Johnny Cash’s Psalm 1: I Walk the Line

Johnny Cash the Psalmist perhaps sounds a little unlikely. And to be fair it is probably by some peculiar coincidence that there are so many connections between Cash’s I Walk The Line and Psalm 1. But the intertextual and thematic connections are worth considering. I suggest that both texts are enriched by reflecting on the other.

Both songs concern faithfulness. Cash’s song is, at face value and indeed originally was, a declaration of fidelity to his wife, Vivian Liberto. In later life after he discovered Christ it took on a new meaning as a declaration of fidelity to the God of the Bible. Psalm 1 is a statement of faithfulness, and a reflection on what that faith might look like, as well as the blessing it leads to. Some might judge it to be concerned with a dry legalism, but such a view owes more to eisegesis informed by a popular caricature of Jewish faith, than a true reading of the psalm. When we remember that law, or torah, is instruction from God we can perceive the relationship described in Psalm 1 rather than any transactional mechanism based on works righteousness.

Cash declares that he keeps ‘a close watch on this heart of mine’ and has his ‘eyes wide open all the time. One can imagine that early in his career, on tour in front of adoring adolescents, away from home that this would wisely be followed up as avoiding walking (Psalm 1:1a), standing (1:1b), sitting (1:1c) or lying in the wrong company.

The experience of Cash’s early career revealed his declaration ‘I find it very, very easy to be true’, to be rather naïve in the face of the temptations of the rock and roll lifestyle. In many ways Psalm 1 also has a naivety about it. It is sure-footed and certain in its call to integrity and piety, but later psalms revisit its certitude and make it appear naïve amidst the ups-and-downs of the life of faith. For example, Psalm 37 and 73 read as if they are penned by the same person a few years down the line—this person now questions not only their ability to do the right thing but wonders about those who seem blessed despite doing the worst of things. Closer to Psalm 1, Psalms 3 to 7 are a series of laments that cast doubt on the straightforward path to blessing promised in Psalm 1. Of course, Psalm 1 can be understood eschatologically, see Psalm 1:5, in which case it transcends naivety to become a reality in eternity.

Both Cash’s song and our psalm have a 24-7 motif:

I keep you on my mind both day and night.
Cash

. . . and who meditates on his law day and night.
Psalm 1:2b

And in both cases, this ‘meditation’ is key to happiness. Cash claims that the ‘happiness I’ve known proves that it’s right’, whereas the psalmist equates such meditation with delight (Psalm 1:2a) and the whole poem is connected with happiness with its opening word meaning this in Hebrew (Psalm 1:1a). It should be noted that the happiness of Psalm 1 is a deeper more nuanced well-being, that encompasses happiness and blessedness and everything in between. In contrast, Cash speaks of the happiness that come out of right relationship with a loving human partner.

By its very nature and title, I Walk the Line is about the correct path to follow. This is very much a moral road as it concerns perfect fidelity and loving commitment to another. This is also the exact concern of Psalm 1 as it asks the question as to which path, or line, we travel, the way of the righteous or the way of the wicked (Psalm 1:6).

You can test this synergy and complementarity, between Psalm 1 and Cash’s song, for yourself by listening to Johnny Cash sing I Walk The Line here:

Provided to YouTube by The Orchard Enterprises I Walk the Line — Johnny Cash

 

Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’: Song, Prayer, Psalm

Leonard Cohen described If It Be Your Will ‘as more of a prayer’ than a song during his introduction to its performance by the Webb Sisters and Neil Larson. Here I suggest that it is not only a prayer but more specifically a psalm.

Even the title is highly suggestive of a key feature of psalmody—an absolute trust in God. As the song unfolds this trust, we see that this commitment to God is founded in a creature-Creator relationship, as the singer’s finitude is sublimely conveyed:

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before

The frailty of the singer is in little doubt given their own metaphorical claim to be a ‘broken hill’. Is it pushing our reflection too far to imagine this as an oblique reference and contrast to the ‘holy hill’ (Psalm 2:6; 3:4; 15:1; 24:3; 43:3 and 78:54) of the Psalter? Beyond the trust and frailty, we also have a subtle undertone of accusation. For all the trust implicit and explicit in the biblical psalms the psalmist is not slow in challenging Yahweh. Here, likewise, Cohen questions with the very refrain, ‘If it be your will’. This is no fatalistic trust in the deity but a relationship and commitment-based questioning:

