Psalms: The Great Songbook


6 Nov 2014

The 150 songs we call the Psalms (meaning accompanied songs) and which in Hebrew are called Tehillim (praises) have an enduring voice. One way or another Jews and Christians of whatever persuasion have always sung the psalms and the variety of their musical settings, through the ages and across cultures, is extraordinary. They’re our great, shared songbook. The 20th Century German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that ‘wherever the psalms are abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.’

I think that’s true. However, I also hear what was said recently about them: ‘it’s just that so much of the writing is over the top.’ That’s a fairly contemporary take on the psalms, but it needs to be kept in mind if we’re talking of recovering them.

Of course one response to this is to forget about the psalms altogether. As the well known scripture scholar N.T. Wright says in his recent book on the psalms: ‘The enormously popular ‘worship songs’, some of which use phrases from the psalms here and there, have largely displaced for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves.’

Another response is to sing only the ‘good bits’ from the psalms, or only the songs of unalloyed praise, which is fine as long as we don’t end up at a point not too far removed from the ‘worship song’ situation described above. Inevitably some editing has to occur – in the Sunday Mass psalms we see this at work – but when we end up with only the ‘good bits’ and only songs of praise you have to keep in mind a humorous aside by James Martin: ‘really, who doesn’t like a cheerful psalm? Everyone likes those.’ In other words the besetting temptation is blandness. To quote Martin again, ‘stick with the happier psalms, about sunshine and moonbeams and things of that nature.’

Part of the power of the psalms is ‘the way in which the sublime and unspeakable are always jostling each other.’ We don’t need to ‘explain away verses’ that cry out for vengeance, or try ‘to fix them up’, or drop them altogether, instead what we have to do is enter into them as best we can. In doing so we might find ourselves able to bring before God not just our ‘good bits’ and the nice things, but the vengeful bits and desperate bits too – every bit of us.

Saying and singing the psalms together is a time honoured way of entering into them, of letting them shape and transform us. The American writer Kathleen Norris presents another way of doing it in her account of reading psalms out loud to kids in a local school and then asking them to write their own psalms. (Riffing on them is also a great tradition). She notes a couple of things: often the kids were astonished at the emotional directness of the psalms – they’d never heard this before – and that directness entered into their own writing.

As Norris says, ‘kids who are picked on by their big brothers and sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to writing cursing psalms’. She suggests this exercise is a safe haven where they can work through desires for vengeance in a healthy way and begin to find their way through to repentance. What she’s proposing is a way of entering into the full range of the psalms and responding to them.

Damian Coleridge is a Melbourne writer
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