Tintinnabulation

On a summer’s day when I can work with the windows open, I hear the bells of a local church.  We haven’t been in our current location long enough to know for sure, but they seem to come from the direction of the United Methodists.  Around noon each day they ring out hymn tunes to which I often find myself filling in the words.  These are traditional hymns that I’ve known from childhood, and there’s an easy familiarity about hearing them, although my own spiritual journey may have taken me in different directions.  The sound of bells is so pleasant, I think, that nobody really objects.  Then I wonder about what I thought.

Music in public places does impact other people.  Consider the heavy metal or rap booming out of a passing car with the stereo turned up too high for human consumption.  Or jazz in the park.  Music impacts other people.  What, I wonder, is the message those of other religions hear along with these old hymns?  Do they suggest more than the praise of the locals for their version of the Almighty?  Is there some subtle proselytizing going on?  Is the music for members of the parish only, or can outsiders hear it and be free of obligation?  In many ways this encapsulates, I believe, the conflicts rife throughout our nation.  Traditionalists who see nothing wrong with “white” Christianity spreading its message but who object to a mosque being built in their community would likely find church bells comforting, even if they personally don’t attend.  Those from the outside, meanwhile, hear a message of cultural superiority.

Some sects feel compelled to praise God vocally, often and enthusiastically.  Their religion insists they do so.  Hymns ringing from the steeple, even if they’re not exactly your brand, participate in that mandate.  The deity likes to be adored.    (Think Psalms.)  This specific divinity, however, isn’t alone.  Perhaps beyond the bounds of where these sound waves flatten out to inaudibility, there are others with religious beliefs often older.  They too have rules about how to behave.  They may not be friendly to those who come bearing a new message of a new truth.  Globalization follows in the wake of technology and no god beyond the laws of physics oversees tech.  Our smartphones have made the world a much smaller place.  In such tight quarters, sounds carry.  Church bells, innocent as they seem, may be heard as a war cry.  But I wouldn’t suggest such things on a day so pleasant that I can work with my windows open and listen to the bells.

Melting Psalmists

With weather like this, I could use a Psalm or two.  Of course, in my mind, weather and Psalms are closely connected.  Here in the mid-Atlantic states, we’ve been experiencing a heat wave.  Unlike many parts of the west, such heat here in the east is accompanied by very moist air, meaning that cooling down is only possible in a large body of water or air conditioned interiors.  We have neither readily available at our place, so we try our best to keep cool and compose psalms, mostly imprecatory, I fear, about the weather.  Although it was thunderstorms that stirred my interest to write Weathering the Psalms, I included a chapter about temperature, for the Psalter sings of hot and cold as well as lightning and thunder.

The world of ancient Israel was quite different from that of North America.  There are mainly two seasons in the Levant—dry and rainy.  The dry season isn’t always as hot as we tend to imagine it, although the day I visited Masada the air temperature was about 120 degrees.  Enough to make a dip in the Dead Sea look inviting.  The Bible often views high heat as a form of divine punishment.  Although we human beings have expanded to fill just about every ecosystem our planet has to offer, we thrive in central California conditions.  Not all of us can live there, however.  And it’s a good thing that global warming’s a myth since it’s awfully hard to function when it is over 90 degrees for days in a row.  WWDD?  What would David draft?  Perhaps, “I’m melting”?

The interesting thing about the global warming myth is how real it feels.  I suppose the solution is to use more fossil fuels to help keep cool.  Fans, arctic air conditioning, lingering languidly at the open freezer door.  I stand here sweating, wondering what the Almighty could possibly find wrong with a country that is now great again.  One that takes children from their mothers yet insists birth control is evil.  One that loudly and punishingly insists guns should be in every home.  One where the elected head of government is involved in over 3,500 lawsuits, yet gets to appoint justices in the Supreme Court.  David got caught, if not in flagrante delicto, at least within a couple months of adultery with Bathsheba.  Instead of paying her off, he had her husband murdered.  But then—and here’s the key difference—he humbled himself and repented.  The sweet Psalmist of Israel might yet have something to teach us yet about weather and the Psalter.  Until the United States becomes the chosen nation again, I think a cold shower will have to do.

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.

