Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How to Pray the Psalms(3)

Why do we assume that Psalms are poems?
Jewish scripture scholar James Kugel has argued recently that there is no distinction in Hebrew literature between poetry and prose. He would even locate the genesis of this idea of the Psalms as poems as recently as the 18th century, when Anglican Bishop Andrew Louth proposed the idea of parallelism as the key to Hebrew poetry. Now, the poet as a Romantic figure was just starting to bubble up at the time, and Christians, who were under attack from the Enlightenment, were eager to display the ‘Hebrew genius’ as an apologetic against those who were ready to discard our Jewish past as something rude and uncultured. But Louth’s response, as well as much of what has followed in Historical-Critical method in scripture studies has made the mistake of allowing the Enlightenment to set the terms of the debate; to decide what qualifies as legitimate spiritual text and experience. Louth is contemporaneous with philosopher Immanuel Kant’s celebrated ‘turn to the subject’. Wordsworth is passing on the laurel wreath to Shelley and Keats. In music, we are in the process of a transition from Bach’s Music of the Spheres to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.
Again, the conflict is between understanding the Psalms as ‘liturgical texts’ or as ‘poetry’. I do not mean to intend that liturgical texts cannot ever be poetic. Far from it. But we do have an idea of ‘the poet’, of ‘poetry’ and ‘art’ in our modern world. And it is the case that we usually call the Psalms ‘poems’, without thinking about whether we mean the term ‘poem’ to have all its modern connotations. What are the connotations to which I am alluding? I hope that you will permit me some over-generalizing for the sake of bringing the conflict into sharper focus. I would list them, very generally, as follows: 1) subjective; 2) emotive; 3) abstract; 4) a need for authenticity and sincerity; 5) let me go out on a limb here: gnostic. By contrast, and again overgeneralizing, I would suggest that liturgy, by its nature must be objective, communal, and concrete.

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