Tag Archives: Psalms

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.