Welcome to Episode 14 of the St. Bede Psalmcast! Today we’ll be talking about Psalm 49, the psalm appointed for Track 2 for Proper 13 which this year falls on July 31st, 2016. We have a pretty extensive talk about Wisdom Literature to set up the psalm and its place within the “Wisdom in Revolt” tradition. We also talk about Death and conclude that there’s nothing fun about dying in Babylon. Some background on Cassiodorus sets up his enthusiastic recommendation of this psalm and the broader discussion about wealth, focus, and purpose.
In lieu of an episode of the St. Bede Psalmcast this week, I bring you an hour-plus interview where I discuss Reading Matthew with Monks with Dr. David Grubbs. I’ve been listening to the Christian Humanist and Christian Humanist Profiles for a while, and was quite pleased to be offered an interview to discuss the book.
I wrote this chunk of text this morning for the Cassiodorus books. It’s a work in progress. I don’t think it’s fully decided what argument it’s tackling and I have the feeling that it might be astride two related but different topics. In any case, I thought I’d float it out here…
My middle-school aged daughter plays a literary game with her friends. One person will write a paragraph, then they will pass the paper along to the next person. They, then, write the next paragraph of the story before passing it to another. As young, undisciplined writers, each person often only brings their own ideas and preoccupations and ideas about what makes a story good or fun or funny. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long at all before the evolving story becomes quite silly! Characters appear and disappear at a whim and act with no consistent motives or plans. The attempted tale is usually a disjointed band of paragraphs whose unity is largely based in the fact that they occupy the same sheet of paper, not because of any true storyline or coherent idea.
On the other hand, I used to play that same game with some of my English-major friends in college. One would start with a paragraph and hand it off to the next—just as in the middle-school version. But what happened next would be quite different. A new paragraph would appear, yes, but its construction would arise from the paragraph before it and would interweave themes or structures or details from the previous paragraphs grounded in a knowledge of the previous allusions and intentions and based in a familiarity with the person passing round the page. Sophisticated narratives would arise within minutes as each person brought depth, insight, and an awareness of where the other people were coming from. Not simply a game, these could be experiences of surprising intimacy as we shared our own thoughts and sought to blend our own ideas and feelings with what had gone on the page before us.
The difference between the middle school version and the college version is intentionality, sensitivity, and skill. In both cases each subsequent author is building on the work that has come before. The middle school version usually disregards what has come before or engages it in a cursory fashion—the authors are usually more interested in shaping the story according to their own ideas and desires. The college version allows the plot to unfold as it will, and skillful authors will temper their desires to put their own mark on the story by discerning where the communal plot seems to be taking it, and permitting it to flower in that direction.
Early medieval scripture interpretation is often accused of being “derivative.” That is, it is simply copying that which came before, usually the works of the Church Fathers which are conventionally defined as the writers of the first 500 years. Sometimes the last of the western Church Fathers is identified as Gregory the Great, the reforming pope who died in 604. Others reckon the final Western Father as the Venerable Bede who died around 735.
Is this a fair charge? Well—there’s derivative and then there’s derivative… Some early medieval authors were little more than copyists. And before we dismiss copyists, we’ll remember again that the work of preserving the wisdom of former times was an essential activity in a time where the only books that would survive were those that got copied in the first place! Others were editors. Yes, they might only have copied down the words of others, but they made intelligent decisions about what material to copy and for what purpose. A skillful digest or extract can preserve the genius of an earlier authors work in far less space particularly if that writer had a tendency to ramble. Cassiodorus recognized his contemporaries Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus in his own day as doing this kind of work. However, other early medieval interpreters had the skill and sensitivity to enter into the work of their earlier partners in reading. They communicated what they found there but also allowed the flowering of the plot line of holy Scripture that their predecessor had noticed.