If it be your will, that a voice be true

Of course, poetry has an immense capacity for polyvalence and here there is a welcome poignant ambiguity. Undoubtedly other readings are possible. We are on firm ground when we note that some of the language of this song is undoubtedly redolent of the Psalms. For example, we cannot miss the allusion to Psalm 98:8:

Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice

The specific focus of this prayer, mercy, is also a key aspect of the biblical psalms. Cohen’s psalm is, like many of its Hebrew progenitors, a plea for mercy:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

Interestingly here in Cohen’s work the call for mercy is for others, and not for himself. Of the 29 calls for mercy, I can find in the Psalter, all but four (Psalm 79:8; 106:46; 123:2 and 3) are prayers prayed by the psalmist for his own deliverance, like that most famously found in Psalm 51:

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love
Psalm 51:1a, NRSV

The poetic plea also challenges the conventional notion of hell. It appears that Cohen sees many in this world in need of a deliverance from an all too tangible place of suffering. This adds to the difficulty in pinning down the polarities of trust and challenge—perhaps, like in the Psalter and throughout the Hebrew Bible, these are not polarities at all but concomitant in the God-given grace of a relationship between creature and Creator.

On another occasion when he performed this song, Cohen refers to humanity as ‘creatures of a higher order’. He is, however, under no illusion about the source of the suffering of those in earthly hell. For Cohen, just as we creatures reflect something of our Creator in our ‘rags of light’ so these same clothes make us ‘dressed to kill’ in the worst sense.

Cohen’s poem stands in the firmest of biblical traditions—there is profound questioning here as well as ultimately a willingness to surrender in trust—a response that reflects the creature-Creator relationship. Both Job and Jesus have gone before on this precarious path as illustrated here as we close with three parallel statements:

See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
Job 40:4, NRSV

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me;
yet not as I will, but as You will.”
Matthew 26:39b, NRSV

If it be your will, that I speak no more;
And my voice be still, as it was before.
I will speak no more, I shall abide until;
I am spoken for, if it be your will.
If It Be Your Will, Leonard Cohen

X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

Once Upon a Time in . . . Bethlehem

I Samuel 16: 113

Introduction

The story of David starts in Bethlehem, the place of his birth and childhood. As soon as we think of Bethlehem our minds tend to switch to that later king of Israel born in that town. Once Upon a Time in Bethlehem, sounds like a Christmas story and there is indeed a children’s Christmas song with this title. But this morning our story has more in common with Quentin Tarrantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than Jesus’s birth in Bethlehem.

Whatever we might feel about Tarrantino’s films, they have some similarities with many Old Testament stories. In this case, there’s a monumental unexpected plot twist. Samuel has already anointed one king, but now God wants another one anointed. No one saw that coming. In these events in Bethlehem, there’s an undercurrent of violence. Samuel fears Saul’s reaction to his anointing of a rival. Will Saul seek to have Samuel killed? There’s a community in fear as they meet Samuel making an odd detour from his usual place of ministry. They were asking, “what does this powerful political figure want with us?”. You can sense their apprehension, we’re told that the elders trembled.

There also plenty of blood. In this case it’s that of a heifer being sacrificed. But there’s the anticipation of human blood being spilt now that there are two kings. There’s a key allusion to how human judgement is prejudiced by appearance, whereas God sees the heart. This philosophy or theology is the key to understanding this episode. There’s a clunky piece of theatre that feels decidedly awkward, worthy of a pantomime. Seven sons are paraded before Samuel and each is found wanting. Then there’s a rather uncomfortable and lengthy pause as everyone awaits David being located out in the field. How long might that have taken without a phone and transport? Then there’s another plot twist. The person with the right character turns out to be rather good looking anyway.

Unexpected plot twists, violence, fearful communities, blood, difficulty in understanding characters’ morality and motives, clunky theatrics and good-looking people. These are often the features of Old Testament narrative, and just as often the features of Tarrantino’s films.

Unlike the godless universe of Tarrantino, however, our world—the world of the Bible—has a theological significance and an ethical backbone which can inform, and better still, transform us.

