Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Case for the Psalms

by N. T. Wright

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • Inspiring ideas about how to pray, sing, and live the Psalms in your life
  • Fascinating information on the original Hebrew

And Why You Might Not:
  • His writing style is not the most engrossing. It's not difficult to read or anything, and the content makes up for it, but I still found myself having to re-read sentences a few times to understand properly.

Thoughts: Great little book, with so many cool tidbits of knowledge--very much makes me want to learn Hebrew. It constantly amazes me how much understanding the original meaning and context of a word in translation can give a different message and significance to the text.

This isn't the focus, though. It isn't a book about language. It's a pleading to put back in our lives these ancient and beautiful hymns, to allow them to change us inside and out.

And now, as per usual with nonfiction books like this, I'm going to spend the rest of the review noting a whole bunch of things that struck me. It's a useful way to keep track of things I want to remember, plus I don't really know how sum up any better anyway.
Also, anything that has this many notes for so small a book is definitely from an author I want to pursue. Another new author find! (I've found so many new authors this year: N. T. Wright, Gillian Bradshaw, Sage Blackwood, Jean-Paul Sartre, and also sort of Josephine Tey and Patrice Kindl and Andrea K. Host (since I discovered just how much I enjoy them, even though they weren't new to me).)

--Page 3-4: He points out an aspect of the Psalms I'd completely missed, even though I'd been hearing them my whole life. They are constantly saying one thing, and then saying it again from a slightly different angle, e.g. By the word of YHWH the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. (33.6), and I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark saying from of old. (78.2). As Wright explains it, "The important point here is that some of the most important things we want to say remain just a little beyond even our best words. The first sentence is a sign-post to the deep reality; the second, a signpost from a slightly different place. The reader is invited to follow both and to see the larger, unspoken truth looming up behind."
--Page 28: One of the important themes of this book is how real this stuff is. How praying the Psalms changes you physically, not just mentally or spiritually, which is a really cool idea (and fits in so well with my recent Theology of the Body studying). This page is where he brings singing and physicality together, which as a singer I love.
--Page 34: "Scripture is not simply a reference book to which we turn to look up correct answers--though it's full of those when we need them. Scripture is, at its heart, the great story that we sing in order not just to learn it with our heads but to become part of it through and through, the story that in turn becomes part of us." This is a pretty important idea, I think, that of Scripture as story. And it's been forgotten a lot because of the Protestant tendency to see things too literally.
--Page 35: "Paul speaks at one point of Christians as 'God's poem,' God's 'artwork.' [...] There are, of course, different types of poems. Some of us, perhaps, are sonnets. Some are haikus, or even limericks. Some are long, epic narrative poems. Some of us are in strict form, complete with rhymes. Some of us are in blank or free verse. The Psalms themselves come in many shapes and forms, because God wants people-poems of many shapes and forms. And he wants this rich variety so that through it all he may challenge the small and sterile imagination of his wider world."
I love comparing and contrasting people, and finding "What type of poem are you?" would make the best kind of Buzzfeed quiz.
--Page 88: One of the examples of where knowing the original Hebrew makes things much cooler: "[I]n a lovely piece of poetic alliteration, the poet exploits the verbal link between 'Jeru-salem' and the words for 'pray' (sha'al) and for 'peace' (shalom). 'Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,' he says (Sha'alu shalom Yerushalaim)". (This was from Paslm 122.6-9, in the Protestant version of the Bible.)
--Page 103: And for another example it talks about Psalm 119 (Protestant version), where each set of eight verses begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet (e.g. each line of verses 41-48 starts with the Hebrew letter waw).
--Page 109: And a cool translation: "It is hard to bring out the full flavor of John 1.14 ('The word became flesh, and lived among us'); the Greek word John uses could be translated to say that he 'tabernacles' in our midst. Most translations, naturally, do not put it quite like that, but that is what the word means."
--Page 110: He issues a challenge to pray the Psalms, specifically the Psalms about the Temple, with a different emphasis--thinking of Jesus as their ultimate fulfillment, being both the Temple builder and the Temple in person. I think I could get a lot out of this line of prayer, and I look forward to trying it.
--Page 119: Many of the Psalms are about creation praising its maker, something which we don't take as serious reality nowadays. But apparently some poets, like Thomas Traherne and William Blake, draw attention to this. This note is pretty much just to remind myself to look those two up some day.

Grade: 4 stars

If You Like This, You Might Also Like:
  • Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. Slightly less informative than this book and more apologetic. Also has fewer practical suggestions. But written with Lewis's consistently enjoyable style and filled with his keen insights about human nature.
  • These Beautiful Bones by Emily Stimpson: I haven't actually finished this book yet, but so far, it's a series of great ruminations on the less familiar parts of The Theology of the Body, i.e. the parts not about sex. This relates to Wrights emphasis on how singing the Psalms literally physically changes you.

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