the important roles played by Westermann, Zimmerli, and others, in asking profound questions about the nature and value of form-critical approaches to the Psalter.

Having thus prepared the ground, Cole works through the text of Psalm 1. He firstly considers the literary shape of the psalm, and then proceeds to commentate on its content. Cole shows a full awareness of the diverse literature on this psalm, from commentators, both ancient and modern, to the important contributions of a wide range of recent scholars. Where his study excels is in considering the rich intertextual links between Psalm 1 and other biblical texts. Cole finds that this psalm has a strong eschatological flavour, an interpretation which seems convincing to me, but has not always been in favour with modern commentators.

Chapter 3, on Psalm 2, differs slightly in structure in that between the exploration of the psalm’s structure and the commentary element, there is a section on its canonical function. Anyone who is familiar with the Psalms will, I think, agree with the case put forward by Cole concerning the reverberations of Psalm 2’s ideas and language throughout the Psalms. In the commentary section Cole carries forward his argument that there is diverse literary evidence in these two psalms which points to the purposeful juxtaposition of these two psalms as a gateway to the Psalter.

In the final, and shortest chapter, Cole continues to argue for purposeful editing of the Psalter as he shows that the concerns and topics of the first two psalms are developed and furthered in Psalm 3. In a sense the monograph then just stops dead. Cole’s thesis has been made clear, but as he recognises he can hardly complete what he has initiated for all 150 psalms. His conviction is that if careful attention is given to the individual texts, then unlike Gunkel we will find that the Psalter is a purposeful work rather than some potpourri of poems and songs. As to the fruit of this new scholarly paradigm for the Church we can only pray that it will be more fruitful in, and sympathetic to, promoting personal devotion and corporate worship than the form-critical approach. For opening up this potential, this reader is most grateful to Robert Cole.

Exposing the Psalms

Exposing the Psalms: unmasking their beauty, art, and power for a new generation, Milton Keynes: Authentic Media (2014).

There are a lot of books available on the biblical Psalms. So do we need another? Is a book that aims to expose them, claiming too much? I am pleased to say that this book fulfils a real need and it is a genuine expose. Nevland’s premise is straightforward: In our day the Psalms have fallen into disuse and something needs to be done about this. As the subtitle indicates this is about unmasking the beauty, art and power of the Psalms for a new generation.

‘Exposing the Psalms’ provides a creative and reflective way in which to engage with 30, or so, of the Biblical psalms. I found that this book achieved what all books on the Psalter should, it made me want to engage with the Psalms themselves. In my view, and experience, this is not a book that is best read in just a few sittings. I found each engagement with a psalm meant that I wanted to pause, reflect and pray before progressing to the next. I have heard from others who have found this too. This is a key strength of the book. It has the potential to make a lasting impact rather than simply be a ‘nice quick read’.

One of the most attractive features of this book is that it does not attempt to be the last word on each psalm. Instead it typically explains some of the ‘strangeness’ of the psalms and then quickly proceeds to a creative exploration of the psalm or issue/question which arises from the psalm. There are stories and poems here which are creative and imaginative ways to bring the Psalms alive. They invite the reader to attempt their own creative engagement with these ancient songs and prayers.

Some readers might wonder why the psalms have been tackled in what appears to be a random order. The intention appears to be an engagement with all the psalms as the project unfolds. Whilst I am personally a fan of reading the Psalms in order and as a book, this book has made the right choice in tackling them in a more ad hoc manner. If they had been tackled in canonical sequence the book might have been misunderstood as a commentary in the strictest sense, and it is not that. The more ‘random’ order enables the author to introduce diverse creative insights in a way that covering the first 30 psalms would have made tricky.

Another reviewer has questioned the lack of solid scholarly works cited in the bibliography. As a reader who has read widely on the Psalms and their interpretation, I don’t see that Nevland’s approach requires scholarly footnoting. Indeed his creative insights, which bridge the gap between ancient context and faith today might be stifled by some scholarly approaches. This book is a book that exposes the Psalms for the reader who wants to be creative and prayerful in their engagement. Many other books exist which cover the more technical aspects of psalms interpretation, very few attempt anything like ‘Exposing the Psalms’. Nevland has chosen to ‘dive into’ the Psalms and this is to be commended. His project aims is revive interest in the Psalms, and scholarship, however vital, is not what is needed in the first book of Nevland’s project.

I found the sections on psalms 45, 71 and 88 especially engaging. I wholly recommend this book and the wider project of which it is the start.

‘The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’ by Samuel Terrien

Samuel Terrien, The Psalms: Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary, A Critical Eerdmans Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

This large single volume commentary has been available for just over ten years. I have only recently read it. I am reviewing it here as I think it merits wider attention than it appears to have received. The author, Samuel Terrien, devoted much scholarly attention to the Psalms throughout his long academic career. He passed away, at the age of 90, in 2001, just before the publication of this commentary. His longevity and scholarly interest mean that he is unusually placed to have experienced first hand a number of key developments in Psalms scholarship. He saw how Gunkel’s form-critical approach all but destroyed the nineteenth century’s scholarly consensus on the late date and origin of the Psalter. He witnessed firsthand the impact of Mowinckel’s call to take the original cultic context of the Psalms seriously. More recently he was able to observe a very different movement for interpreting to the Psalter, as Wilson spearheaded what Terrien, and others, refer to as the canonical approach.