The Homely Eight

As we encounter Jesse and his family for the first time in the Bible, we find he has a large family. Eight sons are mentioned here. Elsewhere, in 1 Chronicles 2:16, we find he also had two daughters. The patriarchal story of David’s anointing has no concern with daughters. We cannot work out too much from the story about other aspects of this family. There is a suggestion that this family has done what many have others have over the past few millennia. It might be that they have seen the sons as fulfilling various roles according to the order of their birth. There are known psychological and societal reasons and consequences for the first, second, third, and last child having particular character and occupation. David—son number eight—appears to so far down the pecking order as to be all but invisible. At the start of the story of his anointing he is literally not visible; being left out in the fields tending the sheep. If he was sociable, charming, outgoing, attention-seeking, and fun, as ‘lastborns’ characteristically are, it seems unlikely that the sheep would have noticed.

In David’s culture, as in some many others, the first handful of sons are expected ‘to make something of themselves’. They are the expected to be the self-made men who will keep their parents in the future and perpetuate the fortunes of the family.

God however seems to have an aversion to the self-made and indeed to judging by appearances. God ‘looks at the heart’. He looks to character. To virtue, to use an old-fashioned term. Fortunately, salvation does not depend on our hearts but here God chooses a person of character for kingship and indeed founding a dynasty. God delights in a good heart.

When anyone is successful in anything it is natural to ask, ‘how did this happen?’. There are three means to success in just about any venture:

  • Innate gifting and fortuitous circumstances.
  • Hard work.
  • Dubious means.

For example, a world class athlete will have to have a set of physical attributes, some circumstances that make training and advancement possible, the will power and desire to work hard day-in-day-out. They might be tempted to add into this mix dubious means such as drugs.

For example, a businessman who founds a business empire will have to have some innate talents. Perhaps a novel insight into a new product or service. Or perhaps just that ability to win people over and persuade them to invest in something. They will have to work hard. They too might be tempted to try dubious methods to. The odd threat and/or bribe perhaps.

The story of David adds something else into the mix. Something that we would normally want to be careful of claiming—he is chosen by God. It turns out he has the physique to be a warrior, a key attribute for a king at this particular point in the life of Israel. As it happens, he has years of training ahead of him in living as an outlaw warrior. Later in life he will resort to dubious means to get what he wants. And yet behind all this human cause and effect lies the hand of God. If God had not sent Samuel to an obscure family to pick an obscure eighth son smelling of sheep dung he would not have become king.

True ‘Romance’

The hand of God would have been an encouragement to David when times were hard. But we centuries later might well ask what is the basis of this David-God ‘romance’. The text simply tells us that God chose David on the basis of his heart and not any of the usual visible traits that make people successful.

This leaves lots of questions. Why was there a false start with Saul? Why is Saul doomed to failure and David to success? The Bible has different concerns—it tells us ‘things’ about God and about all of humanity. It tells as that God looks to the heart. The counterpoint being we look to external appearances.

The problem of the heart is of course that ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). That goes for David, Saul, Samuel, you, and me. God didn’t choose David for his perfect heart. He picked David because his frail human heart was good enough to make a good king—albeit one who made some terrible mistakes. His heart was not a heart that desired power for prestige and selfish ambition. It has been said that “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” others have suggested that “Power attracts the corruptible”. The evidence of these two anecdotes is never far away. Yet, for all his failings David did not fundamentally usurp God’s authority.

At the heart of today’s story is the human condition. The sinfulness that means that we think, and do, wrong; the brokenness that turns our hearts to things that are less than healthy; the weakness that means we do not do as many things of value as we might.

Jesus Christ, the ultimate heir of David’s line, dealt with the ultimate consequences of sin once and for all. Our turning to him in repentance and faith removes the barrier between us and God. This is the gospel and we should praise God daily for this gift of grace. This is not, however, the full gospel. Too often we have made the gospel one dimensional. Last time I looked we the Church are a company of the broken. We still sin, we still do what we should not, and we still do not do what we should.

God did not finish with David when he was anointed King; he’d just got started. Neither does God finish with us when we first bow the knee to Christ. Our initial repentance and faith are the start. For us, as for David, the Spirit is given as a sign of things to come. The Life of Faith and our ongoing development in Christ is something that the Church has historically spoken of in different ways. Whatever language we might use it is vital we look to God for ongoing transformation.

