Monday, December 2, 2013

The Case for the Psalms - NT Wright

Well, I relented and bought a copy - in fact two copies of this book, The Case for the Psalms - by NT Wright, light though it is, scarcely more than a few ounces. Light - yet touching on a serious and, as Wright himself agrees, a preposterous topic - that God has chosen a small hill in Israel for his home. He didn't use Psalm 68 for this claim, though it too would fit.
Why be envious O hills
of mountain peaks this hill
God finds attractive for his seat
Also, יהוה will dwell here in perpetuity
"This is the point that Western modernity regards as so incomprehensible as to be laughable" (p. 79)

Not a good middle to The Case for the Psalms - as if this claim to divine space is going to convince the outsider. How does he then make the case? Wright does what his lecture did here - he makes particular the issues of time, space and matter as belonging to God. We may be embarrassed but this is the truth of the claim. Our time, our space, our bodies are caught up into the present place of God - if ...
for he will speak peace
to his people and to those under his mercy
but let them not turn to folly
Of course Wright is making the case for the insider to read the Psalms - not the outsider. It is not as if we, insider or outsider, are learning as we ought to. It is observable, however, that the outsider often behaves better than the insider. So the in and out are moot. Perhaps each of us is both in and out in the same material-space-time construct in which we live.

Here is one of my conclusions in my own (heavy) book, Seeing the Psalter. The psalms form a story that puts as its focus, the maturing of the merciful (the chasidim) and the formation of a governed and governing community of the merciful. (Do you not know that you will judge angels?) This is the role for the insider, who then binds the outsider in the bonds of the same mercy, a bondage that is equivalent to fetters of iron. The image is strong and violent, recalling the story of Joseph, but it is meant with the prayer of love that is embodied in Psalm 119.

The psalms also treat of justice and the end of war, another preposterous prayer. This is confirmed with a reading of Isaiah 2: they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The word for pruning-hooks is the same as the word for psalms!

I make the claim for the psalms that they are the leaves of the tree of life and therefore for the healing of the nations and the life of the world. In this claim, my words draw in the death of the son (the title of the first acrostic, Psalm 9-10) and the apocalypse of John. So these poems are neither parochial nor exclusive. In fact they claim for themselves repeatedly an inclusiveness for all who fear God. As Peter said somewhere, there is no partiality with God.

There above are four preposterous claims for one collection of poetry: that God came to live on earth, that poems form a merciful people, that war will end, and that healing through these leaves that do not wither is possible. And we are far from finished with the case for the psalms. But does Wright make this case? I expect he concurs with it - but how strong is his light book. Can his three-fold metaphysical conceit of God in our space-time-matter resolve the problem of violence that so many object to in these poems?  Now there's another problem - the violence is not exclusive to the psalms, nor is it absent from the New Testament, nor is it absent from our lives. I have a further simple conclusion: if we are to be like Jesus, then as in the psalms, if we are to be 'likest God', there is no warrant in any canonical text to take violence into our own hands.

One question that arises from this conclusion is - where are the hooks that draw us in and captivate us into the frame and network of the canonical poetry?  Is it just a matter of their blunt honesty? Is it the almost random shift in grammatical person that is so evident in this poetry and that moves us into conversation with the Most High? Is it the example of a coherent canonical history illustrating the problem of individual and communal self-interest that suggests there may be an alternative?

I enjoyed Wright's book. His final chapter, My Life with the Psalms, is a delight to read, especially his final rendition of Psalm 91. He plays the language game beautifully. The personal aspect of this poetry is where I began with my detailed journey into the psalms seven and more years ago. How does one learn obedience, the unplugged ear? Wright learned from what he calls 'pin-pricks of psalm-shaped memory' more gently than I (pp 174-175). I wrote then:
These poems are dangerous. I find it impossible to avoid the reality they portray - judgment and mercy; enemy and chosen; how can one cry out or whisper in safety when the answer comes from consuming fire?
Now - just what are these poems and the Psalter that they comprise? Are they a hymn book or a prayer book, a phrase that Wright uses several times? This is a limited analogy. Wright uses these terms because of his audience. Yes, they are prayers - though only 4 are labeled as such. They are hymns, though only some are labeled 'songs'. Only some are labeled psalms! The name in Hebrew for the whole is Tehillim - praises. That is where the Psalter leads - to the first Hallelujah at the close of Psalm 104 to a crescendo of praise at the end of Book 5. The hymn-book / prayer-book analogy is both limited and potentially misleading. The Psalter is nothing like modern day prayer books or hymn books. The Psalter is not a random collection. And though written to be sung - so was all the Old Testament. And Job and Proverbs have the same cantillation as the Psalms. What distinguishes the Psalter is its formation by poets and redactors across 500 years or so and through a covenant history that judges and forms, corrects and heals those who experience them.

