We Need Psalmists (I)

bird on barbed wire

May music move our story along
Even if it’s not quite a song.
May our voices paint the air with shalom
Even if no one says, ‘what a poem!’

Since I began working through the Psalms consecutively, rather than skipping around to find a favorite, I noticed their variety of moods, subject matter, and the many roles these poets played. And the more I looked, the more I saw that we, at this time, in this nation, need psalmists. Actually, we have some already.  However, they are struggling to do their jobs.  Many psalmists lack the story or language that will heal us. They “heal the wound of my people superficially.” Many who know the Creator’s song have stopped singing—they just read the lyrics. Others are singing out of key.

Not that long ago, everyday Americans sang together at home and sometimes at work. We recited accessible poetry that brought pleasure and meaning.  But now, singing has been relegated to the professionals, and we’re embarrassed by our voices. And poetry has gone academic, and the rest of us can’t decipher such verse. I’m not necessarily suggesting a formal return to those activities. But I am calling for melody, rhythm, and beauty to be brought back into our language and delivery.

Amanda Gorman’s performance of her poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration stole the show. She showed us that accessible poetry is a universal music that still moves people. In a few short minutes, she painted a hopeful picture with words, sounds, rhythmic beats, a beaming smile, bodily gestures, and a bright yellow coat. Gorman played the role of a psalmist in a way that the church could be.

I am using the word “psalmist” to refer to a public servant (not necessarily professional) who embodies a story. The psalmist appeals to the imagination by generously employing language with vivid imagery with sensory communication. “Psalms” are sometimes prayers, and other times invitations, meditations, or storytelling that evoke the full range of human experience.  Psalmists can include but are not limited to novelists, journalists, playwrights, actors, teachers, counselors, musicians, pastors, and painters. A psalmist is a “cultural leader.” A psalmist is different than a preacher. While a preacher declares the truth in a monologue, a psalmist describes and displays the beauty of truth and goodness, inviting conversation.

 We’ve endured five years of bombardment by a flood of lies and hate.  Our Saul banned melody from the royal palace. Discordant Twitter chants have worked us over, and truth has been debased. Our politics was like a car horn that’s always blaring. Or you could say, angry heavy metal turned to 11.  We heard Saul in our ear, and we watched his defenders do verbal gymnastics. We heard Saul haters, but no David lovers. I need my imagination healed. We all do.

The biblical psalms often refer to enemies and taunting.  Most of us have not been threatened directly by physical enemies. But anyone who daily listens to political discourse and cultural celebrations feels the reverberations of noise, cynicism, and sentimentality.  We were screeched at and preached at. Some of us tried to retreat into private personal devotions. Some took sides in mean-spirited partisan political liturgies.

We need, as Mako Fujimura says, “culture care,” not culture war. Christians need to be psalmists again.If we don’t take up the psalmists’ role to the nation and the world, we’ll merely be offering palliative cures within our own tribe. We’ll have nothing to say to other Americans. We’ll be dishonest with ourselves and fail to confess our doubts and idolatrous sins. We’ll fail to lament and push back for love’s sake

The Psalmists of Israel Were Part of the Senior Leadership

Perhaps because we are drawn to the content of the psalms, we don’t always take note of the authors’ social/political context and how much of their work was embodied—aimed at the senses.

worship

The psalmists of Israel were poets who responded wholeheartedly and bodily to a glorious, untamed God. Their songs’ embodied context was community and conflict—family life and friendship in villages with close human proximity, robust temple worship, the noise of mockers, the alternate reality of liars, the offensive revelry to rival gods, and the threat of ruthless enemies. 

In this nation of nearly perpetual conflict, the psalmists were leaders— working for the most part in the capital city as part of the king’s government guild of public priests and singers. The Chronicler reveals them as performance artists anchored in a built place of richly imaginative architecture, the sounds of joyous celebration and excruciating wailing, the smell of smoke, and the sight of bloody sacrifices.

The Psalmists of Israel Produced A Deep and Expansive Body of Work

In addition to having multifaceted and sensory roles to play, Israel’s psalmists had a wide-ranging body of work. Like artists and musicians today, they sang about a variety of subjects in a range of styles.

Some of the poetry addressed God directly; some of it was about God, like a wise sage meditating.  Sometimes the poet addresses his own soul, the congregation, or all of humanity.

The psalmists offered up praise to God and celebrated his mighty deeds. They wrote and sung about God’s presence and his absence. Their body of work contains thanksgiving as well as laments, festal shouts, and community wailing, major key and minor key. We hear symphonies, jazz, blues, and even the anger of rock and roll.

violin

Some of the psalmists’ poetry rehearsed the nation’s history; some of it was personal memoirs. Some psalms were nakedly confessional. Some protested injustice. Others imagined creation renewed and reconciled in the shalom of the Messiah’s kingdom.

This body of work kept Israel’s story alive, clarified God’s interventions, provoked honesty and repentance, facilitated grief, and kindled hope. Covenant bonds were strengthened. The prevalence of figurative language, which was sung and heard in public ceremonies, enabled the images and rhythms to be internalized physically. 

Psalmist-like work still goes on today.  But for the most part, those whose embodied performances are seen, heard, and felt on popular media and discussed socially are entertainers and politicians. Their body of work is much narrower than the psalmists of Israel. Their content is mostly a celebration of things under the sun with some judgments of their enemies thrown in. The extent of their reach, however, is broader than any church. They are our modern psalmists and are imbibed uncritically by the masses. I am not saying that entertainers and politicians should be ignored or banned. I enjoy their work a lot, but it’s not adequate to nourish my soul or help me to desire and imagine the kingdom.

When we shift our attention from “secular psalmists” to Christian psalmists, it seems that their performances are limited to the church.  They also have a narrower body of work than Israel’s psalmists. This situation is unfortunate because human culture is led by those who appeal to the imagination. Christians have no reason to resent this state of affairs. We have the world’s richest, most wide-ranging archive of living stories, poetry, and songs with the tremendous capacity to heal and renew the imagination of our culture and the world.  But most of us gave up poetry and mastered prose. We accepted the modern either/or false choices of reason or imagination, mind or body, private or public, aesthetic or practical.

In my next post I will make some suggestions. Go to “We Need Psalmists II”

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