Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Psalms still sound awful to me

Harrowing of Hell Medium Res
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You may not be familiar with the Psalms. Even folks who have a favorite or two memorized or read portions of them on Sundays often aren't. But whether you are or aren't, here is a list I previously published about the take-away message I was getting from them as of last February. The basic themes I identified for the Psalmist(s) were:

  • waiting for God (to help, to save, to be a friend, etc)
  • trying to follow the Jewish laws and requirements
  • claims his innocence
  • then confesses his guilt
  • bargaining/negotiating a trade of obedience for blessings
  • desperate and fearful of mocking, violent, dishonest enemies
  • angry at the the oppressors and murderers
  • equates justice with blessing for the poor and oppressed
  • equates justice with the horrible suffering and the swift destruction of the wicked and powerful
  • recognizes (at least partially) the mercy and splendor of God
  • sitting and lying down are equated with those stuck in sin
  • walking and running are equated living in righteousness
  • the (coming) judgment of God is good news to the weak, the infirm, the slave and the prisoner
  • doesn't understand why God hasn't yet rendered judgment 
  • maintains faith in God despite misgivings and disappointments 
It's interesting to me that even the most progressive or contemplative people in the Christian traditions, especially the vowed Religious, in a sense swear by them and affirm them as the very heart and soul of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Not only that, but I recall people who are in other sacred traditions and even some non-religious people speaking in glowing terms about the Psalms.  I am at times genuinely hard pressed to understand why that is.


Previously I had written:

It should be recalled that I see no reason to defend the Bible as something it isn't but rather to appreciate it for what it is.  It is an attempt to record people's understanding of their encounter with the Divine Mystery.  This means appreciating things such as historical and cultural context in the use of language and thus not missing the point of why something was phrased a particular way rather than assuming it would have been said the exact same way if it were written today.  Otherwise much of the power of the texts is muted and we risk misunderstanding that can be profoundly damaging. The necessary process of maintaining the vitality of such texts and their commentaries produces a perpetual tension between between received wisdom through tradition and insights from ongoing revelation.  I don't have any need to deny that there is all manner of ugliness recorded in the Bible, often framed as the will of God, nor should anyone be surprised to find such things.  The human path to peace and wisdom is filled with wrong turns and dead ends because of our shortcomings and poor choices.  Our hearts, the deepest parts of our selves, are often hard, narrow, and crowded, which causes plenty of distortion in discerning who God is and what God wants.

With that said, I do still find that keeping all of this in mind does not nearly always dull or instantly convert those rough passages or phrasing that repeatedly come up in traditional Christian scriptures and prayers.  It is one thing to recognize, through proper context, the important steps forward certain passages contain, even though we tend to focus on the aspects we find offensive.  An eye for an eye was a step forward in justice, but then Jesus moves us beyond that to a higher level of mercy.  Gotcha.  But when I read this stuff everyday, with all of the parts where "the Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods" (Psalm 95) or where "the Lord is a man of war" (Exodus 15:3) or where "I will destine you to the sword, and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter" (Isaiah 65), well, it isn't what I would call inspiring.

...I feel like I am walking through a liturgical morgue.  Now it could be said that this is a good thing, that I am being reminded of the errors and pitfalls that people can fall into when jingoism, xenophobia, immature religiosity, self-righteous arrogance, and other temptations get the better of us.  But I am pretty sure that isn't the goal.  From everything I've read and heard, the purpose really is inspiration.
After continuous exposure to Psalter for another several months, which means nearly a year and a half total on and off, I can say that my view of it is even less favorable than it was before, especially in conjunction with various eschatologically themed reading from the Old and New Testament. Despite trying to be as open and understanding and generous as possible with the Psalms and associated Biblical readings, they seem more petulant and distasteful the more time I spend with them.