Relegating early medieval interpretive work to the derivative bin is a modern judgment based on the modern condition. Merely communicating things that other people said is not necessary in our time and place. We can always go back to the original text or look it up on the Internet. There was no such luxury in the early medieval world.Communicating wise things that other people said will always have value. Identifying something profound and bringing it to the attention of others is an important work of communication. In the early medieval world, such work prevented wisdom from being lost when the destruction of written documents was a real danger. In the modern world, careful curation prevents wisdom from being drowned out in an environment of constant communication where the noise-to-signal ratio conspires to fill our ears with the static of frivolity or venality. But building intelligently off the work of our forebearers is just as essential now as it was then. In order to do this well, though, we must steep ourselves in the wisdom of our forebearers, test the wisdom against our own insight and our own repeated experiences of reading and prayer, and then allow the plot of holy Scripture to unfold and flower according to its ways, rather than attempting to force it in the direction we would have it go.
If the modern world accuses the early medieval of being derivative, the early medieval world would charge the modern with the error of novelty: that we are constantly coming up with something new simply for the sake doing something new. In our lust for the new and different, we frequently fail to take deep stock of what has come before us and to consider why some paths were taken and others avoided, which avenues will lead to human flourishing and the flourishing of our actual embodied communities rather than games that serve only for intellectual diversion. It’s the difference in attentiveness between the paragraphs of middle schoolers who can’t wait to put their own mark on a narrative rather than a more mature and substantial reflection to see where the plot is unfolding of its own accord.
When we look at early medieval writing, we have to see it against its own environment and understand the pressures that conspired against the handing on of wisdom. We must judge the works we have received with an awareness of the challenges of the time. But—more than that—studying these writings will attune us to that sensitivity of spirit that enters into the forebearers’ works and continue them rather than simply introducing novelty into the discussion for novelty’s own sake.
This is the struggle that faces us and—in truth—the task that I invite you into. As readers of the Scriptures, as interpreters in our own right, we will read better, clearer, deeper, when we learn how to do two things. First, we must learn to listen to our own voices as readers and interpreters, and trust our own abilities to hear with sensitivity the Word within the biblical text itself. We can be channels for the Holy Spirit and to fail to listen to our own interpretive voices may be an unintentional means of muffling the voice of the Spirit echoing within us. Second, we must engage the tradition we have inherited in such a way in order that our own insights will confirm, strengthen, and clarify the directions in which the plot of Scripture—the relationship between God and God’s people—is unfolding in our own places and times. Not coming up with something new for the heck of it or presenting a novel interpretation for its shock value and its ability to scandalize the faithful (a game in vogue in the twentieth-century academy), but building on the generations and generations of faithful witness before us for the enrichment of the whole Body of Christ.
Here is Episode 13 of the St. Bede Psalmcast on Psalm 66:1-9! And if you manually enter the psalm into your bulletin from the Prayer Book, you might want to listen to this before you make 400 copies…
I took advantage of the fact that Psalm 22 was appointed to go back and cover a topic I’d originally intended for Holy Week…
This week’s image comes from Walters Ms. W.435, a book of hours here at the Walters Art Museum.
Here’s a chunk from volume 1 where I’m talking about the apparent relationship between the respective works on the psalms of Augustine and Cassiodorus and the difference between them as authors. There’s quite a bit more to be said on this topic, though…
Cassiodorus and Augustine have a fascinating literary relationship. If you take Cassiodorus at face value, then he is doing nothing but a straightforward excerpting of Augustine’s great commentary on the Psalms. He says as much in his preface. After referring to his own perplexities on first seriously encountering the psalms, he finds all of his answers in Augustine: “So mindful of my own weakness, through the grace of God’s mercy and in brief summary I turned into shallow streams the ocean of Augustine which wells from the springs of certain psalms; so I have embraced in one volume the wide range of topics which Augustine marvellously unfolded in his fifteen decades.” (ExPs Pref., 23) In an environment where extracts from Augustine’s writing were common, it would not at all be a surprise to see Cassiodorus doing just that. Indeed, in his Institutes he expressly recommends to his readers a volume by Peter of Tripoli where the African abbot has “annotated the epistles of St. Paul with examples from the short works of the blessed Augustine. He declares the secrets of his own heart with the tongue of another and he has fitted these examples so suitably to individual passages that you might think that the whole had been accomplished rather by the effort of blessed Augustine. For it is remarkable that one author has elucidated the text from another commentator in such a way that he seems to have expressed the desires of his own heart without adding a word of his own” (Institutes, 1.8.9, 129). With such praise for this style of work, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is just what Cassiodorus has done with the Psalms—but the truth is that he has done something else quite different.