Under the Weather

A friend, knowing my penchant to watch the skies, sent me a story about the British and the weather. The story by Alastair Sooke on the BBC’s cultural page is discussing Alexandra Harris’s book Weatherland. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book (yet) but the report of it appeals to someone who’s written a book on the weather, but for a much older timeframe. According to Harris, according to Sooke, the British are rumored to be obsessed with the weather. While living in the United Kingdom, my wife and I observed this. It is not merely casual conversation when someone discusses the weather. It is a serious topic. For a nation so accustomed to rain and gloomy skies, the weather has a religious import. It rarely goes without comment. I suppose that’s the point I was trying to make in my book. The weather is important. Vital, in fact, to human survival.

What really caught my attention here, however, was Harris’s observation that weather is used to characterize mood. Sooke mentions ice and snow and melancholy. The image is vivid: early Anglo-Saxons turing a wary eye to a winter sky with its low clouds and preternatural chill. It is so universal, it seems, not to require comment. Yet at the same time, weather can be a great trickster. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the image of the Arctic north filled him with an inexplicable joy. Winter can be fickle that way. In the world of the Psalmists, rain was a blessing and a weapon. How you look at it depends, well, on your mood.

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The British may take their weather more seriously, on a day-to-day basis, than those of us across the Atlantic. We tend to treat the topic casually. In reality, it is just as serious here. Drought, which has gripped the western half of the country for about half a century now, is a serious concern. Winter storms, hurricanes, tornadoes. A lightning storm can still be a theophany. (One awoke me in the middle of the night, just hours ago.) Weather impacts our bodies as well as our moods. It is all-pervasive, but we generally don’t like to articulate it. I suspect our understanding of the weather says more about us than we’re willing to admit. Our British colleagues, however, are less squeamish about the topic than we tend to be. There’s more to the sky than it might appear.

Biblical Violence

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Sarah L. Winchester, it is said, was a haunted woman. The widow of William Winchester, she was heir to the tremendous amount of money brought in by sales of the renowned Winchester rifles. Fearing the haunting of all those killed by the weapons, she built what has now become a tourist attraction—an unfinished mansion that was intended to prevent those ghosts from living with her. With the spate of recent multiple shootings, we might wonder how many other gun manufacturers are living haunted nights in their comfortable homes. A recent petition has been circulating to stop Spike’s Tactical from producing The Crusader assault rifle. Predictably, the sales have been so overwhelming that the religious rifle is on backorder.

The Crusader, as the photos reveal, is emblazoned with Psalm 144.1 “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” It also features a Crusader’s cross and trigger setting labeled, Peace, War, and God Wills It. Blasphemy in carbon fiber. I suppose I’m hopelessly naive, not being aware that guns could be purchased online, but the overwhelming demand is nevertheless disheartening. It used to be that the Christians were the good guys. You certainly didn’t have to worry about them shooting you. That was the job of the heathen. So many multiple shootings took place this summer than I couldn’t keep track of them all. I live in a world where guns play no role and I wonder if everyone wouldn’t be happier if we didn’t lay down our arms and learn how to get along.

Of course, the Bible is a book where violence against enemies is permitted, and, in places, even encouraged. Society has repeatedly declared that there is no need for experts trained in how to interpret the Bible, and this is what happens. Psalm 144 is a poem for deliverance from enemies. Historical criticism would likely place the piece as written during a time of war. The era in which the majority of the Bible was written was anything but peaceful. Those parts of the Good Book that are particularly extolled are often those that suggest that the answer to war is peace and that setting aside your own will for the well-being of others is something we should all be doing a bit more often. But we cannot deny that “Peace, War, and God Wills It” aren’t part of the violent worldview we also encounter in sacred writ. I wonder what Mrs. Winchester would have had to say about such mixing of the Bible with guns.

Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

The Reign of Rain

I’m on vacation for a week. My job is such that taking vacation is becoming a rare commodity, what with precious few allotted days and move-in, move-out schedules of a collegiate child, and so on. And also company policy about keeping employees in the office between Christmas and New Year. Anyway, now that I’m here I should be kicking back and enjoying the beautiful lake and getting out to do the things inmates of the city seldom do. It has, however, rained every day that I’ve been here. Not all-day rains, of course, but just enough that plans have to be interrupted or changed at the last minute. I end up sitting in the cabin playing Solitaire when I should be out getting some fresh air. So it goes.
Ironically, I am staying in the drought-stricken west. The western United States, I learned when researching for Weathering the Psalms, has been ensconced in a decades’ long drought. In fact, prior to my family trip here it hadn’t rained in quite a while. Our arrival with the clouds was, after all, mere coincidence. Still, it’s hard not to take the weather personally. I know that the weather is larger than any one person’s needs or desires. I also know that water is a commodity even rarer than vacation days, largely because of our misuse of the limited supply that we have. California’s plight has been in the news. We have large cities in water-challenged environments and people treat water like there’s no end to its abundance while the opposite is the case. Just thinking about it makes me thirsty.
There are many things a person can go without, some of which feel absolutely essential at the time. Many vacations, I know, are extravagant. Fancy hotels, high-priced entertainment, exotic locations. Work can feel so crushing that vacation my become the one island of sanity in the midst of a hostile ocean of obligation. For me, vacation is time with family in a stripped-down, natural setting. Of course, we do indulge in some of the comforts of home, but having nothing in view outside the window beyond that which nature dictates is a transcendent experience. From where I sit, I can see nothing of human artifice. I do see clouds, however. I know that more rain is on the way. And I know that it is a gift, complain as we might, of the highest magnitude.
  

Christian Cookie

During my childhood and adolescence, we didn’t eat out. Of course, food didn’t cost nearly as much then, and it was cheaper to cook raw ingredients at home than it was to buy something exotic that someone else had made. I clearly remember our first trip to McDonalds—it seemed so strange to buy food already prepared. It was so unusual that we went with our neighbors in a kind of exploratory posse, discovering this strange world of pre-cooked food. College, eventually, introduced me to the idea that, if done reasonably, eating out could be a reasonable choice. Particularly if you were wanting to impress a girl. Still, most of my meals were in the dining hall, and trips to restaurants were generally reserved for special occasions. Although Chinese food was known to me, it wasn’t readily available in rural western Pennsylvania. I did encounter my first fortune cookie in college.

thumb_IMG_2185_1024There was something vaguely unsettling about a cookie that could tell your future. Prophetic comestibles were relatively unknown to me. Of course, the whimsical aphorisms seldom indicated any misfortune. They were more like horoscopes, harmless and often amusing. Recently we had carry-out Chinese. I’d noticed that over time fortune cookies had become more and more banal and less and less predictive. They claimed to know something about the world and I was supposed to believe because, well, would a cookie ever try to steer you wrong? My wife cracked open her cookie to find the “fortune” a single word: “Hallelujah!” An evangelical dessert? Was she destined to win the lottery? Perhaps we should play the lucky numbers on the next Powerball?

This really shouldn’t be bothering me, but what exactly was that cookie trying to tell us? It can’t be easy, I realize, to come up with millions of bits of advice so that those who often eat out don’t get the same prediction twice, but what if a Buddhist had ended up with this sweet? Or a Confucian? “Hallelujah” is, by its nature, a Judeo-Christian expression. Even so, it only occurs in two books of the Bible: Psalms and Revelation. My sneaking suspicion is that my culture is being pandered to. A bit of internet research revealed that Chinese fortune cookies are actually a Japanese recipe and were likely invented in the United States. They date back to the 1890s, at the earliest. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised then, at my wife being evangelized by her dessert. She does work for the Girl Scouts, after all, and they know a thing or two about the amazing abilities of the humble cookie.

Biblical Weather

On President’s Day, my wife pointed out an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger headlined, “‘Biblical’ snowstorms battering New England.” She asked, reasonably enough, “What makes a snowstorm biblical?” Since I have written a book on the weather in the book of Psalms, I might be able to speak to that. First off, yes, there is snow in the Bible. It’s not mentioned often and it is a rarity, but the Israelites knew what snow was. In fact, one of the most difficult Psalm weather references is to snow, in Psalm 68. The man interviewed in the newspaper, however, was not being literal. “Biblical” has come to mean disastrous. I can exegete that a bit more: disastrous because of quantity. Too much of a good thing. Or bad thing. In Boston this year the weather just won’t quit. The topic that really has people talking, however, is the temperature. It has been very chilly. My daughter complained when her university didn’t cancel classes with the air temperature at about 9 below. Her note prompted my thoughts of a day to remember.

