May 30, 2011

All of the Psalms

A number of months ago, I began a project that I suspected at the time would last about three years. The project? To put the entire collection of biblical psalms into modern song. The rules? Move through them sequentially, 1-150, with minimal alterations in text, omitting none of uncomfortable stuff. I’ve allowed myself to select from any of the widely accepted translations, though so far the NIV has been the primary translation I’ve worked from, simply because the language seems to translate into song better than the others. My initial goal was to put one psalm to music per week. I started the project in September and I’ve currently posted the first 8 psalms. It currently being May I’m clearly behind that rather lofty pace, although I’m not daunted by the goal. Whether three years or ten, God willing, it will get done.

The challenges are significant. Non-metered poetry is a nightmare to put to song. There is no rhyme scheme. The subject matter is often full of vindictive tribal violence, political whining and family drama. King David, the primary author of the psalms, often comes across as bi-polar, creating a profound challenge creatively. How exactly does one create appropriate musical context for poetry that extols the glory of God in one sentence, and follows immediately with a call for the destruction of the children of one’s enemies in the next?

Why have I undertaken to do this?

I’ve been a worship leader in Vineyard churches for nearly 20 years. During that time, I’ve encountered the glory hidden in the psalms over and over again. I can think of no other source material that has so influenced how we worship God. Nearly every worship song I can think of is in some significant way derived from the psalms. This is as it should be, in my opinion.

And yet...

And yet we aren’t totally honest with ourselves in our reading of these wonderful, glorious, complicated, bloody and occasionally horrific scriptures. We tend to pick and choose the “nice” bits and leave the messy stuff behind. I understand why we do it, and on one hand I don’t question the practice. It is often appropriate to simply reflect on the glory of God. The messiness of life is pretty self evident in our day-to-day existence. There’s no need to highlight it in song and sully our “God time”. But I also feel challenged to find a way take the bitter material with the sweet; the angry with the compassionate; to find a way to make room for the plea for murderous revenge against oppressors and keep it in step with earnest supplications of protection for the poor and helpless. And what of self-righteous boasting before God, judgement of others and utterly broken repentance for heinous crimes? Apparently, these are all acceptable spices in the ingredients of praise... often all pouring from the same heart, at the same time. Who knew?

And so, the project.

This project has already had a deep effect on me, and I’ve hardly even started. Each psalm, taken in its entirety as a complete work of worshipful creativity, speaks to a breadth of the God/ Human relationship that eclipses the narrow sacred/secular divide that is the trademark of much western Christian spirituality. God can’t possibly be engaged with the dark emotions can He? Hate, Envy, Greed, Fear, Domination, Aggression - these are the anti-matter of the redemption story aren’t they? Irredeemable, right? Couldn’t possibly find a place in a worshipful heart, correct? Well... the psalms point to answers that are uncomfortable for my domesticated soul. They seem to suggest that the conflicts of the soul need not be resolved before we enter the holy place of dialogue with God. They hint that it’s okay to bring dusty, muddy, blood stained garments into the presence of the Lord of Glory. But, we protest, won’t they tarnish the sheen of the courts of heaven? Won’t they corrupt the luster of Christ’s throne? David and his co-writers seem not to share our concern. They are constantly the mess of heaven and it appears that they get invited back over and over again.

So, I invite you to join me as I jump into the mystery of praise, worship, prayer, repentance, anger-management and holy creativity through a musical exploration of the psalms... all of them.

Kris MacQueen, Cambridge Vineyard

1 comment:

  1. Bill Morrow who teaches hebrew Scripture at Queen's School of Religion would be very interested in this project. His latest text, Protest Against God: The Eclipse of a Biblical Tradition resonates with your project. The editors note on the text reads, "The Hebrew Bible contains many examples of protest or complaint against God. There are classic cases in the psalms of individual lament, but we find the same attitude in community complaint psalms, in the prophetic challenges to God, and in the Book of Job. And yet, after the exile, the complaint tradition was largely suppressed or marginalized. In this imaginative book, Morrow asks the unheard of question, Why? A shift in the religious imagination of early Judaism had taken place, he argues, spearheaded by the psychology of trauma and by international politics. A magnification of divine transcendence downgraded the intercessory role of the prophet, controlled the raw pain of exile (Lamentations, Second Isaiah), and led to intransigent refusal of the logic of lament (the friends and Yahweh in Job). The theology of complaint was eventually overshadowed by the piety of penitence and praise (the Dead Sea Scrolls). Modern readers of the Hebrew Bible are not obliged to assent to the loss of lament, nevertheless. Ours is an age when the potency of the biblical complaints against God is being newly appropriated. Although the transcendental imagination of Western culture itself is moving into eclipse, a heightened individual consciousness has emerged. There may still be life, therefore, in the ancient prayer pattern of arguing with God, which assumes that worshippers have rights with God as well as duties, that the Creator has obligations to the creation as well as prerogatives. This stylish intellectual history will be welcomed for its scope, its panache and its theological engagement."


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