In being so adamant against the critics of Christianity that it is not about being good and thus earning salvation, we too often neglect goodness. The most fundamental attribute of God is that he is good. God delights in goodness, his perfect goodness and the good heart that is growing in us.

Different Christian traditions use different words to describe our ongoing Christian transformation. Discipleship is the term we are most comfortable with in my context. Becoming more Christlike is another. Although too often this seems to become What Would Jesus Do, which is not the same thing at all. The latter is about primacy of action and not character. It can also be oddly legalistic. Sanctification, until the last 20 years, was a popular term rooted as it is in the theology of Saint Paul. Spiritual Formation is a term used in some circles and recognises our need to be transformed; that we are not a finished work. It also tends to link to actual disciplines that will enable it to happen. The cure of souls is a very old-fashioned term but is helpful in recognising that we tend to carry around aspects of character that are unhealthy and need fixing in Christ. For whilst God can transform us in the twinkling of an eye, we all carry degrees of frailty that need an ongoing work of Christ that require prayerful effort in the form of self-honesty and discipline. The cultivation of virtue is another way of speaking of our transformation. I like this term. With terms like virtue and vice we can cut to the chase of what we mean without hiding behind generalities and slogans.

David Unchained

In I Samuel 16: 1–13 we read of David being released to be who he is. His indirect encounter with God, through Samuel, sets him on the path to be king. His surrender to this anointing marks a new life. David is no longer slave to family or cultural expectation. His encounter with God has turned expectation upside down. This is the effect of the gospel today. We don’t have to be constrained by things that enslaved us in the past we can move forward, having broken free.

David went from being a shepherd to shepherding God’s people. In Christ our gifts can be used in a variety of ways, but we all have things to offer the world at large and the community of God’s people.

What does it mean for us to be more Christlike, to fulfil our potential in Christ? What do we need released from? What virtue should we be cultivating? What cure does your soul need? What do you need to step into to mature in Christ? The terminology matters less than the recognition and openness to a transformation that comes from God. It is firstly about who we are, and only secondly about what we do.

David was first a person with a right heart—not a perfect heart. This led to him being appointed and anointed king. The road ahead was a very long one. As he journeyed with God he was refined and transformed. Compared to David, we can fix our eyes on Jesus Christ and a clearer destination. In so doing we can be transformed by the living God to be what he created to us to be.

Reading the Psalter with Captain America

Yes, an odd title to be sure. It was last summer that I found myself reflecting on the character Captain America in the films collectively known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. I know these films well, in part due to my previous publication on the fictional material vibranium [1]. In my moment of reflection I wondered at the similarities between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and the psalmist. This started simply with the thought that both are often judged harshly because of a thirst for righteousness that is all too easily misunderstood as arrogance. Today some readers of the Psalter react negatively to Psalm 1’s call to meditate on God’s torah or instruction. Due to a misunderstanding of torah and its relationship to righteousness as framed in the Bible. This is especially problematic given Psalm 1’s hermeneutical importance at the opening of the Psalter [2] and the psalmist’s ongoing self-understanding as being righteous before God.

Shield

This led to significant further reflection that culminated in a paper. This paper can be downloaded below. Whilst the paper will hopefully interest some readers of this blog (please add a comment below if this proves to be the case) it turned out ill-suited for more formal publication. Importantly for me it has seeded something bigger. It has galvanised some ideas for a book on the Psalter that I have been grappling with for around 5 years, or so. I hope to have more news about this later in 2019.

For now I hope some readers might persevere and see what can happen when we read the Psalter with Captain America. Please click on the text below to download the paper as a pdf.

Rereading the Psalter with Captain America 23rd March 2019 PsalterMark

 

References

  1. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Is it a Ceramic? Is it Graphene? No it’s Vibranium’ pp.93‒110 in The Secret Science of Superheroes (Eds: M. Lorch and A. Miah), London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2017.
  2. Mark J. Whiting, ‘Psalms 1 and 2 as a Hermeneutical Lens for Reading the Psalter’, Evangelical Quarterly, 85 (3), 246‒262, 2013.

 

Standing Firm: Philippians 4:1–3

1. Joy
How might we ensure we stand firm in our faith? Such a question seems a sensible one when we see some around us drifting away from their faith. There are of course many answers. One way, I suggest lies at the heart of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and is mentioned in Philippians 4:1–3. How about cultivating joy, and more specifically a joy in the gospel?