While Augustine and Cassiodorus were commenting on the same material and often saying similar things, they were two very different kinds of authors. Augustine was first and foremost an orator. He was a preacher. And, sure enough, the commentary on the psalms that we have from him is a collection of sermons on individual psalms delivered and collected over the course of decades. While reading Augustine’s commentary, it’s easy to form a mental picture of his compositional style: Augustine has walked into the pulpit holding nothing but a psalter and is expounding on it line by line before an eager crowd while a scribe in the first row is feverishly scribbling down his words into a tablet for review and transcription onto parchment later in the day. Augustine doesn’t cite authorities, he doesn’t rely on a great deal of prior research—the effect is listening to a man who has been reading and pondering the Scriptures for years standing up before you speaking off the cuff, indulging in digressions, and making the connections across the canon that occur to him on this particular day. This impression is only reinforced on the occasions where Augustine’s commentary contains two or three different sermons on the same psalm. A different day brings a different message on the same text.
Modern scholar James O’Donnell in his biography of Augustine contrasts the African preacher with Jerome: “[Augustine] did [interpretation] as a performer, not a scholar. The pulpit and its extemporaneity offered the focus for his biblical interpretation. While his contemporary Jerome was dictating volume after volume of careful biblical commentary in his study, sometimes following Greek authorities and sometimes simply translating them, Augustine the exegete shied away from that practice as time went by. He only turned his hand to writing formal Scriptural commentary a half-dozen times, and only once as a bishop, and never used an authoritative source or sources” (O’Donnell, Augustine, 133).
Cassiodorus, on the other hand, was a completely different kind of author. If Augustine was an orator, Cassiodorus was a composer. His writing shows clear, logical, organized composition both at the level of the individual psalm and across his work as a whole. His work on the psalms is not a collection of individually gathered elements. Rather, it is planned whole, carefully charted out, logically structured, with consistently executed internal logic and cross-references. Cassiodorus was not standing in a pulpit by any stretch; he was sitting at a desk with several open volumes before him—Augustine’s commentary, yes, but also reference works by Jerome, possibly the sermons of Hilary, and several wax tablets of his own notes. Some of these bore notes on the specific psalm at hand, others related to the work as a whole identifying groupings of psalms categorized by theme, topic, and theological import so that after the treatment of each psalm, its placement in the group could be identified and the other members in the group cross-referenced.
Here is another chunk for volume 2; the beginning portion refers to a discussion of Cassiodorus’s reading, pointing out that one of his strategies for interpreting the Psalms is drawn from the interpretation of classical drama. In this section, I’m picking up this notion and discussing how modern people can tap into this idea as a reading strategy for the psalms as well.
Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers ask us to listen for voices when we read the psalms. I can see several different ways in which this practice can enrich our engagement with the psalms.
First, at the most basic level, we need to be attentive to voices and the change of voice that occurs on the purely grammatical level. As we read each line of the psalms, one of the automatic questions that goes through your mind should be “who is speaking here? Is it the voice of an individual or of a group? To whom are they speaking? Are they speaking directly to God or are they speaking to the congregation around them?”
One way to visualize this is to follow Cassiodorus’s lead and to think of the roles in classical drama. In a Greek tragedy, there were a few major characters and a chorus. The chorus would usually make general comments, react to what was happening on stage, and fill in the audience about important action that had happened off the stage. The characters, then, would either interact with one another or would sometimes speak directly to the chorus. If we were to cast in our minds the classical dramatic production of a psalm, we can imagine there are always at least three major characters: the Psalmist, the Congregation, and God. The Psalmist or perhaps more properly The Voice of the Psalmist is the character who most often uses “I.” At this point, we’re not going to worry about the identity of this “I” (we’ll get into that in a second…). The Congregation is the chorus of fellow believers; frequently they get referred to as “you (plural)” but sometimes speak as “us” or “we” or even “I” as well. I chose the term “Congregation” because of the frequency with which this phrase appears in the psalms themselves. Two Hebrew terms can be translated as “congregation” or “assembly”—qahal and (adah; together they show up 17 times in the Psalms referring to a religious assembly with which the Psalmist interacts or to whom the Psalmist speaks. The Congregation is a chorus part and is almost always favorably inclined towards the Psalmist. (I hedge that because sometimes the Congregation seems to be portrayed as neutral rather than friendly as in some of the Psalms of Abandonment.) God is, of course, God. I imagine God always being on stage whether the Psalmist is speaking directly to God or not. Sometimes the Psalmist does speak to God, sometimes not—but God is always there listening nonetheless. Now—some psalms will indicate some additional characters. We can have an Anxious Chorus as in the opening of Psalm 11 or even a Bad Chorus as in Psalm 109. There is even the Betraying Friend in Psalm 41 (although whether he receives a speaking part or is simply referred to depends on how you stage it in your head!)
