Monday, March 26, 2018

The Rest of the Psalm

So said the exiles of Judah in Babylon, and they wept as they recalled it. Their real home was far away. They belonged in Zion, and their present status was, to all appearances, quite degraded. Had things gone as they should, God’s people would have been singing psalms in the temple courts of the great city of Jerusalem, not sitting in servitude by the waters of Babylon.

But there they were all the same.

No Country for Old Psalmists

We too live in a foreign land, and modern Babylonians still nick our tunes when they can’t persuade us to perform for them. Back in 1976, for example, the words of Psalm 137 were cleverly repurposed into the second-highest-selling UK pop single of all time. Four singers from Jamaica, Montserrat and Aruba were assembled by a German disco producer to sing words two and a half thousand years old about remembering a “Zion” of which they knew nothing. Everyone raked in the big bucks, not least because you don’t have to pay lyric royalties to dead psalmists.

Talk about the Lord’s songs in a strange land! One hopes the irony was not completely lost on those who participated.

Marketable Scripture

I’m not sure what attracts pagan songwriters to scripture, but it happens a lot, and some of the results are quite marketable. Pete Seeger’s “Turn, Turn, Turn”, performed by the Byrds, famously appropriated the words of Ecclesiastes. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” referenced the story of David. More obscurely, Siouxsie and the Banshees covered the Lord’s Prayer. There’s a stretch for you. The Stone Roses even structured one of their albums around the life of Christ (not recommended).

Then there’s Nick Cave’s “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!” which takes liberties with the biblical account of a man raised from the dead. U2’s “40” is, yes, Psalm 40, and Paul McCartney’s “All My Trials” lifts well-known words from Revelation 21. Ronnie James Dio’s “Holy Diver” misuses Revelation 12, later covered by a slumming Pat Boone on his In a Metal Mood album.

Trickling into the Broader Culture

Not all these artists were raised Catholic, with a sentimental attachment to certain spiritual concepts, and not all their efforts were profane or debased, even if some were startlingly out of place. “Christmas Must Be Tonight” by the Band (and especially Robbie Robertson’s stellar solo version) still brings tears to my eyes. Sometimes they absolutely nail it.

The historical and literary material that informs our faith occasionally leaks into the broader culture, and what are we to say about that? I suppose there may be some value so long as we do not seek out opportunities to serve as the world’s paid minstrels.

So What About the Rest?

Like the “rivers of Babylon” reference, scripture is full of verses that, rightly or wrongly, can be pulled out at random and free-associated with our more personal experiences. Sometimes the result is beneficial, more often it’s delusional.

Nobody I know is brave enough to steal all the words from any given Bible treasure trove. The first few verses of Psalm 137 touch semi-universal sentiments about oppression, but verses 8 and 9 of the same psalm are just a tiny bit little less Top 40:
“O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!”
That’s a bit harder to engage with, but more interesting to me in the end. The words “doomed to be destroyed” remind us that God is not some banal, complacent father-figure to be meaninglessly invoked from a distance as a sop for every human ill, but rather a righteous Creator who still pays attention to the goings-on in his world, is determined to see justice done in the long run, and is fully equipped to make that happen in precisely the way he has promised.

By all means enjoy the sentiment-inducing bits of the word of God. But once in a while, try reading the rest of the psalm. You might find it a different experience. Enlightening, even.

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