Why is this long period of engagement with hermeneutical approaches important to readers of this commentary? Well, so often scholarship can be coloured by either a resistance to change, or the opposite problem, of a grasping after the latest fad. Terrien is well-placed to offer insightful wisdom on the merits of psalms interpretive paradigms, both old and new.

So often in biblical commentaries, the obligatory introduction, can be a bland rehearsal of the expected topics, but this is not the case here. Terrien’s introduction is detailed enough, and yet also concise and fresh enough, to allow the reader to quickly orient themselves on both the Psalms and Terrien’s approach to them. He starts by pointing out the remarkable longevity and vitality of the Psalms; explaining helpfully that this is all the more surprising given the complex ancient near-eastern cultural background to the Psalms. He helpfully surveys the origin and growth of the Psalter. This is important as it indicates that he gives serious attention to some recent developments in scholarship which explore the formation of the Psalter as an intentional, rather than haphazard, collection. He moves on to look at both the music of the Psalms and what he calls the strophic structure. This detailed attention to structure, where each psalm is examined in its own right, is highly unusual, at least in my commentary collection. Terrien then moves on to discuss the form-critical aspects of the various individual psalms. It is clear that Terrien wants to use the fruit of form criticism, but it is also apparent that such an approach is a backdrop to the individual psalms, rather than operating centre stage as an end in itself.

Towards the end of the introduction is, what I found the most illuminating section, a discussion of the Theology of the Psalms. It looks at the Psalms in a way I have recently found rewarding; as being profoundly theological in what they reveal about the nature of Israel’s God. Terrien is aware that, to a large measure, any such attempt at systematisation of the Psalms, is always approximate and provisional: “On account of their extreme diversity, the 150 Psalms do not lend themselves easily to theological synthesis” (p.44). He offers the following headings as one way in which the theology of the Psalms can be organised without imposing a straight jacket on interpreting them:

A. God’s Presence and Absence.
B. The Creator of Nature.
C. The Sovereign of History.
D. The Judge of the Enemies.
E. The Protector if the Poor and Healer of the Sick.
F. The Master of Wisdom.
G. The Lord of Life.
H. Theology and Doxology.

So what of the commentary proper? How does Terrien organise his work on the individual compositions? This is where we see just why the commentary has the subtitle of ‘Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary’. For each Psalm, he offers a new translation. I personally found these exhibited a good balance of faithful translation and poetic elegance. He also provides a very thorough bibliography for each psalm. This will be particularly helpful for those wishing to follow-up his arguments based on literary and strophic structure, as much of the key literature which supports his arguments are journal articles and monographs. Terrien does, of course, acknowledge the textual differences within the MT of the Psalter. He is, however, generally conservative in avoiding hypothetical emendations of the text, which is commendable in my view.

Terrien then looks at the form of the psalm. This is not a simple revisiting of Gunkel’s form-critical categories, although these are often mentioned. Rather Terrien is keen to ensure that the unique nature of each psalm is not eclipsed by a small number of categories, he therefore pays close attention to the specific, as well as generic form of the compositions. He then moves on to look at the individual strophes (already clearly identified in his translation). I frequently found the identification of these literary units insightful for understanding the psalms and engaging with them. This was true in the vast majority of cases. Some readers, might join me, in being less convinced in some cases. Despite some reservations, I think this focus on structure is a key strength of the commentary and this approach means it makes a fresh contribution to the large number of available commentaries. In this sense, it very much does what a commentary should do, in presenting a proposal that engages the reader in grappling with the actual text.

The examination of each psalm then concludes with a section titled ‘Date and Theology’. Placing the two topics together is a very sobering reminder that to some extent the two issues cannot be easily separated. The theological reflection is very helpful, this is particularly so in an age where some commentaries seem very thin on theological reflection.

The twin features of a close structural analysis of each Psalm and the willingness to look at the theological contribution of each psalm makes this an excellent resource for the thorough teacher and preacher. I would however suggest that it be complemented by a second commentary to see an alternative expert judgement on the shape of the text.

In my view the commentary makes a sensible use of the vast body of form-critical and cult-critical studies. Terrien refers to literary forms and contextual information which is illuminating, and he most helpfully avoids the more tentative overarching hypotheses which do little to help interpret the Psalms for use in the Church. He also helpfully pays attention to the canonical method, although, I am not entirely convinced he has worked out all the implications of this interpretive approach. For example, he alludes to the importance of psalms 1 and 2, as psalms that function as an introduction. He also sees both psalms 73 and 90 as being twin poles within the Psalter. Neither of these ideas is really worked out or seriously referred to within the commentary on individual psalms.

As well as preachers benefiting from this work, scholars of the future will want to address the case for the certainties of identifiable strophic structure that Terrien finds in all the canonical psalms. I am very grateful for the many fresh insights I have gained from this work. This commentary is also available relatively cheaply because if it’s publication date, which makes it am excellent supplement to an existing library on the Psalms.