When I taught at Nashotah House, the weather did not stop us. Ever. It was a residential facility with both faculty and students living on campus. Everything was within walking distance. My close exposure to the weather was one of the reasons I wrote the book. One Lent, and this must have been in February, we had a quiet day. Quiet days were taken very seriously. On this particular occasion the day was to be used for a meditation in the Milwaukee Cathedral, some 35 miles away. The problem was the air temperature was -42 Fahrenheit. That isn’t wind chill, that’s how cold the air actually was. (For those of you reading in Europe, Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same at -40, then they begin to diverge again.) It did not stop us. We piled into the van and prayed earnestly that we’d get there safely. On the way home we manically recited Evensong from memory. When the wind blew the chill dropped to -70 (my Minnesota friends will believe me here). If ever weather was biblical, that day was.

I do wonder if overusing “biblical,” however, will wear it out. Where do we go after biblical? What is conceptually bigger than God? Anselm would panic. What if next year it’s even worse—how will we describe it? We’ve already used up the apocalypse. We’ve entered into a crisis of superlatives. Nothing is big enough any more. As I look at the early fading light of this President’s Day, the snow is beginning to fall again. When I was a child we had, I seem to recall, a simple word to describe it. We didn’t invoke the Almighty. We didn’t hear the galloping of distant hooves. We didn’t act as if a day out of the office were the end of the world. Our simple word for it was this: winter.

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Psalms of Lament

Fate can be decidedly cruel sometimes.  Accidental discoveries can be the most painful of all.  As my regular readers know, I wrote a book on the Psalms (Weathering the Psalms, Wipf & Stock—on sale now!) while teaching at Nashotah House seminary.  I sent the manuscript to Oxford University Press, and it was declined on the basis of one review.  Subsequently, I met the reviewer at a conference reception and he is now working on a book proposal for me.  Such are the ironies of life.  I can let that go with a chuckle of existentialist bonhomie.  The twist of fate comes in through helping a colleague with a question about the Psalms.  I grabbed the nearest book at work that would help, the newly published Oxford Handbook of the Psalms.  I’d glanced through it before, but this time it fell open to the contributor’s page and the words “Nashotah House” fell upon my eye.

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During my years at the seminary, I published at least one academic article a year, as well as a book, and I attended and delivered papers at the major professional conference every year.  No one ever approached me about contributing to a Handbook, apart from my advisor and friend Nick Wyatt.  I labored at building an academic career for 14 years in obscurity.  Now, the newly hired replacement (not the faculty member hired to replace me) gets invited to contribute to a major reference work.  I do not know the man.  He may be a perfectly personable chap.  Some of us, however, can work our hardest and never get noticed.  It seems as if the world of scholarship is really just a house of cards. 
 
Perhaps in times of schlock and flaw, such as these, I should turn to Ecclesiastes for comfort, rather than Psalms.  Yes, the Psalms say some pretty challenging things to God—not as challenging as Job or Jeremiah, but still.  Ecclesiastes, however, is the one to calm the intellectual’s soul.  There are those who claim that the Bible no longer has any utility in a post-Christian society.  Wise Qohelet, I’m sure, might just agree, even as he disagrees.  I tried, without benefit of sabbatical, and with additional administrative duties, to make an academic life for myself.  I was, in reality, just shuffling the deck with old Solomon.  We took turns building layer upon layer, he and I, both knowing that our house, like any built on sand, could never stand.  It must be some of that sand in my eyes; otherwise I can’t explain why they are watering so.

Weather to Panic

Over the long weekend, our furnace kicked off two days in a row. This January has been chillier than some, and we’ve been sitting around with blankets on our laps waiting for the air temperature to reach a tolerable level. We keep our place cool, in any case, partly from environmental concern, and partly because we can’t afford to do it any other way. So I was interested to see an article from the Guardian that my wife forwarded to me about the weather. I’ve been interested enough in the weather to write a book about it (Weathering the Psalms—available now!) and since I stand outside every morning waiting for a frequently tardy bus, I do tend to notice when it’s cold, raining, or snowing. The article, “I don’t care what the weatherman says when it’s just hysteria,” by Martin Kettle, makes a good point. The weather used to be information on the news, now it is entertainment. We dramatize and give names to storms as if each is a miniature apocalypse. As Kettle notes, most of us have been around long enough to know how to survive a cold snap or two. But an apocalypse?

