October 22, 2017

IM Book Review: The Complete Psalms

So the first question we must ask is: Do we really need another new translation of the Psalms?

If you are a scholar looking for word-for-word accuracy or you are going into philology, then Pamela Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation is definitely not for you.

But if you are one who struggles at time with life, if you are ever weary and distraught, if you ever doubt that God exists or that he really will do what he says, then this book of Psalms is for you.

Pamela Greenberg is a former rabbinical student and Hebrew scholar who admittedly “came to religion later in life.” She was going through a difficult time of life, including a battle with depression, when she decided she need something to believe in. This brought her to the book of Psalms. Said Greenberg, “I had an intuition that in the psalms I would find something of the relationship to God that I was looking for.”

She did not set out to translate the entire book of Psalms. In her journey of faith, she would rewrite a Psalm that meant something special to her that day, rewriting it in a way that matched the emotion she felt the author of that Psalm was trying to communicate. Soon she found that she had, indeed, rewritten all 150 Psalms. If this strikes you as a questionable way to approach the Psalms, Greenberg offers her explanation for her method of translation.

…their power has been diminished by an instistence on theological dogma. For many years, their intimate connection with the communal prayer life of both Judaism and Christianity was a stumbling block to translating them honestly. At least until recently, liturgy tended to emphasize visions of spiritual perfection over acknowledgement that religious struggle is a necessary aspect of religious life.

As a result, the overwhelming tendency of translators has been to downplay anger at God and reinterpret the Psalms in ways that were doctrinally more palatable…It is precisely the Psalms’ refusal to engage in theological piety—their overflowing into wild jubilance or anger or deeply wrenching despair—that allows them to resonate as perennial expressions of the human desire to stand simply and unabashedly before God.

This certainly is not the book of Psalms for scholars or for theologians to use as a primary text. This is a book of poetry. And like all poems–at least good poems–when you try to take them apart to analyze their individual verses, the whole poem collapses. It can only be known as a whole. Actually, poems are not “known” as much as they are experienced, eaten whole in one sitting. You do not strive to “understand” poetry. You receive it. Digest it. Let it become part of you. As a book of poems, Greenberg succeeds.

I wanted to find ways to struggle with the poetry and vibrancy of the original Psalms while at the same time wrestling with them as pieces of living liturgy. Because my central aim was to bring the text more fully alive as an act of prayer, I did not limit myself to translating any given word in the same way each time it appears. While consistency of language is useful as a pedagogical drumbeat, awakening a reader to repetitions that might otherwise be lost, poetry was for me a higher imperative.

Her translating identical words in different ways is seen in Psalms 103 and 104, both of which start with the phrase Barchi nafshi et Adonai. (We know this from our traditional translations as “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”) For Psalm 103, Greenberg states this as, “Be wild, O my soul, for the Source of Wonder.” In very next Psalm she translates the same words as, “Stand in wonder, my soul, before the Eternal.” The two Psalms are conveying different emotions–in 103, she sees “utter exuberance” as the main characteristic. In Psalm 104, “it is the quiet wonder at God’s everlasting presence that seemed more appropriate to reflect.”

If I had to assign one word to describe this work, it would be “real.” Greenberg brings out the realness intended in the Psalms. Betrayal. Abandonment. Confusion. Exhaustion. Wonder. Joy. Laughter. These feelings are not tamped down into nice little religious containers, but are allowed to spill out all over the page, and hopefully into the heart of the reader.

…we find within these verse the human search for God in all its mire and mud of complexity. Their landscape ranges from rocky crags upon which on stands in flight from persecution, to the shadow of God’s wings, to rivers and oceans that threaten to drown one in churning waters of despair. Their diversity gives testimony to the life of a person reaching with full heart and intellect toward God, a person yearning for revelation amidst the spectrum of circumstances that life presents. And with that search appears everything from jubilation to hopelessness to the various emotions in between.

Each of us have our favorite Psalms that we would use as measurements to see how we each like a certain translation. Allow me to present a few verses to give you a taste for Greenberg’s interpretation of the Psalms.

(We cannot reprint entire Psalms in this review without permission from the publisher, which could take a long time to obtain. Thus, I will only be able to highlight a few verses from select Psalms.)

