– Aurelio Porfiri
We have already said that the Psalms are among the best tools for ecumenical engagement, at least for those who share a common Christian heritage. I assume that also those who are not Christians can benefit from the Psalms, because they are among the highest form of religious poetry, of prayer. But for Christains their importance is even more compelling.
As we know, there are many Christian denominations besides Catholics, the outcome of centuries of divisions among Christians. I intend to ask a scholar coming from the Presbyterian tradition who has studied the Psalms to a great extent, about his approach, being sure that what he has to say can be important too, at least in part, for us Catholics.
J. Clinton (Clint) McCann is evangelical professor of Biblical interpretation at the Eden Theological Seminary (USA). His web page reads: “Clint McCann’s research and writing have focused on the Psalms. A noted biblical scholar, he served as chair of the Psalms Section of the Society of Biblical Literature for ten years. His publications on the Psalms include: The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter (1993); A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms: The Psalms as Torah (1993); the Psalms commentary in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Vol. 4; 1996); Preaching the Psalms (2001); Great Psalms of the Bible (2009); Psalms: Immersions Bible Studies (2011); and annotations on the Psalms in The Access Bible, The Learning Bible, and The Discipleship Study Bible. Dr McCann is also the author of numerous articles and essays on the Psalms and other biblical material. Most recently, he served as Consulting Translator of the Book of Psalms for The Common English Bible, and he wrote the introduction to and annotations on the Psalms for The CEB Study Bible (2013). He is also the author of Judges (2002) in the series Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Dr. McCann is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and served as a pastor in North Carolina from 1978-1987.”
Why you have decided to study the Old Testament?
When I was in seminary years ago, my teachers were among the best Old Testament scholars in the world – John Bright, James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., and W. Sibley Towner. They made the biblical material very compelling. But the material itself was compelling enough, especially the portrayal of a God who is gracious, merciful, steadfastly loving, and faithful, even in the face of persistent human disobedience (see Exodus 34:6-7). Plus, I was drawn to the portrayal of a God whose will extends to the blessing of ‘all the families of the earth’ (see Genesis 12:3).
How the Psalms communicate, what are the strategies they use?
The Psalms communicate in a variety of ways. Although they originated for use in Israelite and Judean worship, they were eventually received and transmitted as torah, ‘instruction.’ It is important to note that there are more direct statements about God in the Psalms than in any other biblical book! The Psalms also communicate by portraying the range of human emotion, from sheer desperation to intense ecstasy. Thus, they invite the sharing of the whole self with God in lament and praise. Plus, the tradition of the church is to pray the psalms with and for others, not just for ourselves. Thus, the prayers and praises ultimately invite solidarity with the human community.”
Most of us read the Psalms in translations. What is the most important part we are losing from the original language? How can we overcome this problem?
Numerous scholars conclude that the most important stylistic device in Hebrew poetry is repetition, and I agree. But many translations obscure the repetition of Hebrew words and roots, preferring the use of synonyms in the target language. This is unfortunate. Good commentaries will put readers in touch with instances of repetition that are not evident in most translations.
Is there any modern poetry, including popular songs, that you would consider similar to the one of the Psalms?
The genre of music known as ‘the blues’ often captures the tone of the laments in the Psalter. Although it is of a somewhat different genre – rock and roll – the song ‘Everybody Hurts’ by RPM articulates one of the important lessons of the lament psalms – that is, they put us in touch with the inevitably of human finitude and suffering, while affirming that we are not alone in our plight.
Is there any peculiar use of the Psalms in your particular Christian tradition?
Yes, very much so. I am a member of and ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and thus part of the Reformed tradition. John Calvin, one of the major forebearers of the Reformed tradition, and his colleagues insisted that liturgical music belongs to the whole congregation, not just to specially trained experts or choirs. So, in order to facilitate the singing of the Psalms by the whole people, the psalms were translated in meter and paired with familiar tunes or new tunes that the people could easily learn and sing. The Genevan Psalter appeared in 1539, and the tradition of metrical psalmody continues until this day. Congregations regularly sing the metrical Psalms of Isaac Watts from the 18th century – for instance, ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past,’ Watts’s metrical version of Psalm 90, and ‘Joy to the World,’ his metrical version of Psalm 98 – but new metrical Psalms continue to be written. For instance, John Bell and the Iona Community in Scotland are responsible for several new metrical psalms, some of which are represented in Church Hymnary 4, the current hymnal of the Church of Scotland.
What is the best resource to study the Psalms?
There are many very good and recent commentaries on the Book of Psalms, and these are my preferred resource for studying the Psalms. I routinely use and recommend the Psalms commentaries in the following series: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; The New Interpreter’s Bible; The Westminster Bible Companion; Hermeneia; the New Cambridge Bible Commentary; the New International Commentary on the Old Testament; the Old Testament Library; Baker Commentary on the Old Testament; the NIV Application Commentary; Berit Olam; the Word Biblical Commentary. In addition, the work of Robert Alter is especially helpful, both his translations of the Psalms and his commentary.
What is the best way to “pray” the Psalms?
There is probably no ‘best way.’ I suggest reading them slowly and meditating upon them carefully. In so doing, one is apt to find words that express where they are in life at any particular moment. In addition to the more scholarly commentaries listed above, there are many devotional guides and resources based upon the Book of Psalms. One thing to keep in mind is the ecumenical tradition of praying the Psalms for others. For instance, people are often bothered by the psalmists’ angry voices and by what sound like requests for revenge in the Psalms. Instead of labeling these passages ‘un-Christian,’ perhaps we could ask who in the world may be hurting enough or victimized enough to lash out in anger like the psalmists often do. This might have the effect of producing empathy and solidarity with the victimized, and we may then be inclined to hear such angry prayers as desperate pleas for God’s justice and righteousness to be done – that is, not unlike when we pray ‘thy will be done.’
What is your favorite Psalm and why?
I have lots of favorites, but my current favorite is Psalm 82, which New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has called ‘the single most important text in the entire Christian Bible’ (see his The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998], 575). For Crossan and for me, Psalm 82 is so important because it articulates very clearly what God wills for the world – that is, justice (the Hebrew root occurs four times – verses 1-3, 8), very specifically defined as attentiveness to and provision for the most vulnerable. And Psalm 82 warns in v. 5 that the failure to establish justice threatens the world with chaos. In essence, given the ‘plot’ of Psalm 82, in which the God of Israel disqualifies the gods for their failure to do justice, Psalm 82 constitutes something like a definition of divinity or ‘god-ness.’ And it is crucial to note that the criterion of true divinity involves justice, not simply power! Psalm 82 ends with a prayer, ‘Arise, O God, establish justice on earth; for all the nations belong to you’ (my translation). In our fragmented, divided and threatened world, there is perhaps no more important affirmation than this – that is, the whole world and all its people belong to God, and God wills the well-being of the whole human family! This is, by the way, the perspective of the songs of praise in Psalter, which regularly invite a world-encompassing congregation to praise God, culminating in the Psalter’s final invitation to praise, ‘Let everything that breathes praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!’ (Ps 150:6, NRSV). The theological and ecological implications of this final verse of the Psalter are far-reaching and astoundingly significant!