We’ve become accustomed to the controlled environment. Many of us define our “work” as sitting in front of computers all day, tapping out virtual ideas that other people will see, indoors, and we probably don’t even have to step outside to get the message delivered. The weather might make it difficult to get to work. We might lose a day of productivity. That snow that was fun as a child has become an impairment to those adults driving to work to get inside so we don’t have to be made uncomfortable any longer than is strictly necessary. Snow never makes it into the forecast, but a storm personified with a name and with destructive intent. No wonder the biblical world saw weather as a divine weapon.

That which Kettle terms “[t]he debauching of the weather” is a sign of the times. We seem to be deemed unable to process facts. We must be entertained. How many mornings have I sat worried in the dark, wondering if I’ll make it in to work or if I’ll spend a good portion of the day trapped on a bus frozen on the Parkway? How much energy do I expend trying to decide whether I should spend extra money to take the train, even though I’ve already paid for a month of bus service? Will the weather throw itself on us all and prevent us from another day’s work? In the Psalms, the response was often one of wonder and praise. These were things only the deity could do. Now, however, we are in the realm of the media meteorologist. If they don’t entertain us, we might just turn off the television or computer and go outside to check for ourselves. If only we would we might discover one of the true wonders of nature that doesn’t require comment. It might be the ability to judge for ourselves.

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Weathering the Storm

WeatheringThePsalmsI had almost forgotten the validation of being published. Colleagues sometimes ask me if I’m still working on any books without realizing that employment in publishing, with rare instances, constitutes a conflict of interest. Editors are acquirers of content, not producers thereof. As I’ve been preparing Weathering the Psalms for release on the world, I often consider how differently all this may have turned out, should I have found academic employment after Nashotah House. The day my contract was terminated, I was working on this book. It had recently been declined by Oxford University Press, and the reviewer (whom I had unwittingly met) had informed me that the book wasn’t really salvageable. It was a jumble of data with no narrative thrust. I was working on giving the data a different frame when I was called to the Dean’s office and told to read a legal memo in the presence of a lawyer. Every time I tried to turn back to my book after that, the nightmarish scene replayed in my head. Besides, I had to try to find a job.

It was only when working for what I thought was a stable Routledge that I had the chance to revisit the manuscript. Ironically, it was only after I was no longer in a position to do research that colleagues began to approach me to review submissions for journals, to invite me to write articles, and to express an interest in my research. Of course, it was too late for me to begin full-fledged research again. Despite the internet, scholars require two things I did not (do not) have: access to a university library, and time. Early on in my commuting days I discovered that the quality of the time on the bus did not allow for in-depth research. Too many other passengers have too many other agendas. I can read on the bus, and sometimes academic books, but anyone who’s tried to take notes when crammed into the space usually taken up by a backpack knows the difficulty of writing notes without the use of your arms or hands, over the constant electronic noise of your neighbor’s unsilenced electronic games.

All of which is to say that I’m very pleased to see Weathering the Psalms is out. Like a child untimely born—at the risk of sounding biblical—the book is being printed as I write. Working in publishing I know better than to expect phenomenal sales, still, many of my readers over the years have said they’d buy a copy if it was ever published. If you’re serious about that, take a look at the website of Wipf & Stock and click on the Cascade Books imprint. Finishing this book has, I must admit, awakened a hunger. I have, of course, started to write another. It may be another decade in the making, and, should it ever garner the attention of a publisher, a similar post may come along before I’m too old to think clearly. The ideas are there; the opportunity to express them is not. Still, despite the cruel vagaries of academia, I feel as though I’ve received a small validation, and I am very grateful for the honor. Wipf & Stock offers a service that other academic presses might do well to emulate. It’s not all about the earning potential of a title. Sometimes it’s just a storm.