As you read through the psalm, consider: which lines are connected with which speaker? What does the grammar tell you about who is speaking to whom? While this may sound complicated, it’s not as hard as it sounds, particularly if you pay attention to the pronouns.
If you remember back to grammar class, we analyze pronouns in terms of person and number:
We can see how this works when we take the first line of the familiar Psalm 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Clearly we are dealing here with the voice of the Psalmist. We know this because we see the use of “my” and “I”. But to whom is this “I” speaking? We have not been introduced to a major cast of characters yet so we can assume three: the Psalmist, God (aka “the Lord”) and the ever-present Congregation chorus. Since the Psalmist refers to God in the third person (that is, “the Lord”, not “you” or “O God”), then it is safe to assume that in this line the Psalmist is speaking to the Congregation.
We can move through a more fulsome example with the relatively brief Psalm 108. Again, we imagine our three main characters on stage. The Psalmist begins with direct address to God: “My heart is firmly fixed, O God, my heart is fixed; I will sing and make melody” The use of “My” and “I” clarifies for us that this is the Psalmist’s voice. The use of the vocative—direct address—in “O God” lets us know to whom the Psalmist is speaking. The Psalmist continues through verse 6. I assign these lines to the Psalmist rather than the Congregation because we see some intimate and inward thoughts more appropriate to an individual than a group. Then, verse 7 begins “God spoke from his holy place and said…” Perhaps we can see this as a line from the chorus as the Psalmist recedes and God steps to center stage? Then, from verse 7b through verse 9, we hear the voice of God. God speaks in “I” language and declares his victories over the inhabitants of the lands around Israel.
The crux of the psalm is verse 10: “Who will lead me into the strong city? Who will bring me into Edom?”
Who speaks this line? (Remembering that quotation marks are modern editorial decisions and not original to the psalms!) Is this a continuation of God’s address? In Ancient Near East battles, images of the gods were carried as military standards: is this line the voice of God asking who will bear his image or the Ark of the Covenant representing him into Edom? Or, conversely, is this either the Psalmist or the Chorus replying in response to God’s preceding boast of power? That is, if God is so victorious over the other nations, is God going to give assistance right here and right now in the present crisis?
If we hold off on making a decision and move on to the next verse, we see that question does become more pointed: “Have you not cast us off, O God? You no longer go out, O God with our armies.” There is direct address to God again with the vocative “O God” and “You”; however, the shift from a singular to the plural makes me think that the Chorus has come in—or perhaps even better the Psalmist and the Chorus singing together. Given that the question in verse 10 continues and becomes more pointed in verse 11, we can place verse 10 in the mouth of whomever we decide speaks verse 11. Verse 12 continues the address to God from the group, and then the final verse 13 moves from addressing God to addressing a listening audience, shifting references to God from the second person to the third person: “With God we will do valiant deeds, and he shall tread our enemies under foot.” The language of “God” and “he” clarifies that the Chorus is now speaking about God rather than to God, and this final declaration of hope serves as a challenge expressed as an answer to the question posed in verse 10.