Philippians 4 vv 1 to 3 17th Feb 2019

Paul sees the Philippians as his brothers and sisters. He loves them and longs to see them. For they are his joy and his crown. They are a crown in the sense that in his striving for the gospel of Jesus Christ he founded them as a church. They would not exist as a local embodiment of Christ were it not for his efforts to preach in their city. They would not be in Christ if he had not preached first to Jew and then to Gentile, and won enough people over to the gospel, to plant a congregation in Philippi. They testify continually to his missionary calling and action. In this sense they are his crown—just like the expression we might make today about some achievement being our crowning glory. This is no immodesty on Paul’s part. He knows that the church in Philippi is ultimately God’s work. Yet he also knows, just as surely as he has co-workers, that he is a co-worker with God (see 2 Corinthians 6:1).

Paul also sees them as his joy. Some people sadly suck the joy out of Christianity. But for Paul, and for us, for all who perceive the glory of what Jesus has done, joy should be at its very heart. What greater joy could there be than people finding out that God loves them in Christ and that they are called to be his community here on earth—called to be his hands and feet in furthering the gospel.

There is joy in being Christ’s body, of continuing his work. Knowing his incarnation as we realise, we are his hands and his feet. Knowing his death as we die to sin and death. Knowing his resurrection as we perceive the glory to come. Knowing his ascension to heaven as we trust in his faithfulness. Let us not become so serious in the task of being Christ’s body that we lose sight of the joy—the joy of seeing God at work in those around us.

The joy of the gospel starts with God himself. We all know that wonderful picture in The Parable of the Prodigal Son —the Father running to greet his wayward child, breaking with middle-eastern convention by hoisting his clothing and running—both seriously embarrassing for a respectable figure.

If that’s not joy, I don’t know what is. But the joy was gospel-focused for Jesus too:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1–2 (NIV)

There are stages to this race—this life of faith—there are hills to traverse, there are dark valleys to wander in, there are mountain top experiences, the analogues are endless. There are however three basic experiences in the midst of this infinite variety: disorientation, reorientation, and orientation.

Joy can come with reorientation. The experience of God putting things right. The joy of knowing Christ as a fresh experience. A recovery from illness, the getting over a bad relationship, the discovery of a good place after serious hardship.

2. Division
Standing firm can also be aided by avoiding division. There are many pitfall and diversions along the way. Loss of unity amongst brothers and sisters in Christ is an especially painful one. When fellowship in Jesus goes wrong, we all have a problem on our journey at the same moment.

Unity is of fundamental importance to remaining a healthy community of God’s people. But we all know that unity is not always a straightforward goal.

Sometimes we learn the hard way the truth and profundity of Psalm 133 which opens:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1 (NIV)

This is so self-evident when we have experienced serious disunity, that the illustrations that follow in verses 2 and 3 about beards, oil, mountains, and dew are poetic details that are almost unnecessary.

How do we commit to unity? How do we avoid division? No one sets out to create it at the outset and yet it can rear its ugly head in a moment. One way to avoid it, and it is but one way, is to be more open to the joy that we have in Christ and in serving him. When we have genuine joy in Christ, we take ourselves as individuals a little less seriously, we are fixing our eyes in the right place—we are humble servants of Jesus Christ. The lightness in our spirits that comes from joy is also less prone to take offence, on the one hand, and less hasty in judging others on the other.

Division at the end of the day is serious—it is about undoing the very work of Jesus. The body that Jesus has made whole through being broken on the cross, is denied in division. The walls that Jesus broke down are rebuilt. Division is the very opposite of the reconciliation that Jesus died for.

Indeed, so serious is the ground we walk on in joining division that we are likely to be walking off without Jesus by our side. Or perhaps he’s still there but we become myopic? Whatever the reality of Jesus’ presence, it is no coincidence that so many people at the centre of division leave behind their faith in Christ.

Euodia and Syntyche in our short passage have experienced lack of unity. And Paul urges them ‘to be of the same mind’. This is a rich idea, as members of the local body of Christ they should have his one mind on key matters.

As Paul says elsewhere:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV)

We don’t know all the details about this situation. We do know they are Paul’s co-workers, and though he’s exhorting them to sort the problem out he is clearly tender to them, they are not the people he has harsh words for elsewhere in this letter.