In part, this stems from my abhorrence of violent imagery and concern for portrayals of “the self at the expense of others”, a kind of “smite my foes and in exchange I’ll praise you” theology that is present in the readings, particularly throughout the Psalms. If you aren't too familiar with the Psalms, let me clue you in: they contain a lot of insecurity and drama reminiscent of adolescence. Lately they tend to read as an abused child who wants Big Bully God to come and knock the crap out of those meanies who are causing all of the problems in society, at various points in different Psalms this involves smashing their teeth, having them impaled on their own swords, being massacred so that the righteous can bathe their feet in the blood of the enemy, or having the dogs of the righteous drink the blood of the enemy, or dashing the heads of the enemy's babies against rocks.

In addition, there is a lot in the Psalms praising God for doing this to previous enemies of the Hebrew and the of the righteous, and lamentation for when God isn't going out with Israel's armies to utterly crush their foes. This is what the Psalmist considers justice for the poor and oppressed. This is also what many of the Old and New Testament readings refer to as well in terms of waiting for God to rescue the poor and the oppressed. And it isn't just a little sprinkled in here or there. It is central.

I cannot see how how those things fit the message that people claim to receive from the Bible of God as infinitely patient and loving. I don’t see the concern for peace or the welfare of others in that, unless one subscribes to the notion that peace comes from threat of violence. And this isn't an aberration. Even people like Fr. Thomas Merton affirmed that centrality of the Psalms as a revelation from God, alluding to the idea that they the are a kind of poetic incarnation of Christ, that Jesus was the physical embodiment of what is revealed in the Psalms.

Even when taking into account historical and cultural contexts and the use of allegory, it doesn’t make sense to me. After a long period of living with the Psalms, I still don’t find that imagery comforting or inspiring, only disturbing or depressing. I can’t seem to imagine any circumstance under which such desire for bloody revenge or such hateful defense of one’s own ego through the spiting and harming of others would be a good or healthy thing. Even if we are talking about seeing the foes of the Psalmist(s) as negative thoughts, violence doesn’t bring peace (of mind).

The only thing that has ever remotely made sense to me is that these words are not prescriptive (how one ought to feel or what we should genuinely pray), but rather the Psalms often reflect the very ignorance, short-sightedness, vanity, tribalism and selfishness of humanity from which we need to be rescued and redeemed. Hence they would function as regular reminders of our sinfulness and the dangers of (religious and political and ethnic) fanaticism.

But that doesn’t strike me as how they are generally understood in Judaism or Christianity, let alone in a Benedictine context. They are, I gather, supposed to keep people from taking matters into their own hands because God will take care of the retribution for them as a reward for faithfulness. In other words, my impression is that I am supposed to feel better thinking of God as a vengeful deity who will keep me safe.

Honestly, I would rather face danger and even death itself without such a deity. Whatever God I could believe in would prefer me to find the divine in all things (people, places, and circumstances) and not cling to such petty conceits.

I am not trying to pass judgment on the Psalms per se or on those who do find them comforting or inspiring.  I don't maintain that there isn't another valid view of the Psalms, or that mine is superior, or that there isn't a perspective on the Psalms which is compatible with a God of love and acceptance. I suspect there is, given how loving and peaceful Jesus (who would have been greatly influenced by the Psalms growing up) and the monks and nuns who immerse themselves in the Psalter seem to be. I just haven't found it.

I am sure that my view of the much of the Psalter sounds dismal or uncharitable, and I intend no disrespect to the traditions and individuals who are intimately intertwined with them. It seems as if a certain personality type and perception of self and reality is needed to really appreciate the Psalms and the similar themes found in much of the rest of the Bible. I think the images work for these people.

But if you are seeking peace through non-violence with respect to all forms of violence (including threats), if you are seeking to learn to reconcile everyone and everything through such holistic peace by means of unqualified compassion, if you have no desire to see or celebrate suffering in any person, and if you therefore reject hatred, bitterness, divisiveness and retribution as attitudes and actions that are incompatible with such goals, then I am at a complete and utter loss to see how it is possible to find the Psalter a "salve" or "balm" for the soul.

That said, if you think you've got an answer to such contradictions, I would love to hear it.

[Update: More recent reflections continue here.]


