Sunday, September 30, 2007

Soulless reviews of soulful psalms (translations)

Recently, I recommended Robert Alter's new translation of the Psalms (and especially an NPR interview with Alter, himself). Now, I'd like to recommend the New Yorker's review of Alter's book.

Actually -- in the 'great' tradition of New Yorker writers getting intoxicated by their own words and thoughts -- it's not really a review of Alter's work. It's more of an essay by the author -- novelist and literary critic James Woods -- about what he thinks about the Psalms. Luckily, what he thinks is very much worth reading. His article is a wonderful, short summary of some of the most important points about what gives the Psalms such incredible power and beauty even now, thousands of years after they were written. And Woods wonderfully states why the Psalms can be so relevant for us today as we sometimes struggle to maintain the strength of our faith in a world whose ubiquitous violence and suffering can test us dearly:

This struggle [presented in the Psalms] between faith and doubt, hope and despair, is undoubtedly one of the features that have made the Psalms such a help to so many readers and writers, both believers and nonbelievers.

A word of caution, however (and this is why I used the word "soulless" in the title of this post): Woods, like so many intellectuals, feels a need to say that while the Psalms are interesting to, in effect, gaze upon (like an ancient piece of art in a glass museum case), he does not think they actually have any relevance to our lives. He says, for example:

Psalm 90, like many others, belongs to a theological landscape quite remote from our own.

He says this is so because "with our new, borderless knowledge of the cosmos" we can no longer relate to "what the Biblical scholar James Kugel refers to as the 'starkness' of the Hebrew Bible, a bare, hard world in which a desert landscape of rocks and rare streams is briefly lit up by columns of fire."

Oh, Mr. Woods, come and stand beside me in the hospital some day. Come and stand beside me as I talk to a cancer patient facing death or the possibility of death. That place can indeed be a desert landscape, one full of the despair and desperate pleading that we find in the words of the Psalms. But -- and this is part of what makes chaplaincy work with cancer patients such an amazing experience -- it is exactly this kind of place that has the incredible potential to be suddenly lit up by "columns of fire", columns of fire that represent the presence of God becoming manifest in the suffering person's life. It is an amazing thing to be a part of.

But, if you read Woods' review with a grain of salt, you can really learn a lot by reading his fine article. I recommend it!

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