Lack of unity is painful. It is one of the many events in the life of faith that is difficult. We need to do all we can humanly and prayerfully to avoid it. It is one of the causes of Disorientation, the difficult steep upward slog on the marathon or pilgrimage.

3. New Order
Another way of standing firm is embracing God’s new order. Paul repeatedly speaks of the age to come—here it’s the mention of the Book of Life. A reminder of that goal for all who follow Jesus Christ.

Both discipleship and pilgrimage are about the journey and the destination:

  1. We walk with Christ and he is our destination.
  2. We walk with the Father and he is our destination.
  3. We journey with the life-giving Spirit and he is the very breath of God that breathes life into our bones at the resurrection.

 

4. Closing Prayer

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Saviour,
And life more abundant and free.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

‘Turn your eyes upon Jesus’
Helen Howarth Lemmel (1863–1961)

Philippians 1:12–26 — A Philippian Rhapsody

In an age of style over substance you might think that I’m simply jumping on a bandwagon following the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody late last year. But this reflection’s title is not just a nod to popular culture. It is not just timely given recent awards or the controversy over the film’s sacked director, Brian Singer. It is appropriate for several reasons as we will see later.

At the heart of Philippians 1:12–26 we find the short verse that reads:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

This verse has always struck me as on the one hand profound and on the other as worryingly challenging. As a soundbite it is an amazing summary of the Apostle Paul. It rings true with what we know of Paul. The Bible tells a clear story. Here is a man who had the most shocking of conversion experiences. He persecutes the Church in his passion for the God of Israel. Then the Risen Christ appears to him. This sets in motion the most complex shift in theology ever undertaken, worked out over three years in Arabia. All of this is followed by his three whirlwind tours of the Mediterranean—his evangelising and church planting record is truly remarkable.

It’s not to say the other Apostles weren’t busy, it’s just that he did so very much that we know about. And he managed to write thirteen of the books out of the twenty-seven in the New Testament. He even stars, along with Peter, in the Acts of the Apostles.

In short he not only said but he lived “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”. Even in death, under Nero, this soundbite transfigures into the best of epitaphs. His life was a Rhapsody. One dictionary definition of a rhapsody is “an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling”. That’s Paul’s life and that’s Philippians 1:21.

Who else do we know who these words could be said of, and everyone would just nod sagely in agreement? Of course, we can’t all be an Apostle Paul or an Apostle Pauline. So, are we off the hook when it comes to ‘living out’ and ‘dying out’ Paul’s soundbite and epitaph?

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

We will answer this question later. But please note, Paul would be the first to say that the fruit of his life was not the result of human effort but is an example of God’s action. We can, and should, see God clearly at work in his life. To follow Paul is not to attempt a remarkable feat of hard work per se. It is to be open to God’s work and seeing God’s grace at work around us. This should be obvious—we will make a real difference, not because of our human effort but because of openness to God’s work.

In the modern world the Philippian Rhapsody has been imitated. Others have tried to crystallise their experience and personal ethos into similar soundbites. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the song by the band Queen with lyrics written by Freddy Mercury, for example, we find a similar statement to Paul’s. Now of course it’s a progressive rock song so it’s words shouldn’t be the subject of too much serious reflection. But the words seem to echo the troubles and challenges that Mercury experienced in his life, just as Paul’s words capture his very different ones:

I don’t wanna die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

Perhaps we all have moments like that? The form is similar to Paul’s great saying, but the meaning is closer to Job who famously said: “May the day of my birth perish” (Job 3:3). I have no reason to believe that Freddy Mercury was consciously, or even unconsciously, echoing Paul or Job. Another singer-songwriter, however, appears to have deliberately echoed Mercury:

I don’t wanna die
But I ain’t keen on living either
Robbie Williams, Feel

It reads biographically like the others, but feels contrived compared to the Apostle Paul’s and Freddy Mercury’s art—sorry Robbie!

But back to the Bible. Philippians 1:12–26 not only has a remarkable verse at its centre, these verse are in themselves a rhapsody. Paul may be just writing a letter, but what a letter. We have forgotten how to write letters. Paul’s short letter is a lesson in how to do it. It is recognised by experts as a specific style of letter known in antiquity—a Letter of Friendship. It captures the story of the Philippians and it captures Paul’s story—two stories in which God has been at work. It brings the two together to explain how Paul’s current experiences and the Philippians situation both fit together to advance the gospel which is also God’s work.

