What’s the Message?

I said I’d come back to Bono. A story in the New Boston Post heralds a new documentary on Bono and Eugene Peterson. Both are famous in their own way, but no doubt Bono has the bigger name. Peterson, a pastor, is noted for his book The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible. The documentary, “Bono and Eugene Peterson: The Psalms,” focuses on the book that brought rock star and scholar together, according to the story. The Psalms have a way of surprising people. In a day when the Bible is treated with considerable suspicion (how Bible scholars must feel, learning now that they are really rouges!) it’s sometimes easy to forget just how readable many of the Psalms are. The collection is, of course, uneven. Some are wonderful. Others are frightening and express immoral, if very human, sentiments. It is difficult to treat the Psalms as a whole.

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Having researched the Psalms in some depth, I found them to be one of the most challenging books to teach. We tend to have preconceived notions about the Psalter. That they are poems written by either David or God (neither of whom signed them). That they are comforting. That they are appropriate for any occasion. The reality is that Psalms is a most difficult book. Some of the poetry is sublime. Even up to the lifetime of yours truly, it could be assumed that many in secular society could recite Psalm 23 from memory. Not all of them are, however, quite so nice. Those that advocate murdering the babies of your enemies as less easy to consider holy writ.

The Psalms are generally a collection of human poetry. As I used to tell my students, whereas laws, and even narratives, are often top-down, the Psalms are one of the few places in the Bible where people are allowed to speak. There is joy in the Psalter, but there is also bitter frustration. Not all of the poems have happy endings. We seem to think that once a document becomes sacred it can no longer retain human fingerprints. The lie is given to this position in the Psalms. They are a most human book. Maybe the documentary will say why Bono finds this particular collection of poetry so inspirational. His is, after all, a human voice. There may be a message here since the Psalms are so fallibly human. And if nothing else, humans are experts at seeing the same thing in different ways.

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