Poetry III - Psalms

Michaelmas 2012

Simon Perry

Researchers at the University of Ottowa, have been using mathematical modelling systems to address the disturbing impact of an epidemic sweeping through the western world.  The symptoms of the disease include uncontrollable screaming and crying, emotional dysfunctionality, dizziness, loss of consciousness and poor lifestyle choices – like terrible hairstyles.  The epidemic is, technically known as ‘Bieber Fever’.  According to researchers, devotion to Justin Bieber - the American teenage pop sensation – behaves like a disease.  Acording to “scientists,” those infected by Bieber Fever (i.e., Beliebers), are victims of the fastest growing diseases on earth.

I suppose in a series on poetry, Justin Bieber may not be the most obvious staging post.  But there is something about Bieber fever which may highlight an often neglected dimension of poetry. 

In scripture, of course, the most obvious form of poetic writing is to be found in the psalms.  It is often forgotten by Christians, particularly by Christians who make a lot of the bible being the word of God – that Scripture is comprised of a wide variety of literary genres.  There are histories, laws, narratives, lament, letters, propaganda, poetry, hymns and psalms.  And perhaps one of the worst things that has happened to scripture since it was written, was the invention of Chapters and Verses.

Chapters and verses are not simply a means of being able to steer one’s wbay around a massive compilation of documents.  What tends to happen, is that any sound bible-thumping Christian making any case for anything, quotes chapters and verses, and is able to take them so far out of context that the entire game becomes meaningless.  Hence, the unthinkable sin of Bibliolatry – devotion to the words of a text, displacing devotion to the God who inspired those words.  The idea that those verses might actually belong to a text of their own, with a genre of its own and a meaning of its own, just doesn’t feature.  In lots of Bibliolatrous Christian circles, in the end – chapters and verses are a means of ignoring the real text altogether.  It allows us to stand outside Scripture, and use it as though it were a resource to provide us with stuff – and as such, the bible is a commodity that we consume – a proof text for endorsing all that we find warm and snug and secure.

This is the attitude Jesus confronts : knowing that even the literary scholars of his day (the scribes), along with the Pharisees – by masquerading as the official custodians of biblical soundness, missed the very God to whom the human words of Scripture point: the result, according to Jesus, is that those who venerate the law – by doing so, actually desecrate that law.  These people honour me with their lips but their hearts are far from me: in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines, the precepts of men. But turning the biblical text into an end in itself, it becomes an idol – bibliolatry!

But to hear Scripture well, is not to stand outside the text, ransacking it for meanings that will be helpful to the reader.  Each literary genre within scripture invites us to read it in a certain way.  The point of the psalms, is not simply to provide us with information about God and the universe, but to invite us to worship the God of Israel.  Not necessarily in the sense that Beliebers worship Justin Bieber.  To worship, is to acknowledge the stuff that you value, that makes you tick, the things and motives to which you attach worth.  Politics is then, the way that we structure our lives around the things that we value – so to worship is to get to the root of our social, political identity.  Every human being is a worshipping animal as much as every human is a political animal. 

The psalms then, are not simply to be understood as though they were designed to provide us with vital information.  The psalms are designed to be sung – to become a means by which we worship the God to whom they point.  When we sing the psalms, we position ourselves in relation to God, to others, to the world, to time and to eternity.  In this sense, the psalms function as poetry in the fullest sense. 

The psalm we look at specifically this evening, is a psalm that reads like a celestial request for national security.  Jerusalem is the nation’s capital, and at several key moments in the history of Israel – it was vulnerable to attack from hostile armies.  So the psalm reads very much like a request for God to be on our side – for the sake of our families and our friends.  But if you can imagine yourself into the situation of those who wrote or first sung this psalm – it was a world with no Geneva convention, no coloured maps, no international law, no United Nations.  The crops that you sow may be reaped by future invaders – who in an instant can take your land, your family and your life.  So, one of the principle jobs of a god – of any god – is to provide military security.  It is the most natural thing in the world, to seek protection from an almighty divinity.

But there is more to the psalm than barring our gates towards the threat of our enemies.  Jerusalem houses the temple – the one point on earth at which the heavens touch the earth.  Those in Israel, with a global concern for justice, believed Jerusalem to be the place through which God would bring justice and fairness and peace to the whole world.  Of course, throughout the history of Israel that belief would degenerate into God blessing us rather than them – whereas the logic of this psalm is for us to be the means by which God blesses them. 

One of the choir anthems today draws from psalm 24, and the injunction to lift up your heads of ye gates: rather than barring our gates towards the threat of our enemies – is the urgent call to open up our gates to the God we worship.  By barring our gates, by seeking to protect ourselves from otherness, from those who are out there, who are different, we may thereby exclude the presence of God from our world.  As Rudolf Bultmann once said, the only way to find true security, is to abandon our desire for security.

To worship the God of this psalm, to worship God through the words of this psalm, is to seek and to celebrate peace.  Not peace that is the absence of enemies at the gates.  Peace here, is an active, dynamic, relational kind of peace – when everything is working well, when we relate well to those on our doorstep and those beyond it, when we relate well to our neighbours as well as to God himself.  To pray for the peace of Jersualem, is in the end, not a request for national security.  Instead, it is a prayer that Jerusalem will be all that Jerusalem was meant to be.  A prayer that Jersualem embodies a peace - not like the Pax Romana, designed to make sure the world behaves itself and does not unsettle the imperial status quo. The peace of Jerusalem is a disturbing, open kind of peace that reflects the character of the LORD our God.  A peace that seeks the welfare not only of those within our citadel, within our walls, within our world of familiarity – but a peace that rests also upon genuine, active desire for the welfare of those beyond our immediate world.

Of course, the history of Israel and the history of the church both show that those who call themselves the people of God, do not have a great track record of embodying this kind of peace.  This is why the psalms are sung as often as they are in Christian and in Jewish circles: they function as a literary, liturgical check-point in our walk through history.

The psalm then, has a poetic function: it breaks down a recurring worldview and invites us to inhabit an alternative worldview.  This is not a text designed to be simply read or understood.  It is music.  The great composers of history, from King David himself, through Brahms, Beethoven and Bach, right up to Justine Bieber himself, have understood well enough – that the poetic engages a dimension of our humanity that affects our whole being.  It does not automatically mean that we contract Bieber Fever.  But it does engage a full-blown reorientation of the mind, the affections and the will – to the extent that our actual, day-to-day political life is reoriented around the things that we value.  

Reading the text well certainly doesn’t mean that we can understand the text by treating each individual verse as an isolated, free-floating, nugget of good, sound, Bibliolatrous claptrap.  To sing the psalms is to locate ourselves inside a community of worship that comes to form and re-form every dimension of who we are.  That is what makes the psalms poetic texts – designed to make and remake us in the image of the God of Israel.