Wright is very helpful on worldview and philosophy for the novice in these areas. He draws reader away from ancient-modern as a means of understanding and points out a distinction between the gods as distant (Epicurean) and Elohim as present in creation and covenant. Creation - evidence everywhere - permeated with science and knowledge - and covenant - evidence to be developed by each through life: how can God make a bargain with me? Creation and covenant stimulate the responsibility needed for us to respond to the character of the God who is present to all who call for help. Wright begins rightly with the call for help being answered from his Holy hill (Psalm 3) - but what is this 'Holy' that responds?  Therein lies the resolution of that preposterous scandal of particularity. There is so much more to say - you can find out some more pointers by buying a heavier book on the psalms - but even better, read them repeatedly in a close critical translation. No book can substitute for 'the One who teaches humanity knowledge'.

What is my 'case for the Psalms'? The strongest case for the Christian is that Jesus is represented in the epistle to the Hebrews as in conversation with his Father and the text for the conversation is taken almost entirely from the Psalms. Wright does not mention the epistle to the Hebrews. That is an oversight of some significance since it would contribute to the strength of his space-time-matter argument, particularly in the identification of the Anointed (whether Israel or Christ) in both testaments.

Generally, I like this book as far as it goes, but I have one particular cavil with his analysis, that is the emphasis on the 'you' at the beginning of Psalm 104 (pp 128-129). He is using an English translation to support the rhetoric. The repeated 'you' is not in the text of this psalm. The verbs are, like Psalm 146, a series of active participles. The series of active participles supports the presence of God's 'Yes' to creation (104) and to his care (146) even more than the use of the present tense.

But there are repeated uses of 'you' in the psalms and they are particularly important again to his space-time-matter theme. Psalms 74 and 89, two significant laments, outline the importance of an emphatic repeated 'You'. Psalm 74 reminds God of the power that creates and subdues the world - an emphatic 'Yes' to us that we should engage with God in spite of tragedy (in this case the exile). Psalm 89 then accuses God directly, with repeated 'You', of violation of the covenant. The poet is facing head-on the presence of the divine 'No' to the governance history of Israel. The modern world needs this divine 'No' equally strongly.

It is to be observed that God sits on the praises of the people (Psalm 22). One need only attend a Sabbath liturgy to observe this. We read of the seated rule of the divine Sovereign in the implied 'No' to the wantonness (Psalms 14, 53) of the human in the created order, a created order that proclaims without reservation the glory (Psalm 19) and prodigality (Psalm 77) of Yah (the short name for Yhwh). Wantonness and prodigality are the same word in Hebrew. With God there is prodigality, with the human, it is wantonness! So I agree that there is a case for the psalms, but I don't think NT Wright has made it as strongly as it could be made. This is good - it leaves us work to do.

Physically, The Case for the Psalms has seven short chapters and the shortest Scripture index of any I have seen, one tiny page, two sides - containing perhaps as many as 700 references! But at least it is there (though Hebrews is missing from it). I would not have bought the book if it had no index. I note also his gratitude to Susan Gillingham, one from whom I also have learned much and whose scholarship on the psalms is evident in her work, e.g. Psalms through the Centuries, Volume 1, Wiley-Blackwell. We must look forward to Volume 2. See for example my review of her lecture on the reception history of Psalm 137 at the Oxford Psalms Conference 2010 here.

PS - I feel I owe more to the review of Wright's implied anthropology and explicit Christology. Also a growing question in my thought is the effective application of the psalms as the prayer of 'the insider', a subject to be acted on.