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Friday, January 22, 2010

The Psalms: Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful

I've been reading a book called How to Read the Bible as Literature, and it has really opened my eyes to some things about the Scriptures. For example: I've discovered that the Psalms are not boring.

What, you say? The Psalms? One of the most beloved books in the whole Bible, boring? Containing the only chapter of the Bible (except The Lord's Prayer) that some people even know about? Yep, that's the one I mean. Now, as a musician and songwriter, I love the Psalms at least as much as most people, and probably more than many (heck, I even have an honest-to-goodness favorite Psalm!), because I feel a kinship with David and the other Psalmists, but I've also spent a lot of time reading in the Psalms and thinking, okay, here we go again, David is whining about his enemies again, hey wow what a surprise, a happy ending, blah blah blah. After a while you do start thinking, didn't I just read this Psalm two chapters ago?

Let me ask you something. Has it ever occurred to you that most popular-style songs. including the stuff you hear on the radio and even the Chris Tomlin songs you sing at church, are very tightly structured? Most pop/rock songs have this structure: verse 1 - chorus - verse 2 - chorus - bridge (a section with different music, either sung or instrumental) - chorus? There are infinite variations on the theme... for example, the song may start out with the chorus and then go into the first verse, or there may be an additional third verse, or the chorus may happen twice at the end... but that's the basic structure songwriters look at when they put pencil to paper. Now that you know that, you may start to notice things about songs that you never noticed before (particularly the presence of a "bridge" section). That structure is not there to limit creativity in any way; in fact, the main reason it's like that is to keep the song interesting for its whole 3 or 4-minute length while still having something that repeats many times (the chorus, and usually other elements as well) so that you can come away singing the song you heard. And for a songwriter, it gives you something to kind of help you get started. It's like arranging your stuff in a new house or apartment; you know you have this room and this room and this room, so you know basically where the furniture needs to be, and then you work your magic inside of that. The structure is not a requirement, but it is beneficial to everyone involved.

The Bible is a book. It is an inspired book, yes, but still a book, and as such, it contains book stuff... there are many different literary genres in the Bible, and that's what How to Read the Bible as Literature is about. The Psalms are, as pretty much everyone knows, poems, and we believe that they are also songs. But they don't fall into our verse -chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - chorus structure, do they? With a few exceptions, there is rarely even any repetition of lines at all. But that doesn't mean that there is no structure; in fact, there are any number of "types" of poems in the Psalms, and they each have well-developed structure. For example, the book gives the following 3-part basic form for what it calls a "Praise Psalm":
  1. The introduction to praise
    1. a call to praise the Lord
    2. naming the people who are being called to praise
    3. mention of the mode of praise
  2. Development of the praise
    1. poet gives a motivation/reason to praise
    2. list of praiseworthy acts or qualities of God
  3. Conclusion (which often takes the form of a prayer or wish)
The book lists these Psalms as examples of the praise Psalm: 18, 30, 65, 66, 96, 97, 103, 107, 124, 136, 139.

Now, during my lifetime as I've read through the Psalms (and I have read through them all, a number of times), I've sometimes found myself in a "here we go again" mode: "Here we go again, David is telling somebody to praise God. God is this, God is that, yadda yadda. Oh, and he hopes everyone will praise the Lord. Ho-hum." I think sometimes I subconsciously got the idea that there was a lack of originality there. But I realized today as I was reading my book that it's not a "lack of originality", but a "strong use of structure" that I was sensing, and in many ways it was the exact opposite of a "lack of originality". I suspect the next time I read through the Psalms (in a few months on my Bible in a year readings!) I will have a different perspective. The Psalms are not randomly-strung-together rantings and cooings; they are thoughtfully-structured, carefully constructed works of art. Art created through inspiration from God. The separate sections each have meaning and function, and understanding those functions is key to understanding the art itself. I can hardly wait to discover the riches I'll find there!

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