The Present (1:12–18a)
Some might see being imprisoned as a problem or even a failing. Not the Apostle Paul. Paul knows that that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). His dependence on God is acute enough to see that whatever happens to him it can serve the purposes of the living God. Paul does not hesitate in seeing that he is in chains for Christ. Not just that his imprisonment is a consequence of upsetting the status quo in his preaching of Jesus Christ. Even being in prison can be for Christ. There are people in the palace guard who have now heard the good news of Jesus. Rather than his imprisonment sending a message of fear, Paul says that he brothers and sisters in Christ are more confident in the Lord and will proclaim the gospel without fear.

It appears that some that preach the gospel don’t get on with Paul—those that preach ‘out of envy and rivalry’. The Early Church has its problems, like the Church in every age. Perhaps personalities will always clash this side of the final trumpet? But Paul is bigger than rivalry and envy and sees that the important thing is that Christ is preached. The precise story about Paul’s rivals remains unclear.

There are two things that are clear about the situation. Firstly, whatever the difficulty with rivals, it is a source of serious trial for Paul. He alludes to the Greek translation of Job chapter 13 (later in verse 19)—a passage where Job is in dialogue with rivals who masquerade as friends. Like Job, Paul is suffering but knows he will be vindicated. The second point of clarity is that Paul rejoices—in fact he is full of joy. Joy, that Christ is being preached. He sees God’s very hand at work. What other response is there than joy when God is at work?

Sometimes we try so hard to do things that we forget to slow down and see God at work. Sometimes we are so cynical that we don’t wait for God’s work to be perceived. Surely Paul had reasons to be cynical? But despite seeing the reality of life in prison and the reality of rivals ‘having it in for him’. Despite feeling like Job, he rejoices. He is ‘with Isaiah’ in perceiving that God is doing a new thing and is at work.

The Future (1: 18b–26)
Rejoicing is so important to Paul that he focuses on how he has joy in the present and will continue to have joy on the future. We see this is in verse 18 which marks a transition in this passage:

But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice.

Paul is confident, not only that God is at work in his current situation. He is able to trust God—that he will continue to be at work. His trust and joy are not rooted in his comfort or well-being. Paul trusts and rejoices because he knows that God will continue to use him for the glory of Christ. Paul’s experience means he is past any naivety about Christian Discipleship being about a simple life of earthly blessing. Paul’s trust in God is not fatalism however. His eyes of faith see the need for the Philippians’ prayers, for God to deliver him, and the need for courage:

I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:20–21

Even Paul’s hope for his life is selfless. He sees his life as ‘in the body’, not in his body, but in the body of Christ. His work as an Apostle is for the building up of the Philippians.
His partnership with the Philippians is such that he can perceive the joy they will have when he is released from prison.

Paul also knows that ‘to die is gain’. Not only that he will then be with Christ but also that should his death be that of a martyr it will benefit the body, that is Jesus Christ. He knows first hand from witnessing the death of the first martyr, Stephen, the powerful testimony that is spoken as a servant of Christ dies for him and his gospel. Paul in chains in Rome thinks of his beloved Philippians and his own life.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see.

His thinking. His theology. His ethos. His love. His plan for life. His hope. His trust. They all find their summary in that one key verse:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:21

Are we like the Apostle Paul? No. Not if we mean, we should do what he did. As God’s servants we are each unique in what we do.

Are we like the Apostle Paul? Yes. If we mean, we should be what he was. As God’s servants we are all the same in who we are. We are all loved in Christ. We are all able to perceive God at work. We are all able to rejoice in His work, past, present, and future.

X is for Xerxes

Xerxes is the Greek name of a Persian ruler who reigned in the 5th century BCE. In the Hebrew Bible he is named Ahasuerus which is a transliteration of his name from Persian. In English translations this word is usually rendered Xerxes as this is how he has become known in classical history. An exception is the New Revised Standard Version where he is given his Hebrew name. Despite appearing in nearly every chapter of Esther, he is only mentioned once elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in Ezra 4:6.