This strategy of mentally staging the psalm as a classical drama in your head is a helpful means of helping you pay attention to the variety of voices and the shift of voices within the psalms. I like to think of this as an initial stage of reading. Once we have accomplished this staging, Cassiodorus will invite us to imagine who the various characters might be: Is the Psalmist David? Is it Christ? Could it be the personified Church? We’ll turn to this next…
I’ve been doing a lot of work on my books on Cassiodorus and the psalms. So far, most of my effort has gone into the first volume. The first volume is a more-or-less straightforward historical and exegetical description of what Cassiodorus does when he reads the psalms and transmits the patristic tradition to his readers. The second volume is the “where do we go from here?” book that tries to explain what the Cassiodoran perspective (and the perspective of the rest of the Church Fathers) has to do with us and our spirituality. Here’s a snippet from the second book. To set this in context a little, I’m writing these books in a non-linear fashion, that is, they’re outlined, but I’m not starting with chapter 1 of the first and writing to the end, then starting chapter 1 of the second and so on. Rather, since I know the big picture, I’m writing chunks and fitting them into place, and will smooth over the cracks later in the process.
This was a chunk that popped into my head last night as we were driving home from NYC after dropping the older daughter off at Joffrey for a week of ballet camp.
For readers familiar with my discussions of Trinitarian theology, some of this stuff will likely seem familiar. However, it’s still important especially in relation to the psalms.
Cassiodorus spends quite lot of time finding theological concepts in the psalms, particularly things relating to Trinitarian theology and Chalcedonian Christology. Indeed, modern readers may find it odd the amount of time that he spends harping on these issues. Our first thought may be to wonder why he would work so hard to find find doctrine in the Scriptures—why go to this effort? One reason is because he would not have seen “doctrine” as being something separate and distinct from “biblical interpretation.” For those used to the modern university or the way that seminaries divide up subjects, there is a great gulf between the study of the Scriptures and instruction in theology or doctrine. In the world of the Church Fathers, however, the two topics were intimately related to one another: doctrine flowed from Scripture and doctrine was identified in Scripture even if the connections being drawn seem strained to us.
Trinitarian and christological theology shows up so frequently in Cassiodorus’s psalm commentary for a couple of reasons. One of the great controversies of his time revolved around the way that God the Father and God the Son related to one another and what kind of being Jesus was. While an ecumenical council held at Chalcedon had defined the orthodox Church’s understanding of the matter, the rival Arian position was still quite common within and—more importantly—outside of the empire. The main difference here was whether Jesus was God or whether Jesus was a creature. The position of Chalcedon insisted that Jesus was both fully God and, at the same time, fully human. The Arian position argued that while Jesus was the first and greatest of all of God’s creations, he was just that—a creature (albeit a really important creature!). To sort out why this matters and why it matters for the psalms, we need to dip into this debate for a minute, going through the theological to the real heart of the matter—the pastoral difference.
For too many people, theology is a bad word. It conjures up notions of doctrines and rules, and tortured intellectual arguments about things that no one can really ultimately prove on this side of heaven. Theology is seen as something abstract and speculative. But it shouldn’t be… Good theology, important theology, matters because it has practical implications: it helps us understand how we correctly live out our lives. Real theology is connected to real life. Trinitarian theology in particular gets a bad rap, usually because it is taught as a system of ideas without reference or recourse to why and how it matters for us.
Here’s a key point around which you need to orient everything about Trinitarian theology and its various christological controversies: The doctrine of the Trinity and the Natures of Christ didn’t grow out of theological speculation. That is, a bunch of old guys didn’t sit themselves down together and just make this stuff up (and that is one of dominant images we have thanks to Dan Brown novels and other misinformed media…). Indeed, if people had sat down and thought all of this up it would make a whole lot more sense and be much easier to understand! Rather—and this is the key—Trinitarian theology grew out of the attempt to wrap words around Christian spiritual experience. The first followers of Jesus, as proper Jewish believers and God-fearing Gentile converts, would have known the Sh’ma, the Jewish creed, and recited it three times a day: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4). So they knew there was only one God, the God they knew revealed in the Scriptures as the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth. However, based on their experiences of resurrection power, they believed that Jesus was somehow God too. Furthermore, their charismatic experiences of the Spirit’s inspiration led them to confess that the Holy Spirit was also tied up in this God thing as well! If, as Scripture said, there was only one God, how could they explain what they were feeling and experiencing? The theology, then, grew out of the attempt to wrap words around this experiential phenomenon in a way that people could agree on.