Here is a reference for what I am talking about for those who may be unclear about what I mean. These categories are not mutually exclusive, but each section of a Psalm is placed next to the theme that best fits it, even if others are applicable. This list is not necessarily comprehensive, and some examples may have been missed.

End of the wicked, ambiguous—Psalm 1:4-5; Psalm 2:11-12; Psalm 37:1-2, 11, 21, 37-38; Psalm 68:1-2; Psalm 75:8; Psalm 104:36; Psalm 129:6-7

End of the wicked, either crushed or beaten—Psalm 2:1-9; Psalm 3:7, Psalm 58:6; Psalm 68:21-23, 31; Psalm 89:23

End of the wicked, death—Psalm 9:17; Psalm 34:21; Psalm 55:16; Psalm 78:31-33, 49-51, 62-64; Psalm 80:14-15; Psalm 106:11, 18; Psalm 110:6

End of the wicked, annihilation—Psalm 9:3-6; Psalm 34:16; Psalm 37:40; Psalm 55:25; Psalm 58:7-9; Psalm 73:17-20, 27; Psalm 92:6-8

Hatred of wicked—Psalm 26:5 Psalm 34:16; Psalm 119:113, 158; Psalm 120:5; Psalm 139:20-21

Hatred and destruction of wicked—Psalm 5:4-6, 11-12; Psalm 21:8-13

Enemies put to shame—Psalm 6:10; Psalm 35:4, Psalm 40:15-16; Psalm 70:2-3; Psalm 71:13; Psalm 78:66; Psalm 83:13-17; Psalm 86:17; Psalm 129:5

Request for God to repay/punish/defeat the wicked or enemy—Psalm 28:3-5; Psalm 35:5-6; Psalm 41:7-11; Psalm 54:5-6; Psalm 56:7; Psalm 69:24-30; Psalm 79:6; Psalm 108:12; Psalm 109:5-19; Psalm 140:9-10

Wicked destroyed by their own schemes—Psalm 7:15-17; Psalm 9:15-16; Psalm 37:14-16; Psalm 94:23; Psalm 141:10

Torturing/punishing the wicked—Psalm 11:7; Psalm 95:10-11

Distress at foes not being humiliated/punished/defeated—Psalm 10; Psalm 13; Psalm 74:8-10, 21-22; Psalm 79:4-5; Psalm 89:49-51; Psalm 94:3; Psalm 119:84

Promoting warrior mentality to destroy enemies; praise in exchange for defeating foes—Psalm 9:3-6, 12, 17; Psalm 18:35-42; Psalm 144:1-2

Call for God’s judgment and wrath against foes/wicked—Psalm 7:6-10; Psalm 35:1-3, 19-25; Psalm 52:1-5; Psalm 59:5-6, 11-12, 14; Psalm 63:9-10; Psalm 94:2

God as warrior/holy avenger—Psalm 9:12; Psalm 7:13-14; Psalm 18:14-16, Psalm 24:8; Psalm 79:10; Psalm 94:1

Praise in exchange for defeating foes—Psalm 7:18; Psalm 9:11-12; Psalm 18:46-49; Psalm 22:19-21; Psalm 28:7-9; Psalm 30:1; Psalm 35:8-9, 17-18, 26-28; Psalm 79:12-13; Psalm 109:27-29

Salvation from foes through violence—Psalm 17:13

Jingoism/triumphalist nationalism—Psalm 18:43-45, 50; Psalm 20:5-6; Psalm 21:1-5; Psalm 44:1-7; Psalm 47; Psalm 60:10-12; Psalm 72:8-11; Psalm 78:54-55; Psalm 81; Psalm 110:1-5; Psalm 114

Gloating over enemies—Psalm 23:5; Psalm 68:14-16; Psalm 92:10

God as a deity of battle and conquest—Psalm 24:8; Psalm 76:1-7; Psalm 135:8-11; Psalm 135: 10, 15, 17-20