Details of the life of Xerxes and his reign are found in diverse documents from the time he ruled and shortly after. A more complex issue is how factual the story of Esther might be. On this matter scholars differ significantly. The story certainly has some remarkable features to it which make it sound like a fable (see the previous post, ‘N is for Novella’). One of these is the classic line whereby King Xerxes besotted with Esther offers her: “Even up to half the kingdom” (Esther 5:3 and 7:2). The most remarkable aspect of the story, however, is the coincidence that occurs which works against the villain of the story, Haman.

An element of the book of Esther which is frequently noted is that God is absent from the story. Or to put it more precisely, he is not directly referred to. The inference from the story and the coincidences within it, by which the Jewish people escape death at the hands of Haman, is that God is at work providentially behind the scenes.

I am reminded of my all-time favourite film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson called Magnolia. This film is not for everyone as it contains some unsavoury scenes in the lives of people who are in different ways broken by modern American life. The main characters all live in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County, California. Much of the film documents the lives of these dysfunctional people and the audience puzzles at these only vaguely connected lives. Deep into the film a remarkable event occurs—I won’t spoil it here but will say that is thoroughly biblical. This event finally explains why the film is named Magnolia. The title it turns out is a play on the theological term, magnalia Dei which means the mighty acts of God. Just like in Esther, God is not mentioned and yet the implication is that he, or some powerful force, is there working behind the scenes.

What really matters as we live our lives is the knowledge that God is at work behind the scenes. Whether you see Esther as a historically reliable account or a literary fiction is less critical. In the words of the opening of Magnolia:

It is the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.

 

 

 

P is for Psalms

The Psalms are 150 compositions that defy monochromatic definitions— they are never solely poems or prayers or songs. In their threefold nature they are words addressed to God and at the same time the editors of the Hebrew Bible saw in them a greater value as Scripture. In some sense they are authoritative and normative.

Leonard Cohen famously speaks of The Psalms in this manner:

There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Part of the third verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

Perhaps Cohen is deliberately reflecting on The Psalm’s duality as both the words of men and the Word, perhaps not. What is clearer is that he connects King David with this songbook. As we saw earlier in ‘K is for King David’ this song speaks of David’s throne being broken as a consequence of his succumbing to the temptation prompted by seeing Bathsheba bathing. From the outset this song refers to David and connects him as in some sense intimately connected to the psalms:

Now I‘ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth

The minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The first verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

David is traditionally considered to be the author of the Psalms. This tradition is natural in that 13 psalms (Psalms 3, 7, 18, 34, 51, 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 60, 63, 142) have clear biographical episodes linked to them. In addition, some 73 psalms in the Hebrew Bible have a heading which describes them as being ‘of David’. This does not necessarily imply authorship and in any case a very large number of other psalms are linked to others, both individuals and guilds. These guilds were priestly orders, which had worship responsibilities in the Temple. These guilds are presented in 1 Chronicles 25‒26 which introduces temple singers and temple doorkeepers. The names of Asaph, Korah, Jeduthan and Heman appear there and these names are associated with many psalms.

Depending on how we assess this evidence a wide range of possibilities are possible. Some highly conservative Bible readers seem keen to defy logic and see David as author of the whole book. This stands in clear contradiction to the post-exilic nature of many psalms (see Psalm 137 and Psalm 126 as especially clear examples) and the identification of many psalms with other people. For this, and other reasons, scholars tend to be far more cautious about David’s direct role in authorship of the psalms.

I am persuaded by the evidence that the Psalter is the result of a lengthy process of authoring, collecting and editing of psalms to form a structured book. This does not, however, contradict David’s connection with the book. Whilst we will never know how many of the psalms originated with David the final form of the Psalter requires it to be read to some extent with a Davidic emphasis. Any reading requires other lenses too, but we should be clear, David is vital to the Psalter.

The first few psalms illustrate this well. Psalm 1 can be read with an eye on David as an ideal of the devoted Law reader found there. Psalm 2 as we saw in the last post can be read in different ways. One of these is to see the anointed king as David, the first of the line of kings from the tribe of Judah. Psalms 3‒7 can be read as the struggles of David. These same psalms can also be read with a view to the common experience of humanity as our lives echo the struggles and hallelujahs of the very human king portrayed there. We would do well to consider making space for these polychromatic songs, poems and prayers on our journey.

M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7