Generally speaking, the approach that gained favor is the one that lived best, that is, directed people to lead their lives in the manner most consistent with Scripture and the example of Jesus, was the definition that came out of the four great councils of the Church and that favored holding up the mystery of God’s inter-relation rather than settling for a more philosophically plausible approach. Thus, they upheld the idea that God is one Being that is made up of three distinct but inter-related and equal Persons and that Jesus is, at the same time, fully human and fully divine. Most of the various Trinitarian and Christological errors arise when somebody comes up with a scheme to try and make this formula make more sense.
So why does any of this matter? Why would the Chalcedonian solution make more sense and live better than the Arian answer? The reason is simply this: Does God—the grand omnipotent Creator of the Universe—know what it feels like to be you? The Arian position says “no.” This position which makes Jesus the oldest and greatest of God’s creations draws a line of divinity between Jesus and God. The best that God has to go on, then, is to imagine what it would be like to us. The Chalcedonian formula on the other hand—that Jesus is fully God and simultaneously fully human—answers: “yes.” God does know what it means and feels like to be human. He knows it from the inside. He knows exactly what you are going through when you feel happy or sad or betrayed or angry—because he’s felt it too. In the person of Jesus, God has felt every human emotion and lived through a great swathe of human experiences including (let’s not forget) being betrayed, imprisoned, and executed. God doesn’t have to imagine anything here: he’s felt it. God knows what it feels like to die. And, furthermore, God knows exactly what it feels like to lose a child.
This is what gets lost in the Arian formulation: the intimate knowledge of just what it’s like to be us and to really know from the inside what it is to be one of us.
Now, I came of age in the eighties and early nineties, and every time I go through this theological logic, I hear a Joan Osborne song floating through my head… The lyrics go, in part, like this:
“What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?
Just tryin’ to make his way home
Like back up to heaven all alone
Nobody callin’ on the phone
‘Cept for the Pope maybe in Rome”
Here’s the thing—whether she knew it or not, Joan (and the songwriter, Eric Bazilian) created the perfect song to explain the heart of Chalcedonian orthodoxy against the Arian position! Because the Chalcedonian definition believes that they’re right on: God does know what it feels like to be one of us! The theology that they reject—of a distant sterile God divorced from the nitty-gritty of human experience—is simultaneously the doctrine that Cassiodorus, the Church Fathers, and the church councils rejected as well.
Now, at this point, it must feel like we’ve gone pretty far afield from the psalms. But that’s actually not the case at all—we’re just looping around to them from the back side. Instead, the upholding of the Chalcedonian definition is at the heart of how Cassiodorus and the Fathers read and understand the psalms. Remember what Athanasius wrote about the whole expanse of human emotion being revealed in the psalms? This is where we see it: if we read the psalms in and through the mouth of Jesus, this is where we hear and feel the whole span of human emotion uttered from divine lips, where we see God incarnate expressing everything from the pain to the joy we feel. This is God at home in the feelings we know.
The pastoral implication, then, of Trinitarian theology and this means of reading the psalms is the assurance that God knows exactly what it feels like to be us and that, in the psalms, we hear his own divine expression of what it feels like to be human.
- Busyness continues, but I’m learning some really cool stuff I never knew before about the guts of WordPress!
- My latest piece went live at Grow Christians yesterday. It’s a musing about the relationship of respect to what it means to behave “appropriately” thinking specifically around kids in church.
- Also, the new Summer edition of The Anglican Digest is out digitally. This whole issue focuses specifically on favorite prayers from the Book of Common Prayer; my reflection is the first one after Catherine’s Letter From the Editor.
- Coming attractions… It’s not on Amazon yet, but my new book from Forward Movement has a Library of Congress number, and a small number of physical advance copies are in the process of being printed!!
I posted this episode on Saturday morning but completely forgot to make mention of it here—so here you are…
This episode tackles Psalm 30, the psalm appointed for Option 2 for Proper 5 in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. We talk a little bit about lectionary mechanics to explain what all that means before we get to the psalm itself.
The book referred to in the show is W. Kelly Simpson’s The Literature of Ancient Egypt, available at Amazon and other retailers.
The image for today’s episode is from an Egyptian memorial stele in the Manchester Museum and is in the public domain here.