Self-righteousness of Psalmist—Psalm 7:3-7, 9; Psalm 17:1-5; Psalm 18:21-25; Psalm 26:1-4; Psalm 52:6-8;

Virtue through violence—Psalm 45:3-7; Psalm 58:10-11

Psalmist destroying the wicked—Psalm 101:5, 8; Psalm 118:10-12

Anger/rage of the Psalmist—Psalm 119:53, Psalm 137:8-9

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  1. not all the psalms are glowing. they are very repetitive. many were made to ge used as liturgy for Hebrew worship.

    the one's I like fall into two categories:

    (1) beautiful poetry (23 psalm) expression poetic terms some aspect of faith or devotion.

    (2) anguishing pleas that strike one as paranoid (when David is talking about "God will slay all my enemies). Those suck in a way but they do express gut wrenching feelings that makes them interesting. they are artifacts of people's turmoil.

  2. But that doesn't really address what I wrote. All of the Psalms are supposed to be revelations of encounters with God according to the very earliest history of the Church and according to ongoing monastic traditions rooted in that history. They are to be prayed (sung really) regularly to bring one closer to God and to remind us of God's wonder and faithfulness.

    So it isn't about whether they are glowing or darkly interesting, it is about how they are supposed to reflect the spirit of Christ. CS Lewis I think agreed to some degree with my assessment, and what I've found so far from those who feel the need to balance the Psalms as the revelation of God through a "poetic" incarnation of Christ and all of the triumphalism and cursing in the Psalter is that they do it by saying that the Psalmist(s) were speaking for Christ as a form of prophecy.

    That is, only God is just and holy and can say these things, so really it's Christ speaking through the Psalmist(s), it is Christ who is wishing death and destruction on his enemies. This has been supported by showing how often the words and images of the Psalms end up in the Gospels, with Jesus himself frequently speaking them. This also fits with the imagery from the prophets and the Psalms in Revelation and the bloody conquest of the unrighteous.

    Which leads me back to where I was before. Jesus and God are peaceful for a time, but those who won't submit will be subdued eventually by force in holy wrath and judgment, and it is such violence and retribution that will lead to peace and justice. That's still a model I utterly and wholeheartedly reject.

  3. you really need to read that Dulles Boo, Models of Revelation. you are seem to imply a concept of top down memo form the boss concept of revelation. the revelation is in the mind of the person having it not the selection of verbs popping into his head. He's fitting own verbage to the experience that he/she had.

    Divine--Human encounter. not Divine word handed down.

  4. that's supposed to be Dulles Book, not Dulles boo.

    sorry. bad typing.

  5. I am laying out what Church tradition says about the Psalms, which is that the Psalms are the most perfect form of (Christian) prayer, God praying to and praising herself, a form of prophecy in which God reveals himself intimately in the heart and therefore the poetry of the Psalmist(s). This is not about a top-down "memo" approach, as it then means one would have to look at the Psalms in historical, cultural and more challengingly poetic context.

    However, what I am saying is that even when I try to take it in proper context as best as I am able, I still find what they say about God too often to be disturbing or even repulsive. Rather than place my summary list in the comment section, I will edit the post and add them above as a reference.

    To repeat something I wrote to Kristen,

    "I am personally a fan of the Bible being a model of our own interior landscape, especially the Book of Revelation (see How to Believe in God by Clark Strand), along with the idea that God as presented in the Bible is actually filtered through the lens of our own individual and cultural super-ego, in which case a lot of the judgment and wrath talk is just an expression of our own fear and lack of acceptance of ourselves or others projected onto God, but, well, it has no more support and perhaps less than all of the other views. To be clear, however, what I do reject is the idea of an external, objective God (i.e. one not fused with our own psychology) who 'is love' who uses fear, intimidation, or violence to promote love and peace."

    However, this still seems to contradict the idea of the Psalms as presented by Church history and tradition, including that of the Religious, the monks and nuns, who have prayed it daily for millenia. Or at least I have been unable to resolve this contradiction, hence I am still not able to relate to the Psalter and hence to the wellspring of Christianity.


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