A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

Psalms and Def Jam Poetry

It’s one thing to acknowledge that the book of Psalms is written as poetry.  It’s quite another to consider what difference the poetic style makes to interpretation of the Psalms. What if we encountered Psalm 139’s claim that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” not in private devotion or from the mouth of a lector in church but in a context more like that of def jam?  This great piece is Marty McConnell’s “Instructions for a Body.”

Poetry was our focus yesterday in my Psalms seminar at LTS.  Our guest was Valerie Bridgeman, who joined the LTS faculty this year. Valerie holds a degree in Hebrew Bible and is one of the editors of the new Africana Bible,  but she primarily defines herself as a poet.  She’ll stage a one-woman show in the Dietz refectory on our campus on Dec. 12.

I invited Valerie to class to help us push beyond simplistic perspectives on poetry. Often, interpreters only give lip service to the poetic nature of the psalms. They say the psalms are poetry but treat them the same way they treat the rest of the Bible–as fodder for doctrine or a “lesson.” Or, if readers do acknowledge the poetic style of psalms, they focus on how “pretty” psalms sound.  A well-turned phrase or two is lifted up as the basis for a praise song or a devotional reading:  “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so I long for you, O God.”

Valerie covered a lot of ground with us.  She shared some of her own poetry and introduced us to poetry of others, including McConnell’s spoken word art.

One of the main things Valerie underscored was poetry’s active, transgressive nature.  It works to move an audience, to stir feeling and motivate action. Prior to class, students had read some technical analysis of poetry, including Adele Berlin’s article in the New Interpreter’s Bible. Berlin’s analysis did help us recognize the features that make poetry work, but our experience of contemporary edgy poetry confronted us with the power of the spoken word.

Because most students in the class are training to be pastors, we talked a lot about how to honor the poetic power of Psalms in the context of worship. At the very least, lectors need to read the psalms in a way that brings out their emotive power. But I asked how we could go further to invite worshipers participate in the movements and emotions of the psalms rather than simply listen to others reading dramatically. What would it look like to model the service on the movements of a psalm?  For example, psalms of lament start with blunt anger and accusation and only near the end shift to praise. Scholars debate about why and how that shift happens.  Reading the psalm has a lot of merit, but even more powerful might be to construct the service in a way that spurs folks to express anger and then to ask the same question of the gathered body that scholars ask:  what allows us to praise in the midst of our suffering?

We’ll continue our look at the poetic nature of the Psalms next week by focusing on the diverse metaphors that the Psalter uses for the divine.

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