Whether the Psalms

How about that weather? Changeable, isn’t it? I have spent a large part of the last few days going over the proofs for Weathering the Psalms, the book I wrote over a decade ago. While I’m excited with having the validation that comes with publication, I worry a bit about the changes that the last decade has brought. Although I live near some impressive libraries, my time is devoted to commuting and working and anyone who has tried to be a serious scholar as a weekend warrior only knows that it is unsustainable. One element that good research absolutely and uncompromisingly demands is time. When I began commuting into New York City three years ago, I taught myself to read on the bus. As someone who easily gets car-sick, this took an enormous effort, but it paid off in the number of books I’ve been able to finish. There are limits, however. Seriously research-oriented academic books do not fare well on a noisy commute or at early hours. As much as we scholars like to think our books are riveting, try reading them at 6 a.m. Perspective makes all the difference. In short, I had to leave the main body of the text of my book as it was a dozen years ago.

There is a lot of good information there. You notice things by laying out all the Psalms that refer to weather side by side. I can’t tell you those things here, since that’s the point of the book, but suffice it to say, I still agree that the material should be published. One of the main reasons is the change in worldview over the last several millennia. Although we like to complain about the weather, for most of us it is merely the inconvenience of being outdoors that brings it to focus. We spend our days behind computer screens, living a virtual reality. But when we have to trespass outdoors—weather awaits us. For those in the world of the Bible the opposite was true. Indoors was shelter, but not insulated like today’s homes. Most of the day would be spent outdoors, weather permitting. They knew a lot more about the practical aspects than we tend to. We, on the other hand, know the science but have tended to forget the experience.

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My book surveys a cross-section of the biblical worldview (the Psalms) for what it tells us about the weather in ancient thought. I suspect others have begun to explore this since I wrote my humble contribution to the discussion. Today I would have done it very differently, but Weathering the Psalms was written by a scholar isolated in a seminary, literally and figuratively in the woods. The fact that other scholars had noticed the weather now and again showed me that the task, though halting, was necessary. Rereading it is like a time-capsule. These were the thoughts of a younger man, employed full-time in a kind of academic setting. Hopeful that the next job would be worthy of tenure. Believing that there was a next job. But the weather is changeable. Indeed, we know it is unpredictable. Despite its archaic cast, I look forward to Weathering the Psalms and hope that it inspires others who are isolated to keep up the effort. Even if it’s raining.

Psalm 151b

sinead-oconnor-take-me-to-churchI can’t claim to know much about Sinéad O’Connor. When she did her Saturday Night Live act a few years back, I remember the outrage among several Nashotah House students muttering unholy threats. Not that they were Catholic, having *ahem* celibacy issues, but they objected to a picture of Pope John Paul II, known colloquially as “J2P2,” being torn up. This symbolic gesture lost her, on campus anyway, about a dozen fans. I had nearly forgotten the Irish bardess when my wife sent me an NPR story on her recent song, “Take Me to Church.” I was immediately struck by the lyrics that, to this old Psalter reader, sounded very much like a Psalm. The lyrics, while some will certainly disagree, resonant very strongly with the self-confession that permeates the hymnal of ancient Israel. Not that O’Connor has suddenly become a proper Catholic, but she has entered the band of David.

Many popular artists over the years, I would contend, have struck that familiar chord. Anyone who reads the Psalms at face value will find it hard to miss the angst of the writer who tries to do right only to find that s/he needs someone to “take them to church.” Music is the confessional of the soul. Psalms can be a most secular book. The way some biblical scholars like to explain it is that the Torah and the prophets are God speaking to (read “commanding”) people, and Psalms are the opportunity of people to speak their mind to the divine. This might explain the otherwise inexcusable anger that pours out in invective which, if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit to having felt from time to time.

The line we draw sharply between sacred and secular is attenuated in the Psalms. In fact, it is in any honest religion. When religions present themselves as strictly lived as if people could be truly righteous while others should be excluded, trouble is on the horizon. Pictures get torn up, and the “faithful” grow angry. I know few who would argue that humans are perfect just the way we are, yet, for the most part, we try to do what is right. The standards any religion proffers are too high, and we are bound to fail. Perhaps the saving grace, if I may borrow a bit of religious language, is that even the secular can write effective psalms along the way.

Dark Sight

TimeDarkBarbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.

The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.

Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.