Psalm 1:

Blessed are those who walked not influenced by the guilty

who in the path without purpose did not linger;

in the dwellings of scorners did not long dwell.

Psalm 5:

May you hear the speech of my heart, Holy One,

understand my contemplation before I give it voice.

Listen to my cry for compassion,

My Protector and my God,

because it is to you alone that I pray.

Psalm 46:

Come and gaze at God’s works,

the one who has astounded thte world with wonders,

who has brought all the earth’s wars to a halt.

The bow will be shattered and the arrow split in half,

the chariot burnt with fire.

Be calm and know that I am your Sustainer.

I will be lifted in praise among nations,

I will be lifted in praise throughout the earth.

Psalm 91:

Because you cling to me in love, says God,

I will carry you safely away.

I will lift you up, for you know my name.

When you call out to me, I will answer;

I am with you in times of affliction.

I will release you from harm

and illumine your honor.

I will satisfy you with long life

and show you the fruit of my salvation.

Psalm 139:

Understand the turbulent branching of my thoughts,

Seethe road that brings me sadness,

and lead me instead on the path of eternal life.

Ok, I think you get the picture. This is not a book you will take to church with you to follow along with your pastor’s scripture reading. Instead, this is a book to take with you on a retreat when you have leisurely time to soak in its words. It is for those times of darkness when you are sure you will not ever see light again. Or for when your joy cannot be contained, and you need help with words that make some sense of how great you feel. This is a book of poetry, and as such is not to be dissected, but savored.

My only complaint about this volume is that it is available–for now–in only one cover: a glossy hardcover. I would much prefer a heavy-stock paper back, jacketed hardcover, or–my personal preference–a nice leather edition. Be that as it may, The Complete Psalms by Pamela Greenberg would make a worthy addition to your collection of Scriptures–or poetry books for that matter.

Recommended.

Comments

  1. Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    I think that my familiarity with more literal translations of the psalms would make this book very frustrating for me. That is, I’d have troubles getting past my visceral reaction of “Hey! That’s not what it says!”

    That said, I think the point is well taken regarding our somewhat silly use of the Psalms in many circles of Christianity. We shouldn’t approach poetry as if it were theological treatise. Something I’ve been learning to do recently is pray the Psalms as part of the BCP’s Daily Office liturgy. Since the Daily Office Lectionary insists on using a wide range of Psalms, instead of just the happy and comfortable ones, I have had to come to grips with using those more difficult concepts in prayer. What it’s taught me to do is pray from a “we” perspective at times rather than an “I” perspective. For example maybe I’m not being persecuted, but my brothers are.

    In other words, praying the Psalms, including the difficult ones, has given me a deeper sense connection to the Church Universal. It’s given me a more solid ecclesiology.

  2. sarahmorgan says:

    “In her journey of faith, she would rewrite a Psalm that meant something special to her that day, rewriting it in a way that matched the emotion she felt the author of that Psalm was trying to communicate.”

    Wow, I do this, too…especially on days when I feel particularly low, and it seems like the standard translations are speaking over and past me to other more worthy people. I didn’t know anyone else did this. I will have to check out this collection — thanks for the recommendation.

  3. PBS Interview with the author/translator:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2010/04/new-translation-is-a-song-to-the-psalms.html

    Click on the )))) LISTEN link at the end of the article.

    ALSO: More PBS interviews/video/audio/excerpts of Greenberg can be found here:

    pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/tag/pamela-greenberg/

  4. dumb ox says:

    Two books that I really prize are my copies of the Scottish metrical psalter and Josoph Gelineau’s “The Psalms: Singing Version”. The latter is arranged more for chant, rather than traditional singing. I am very interested in lectio divina. Regarding poetic vs. prosaic, poetry seems to make words resonate, making contemplation much more natural. Much of the bible was originally written poetically, but most english translations convert that to prose.

    I know we have to be careful not getting too loosy-goosy with bible translation, but I think there is a place for poetic translations. Such translations don’t lend themselves to scholarly study, but literal translations rarely carry the passion behind the original texts. So, I welcome new psalters like this, which can draw us into prayer and contemplation.

    Another good resource is modernpsalter.com, which is a collaborative effort to arrange the psalms from the Catholic lectionary into very tasteful, worshipful and meditative songs. It is puzzling why there are not more contemporary Christian music based on scripture, rather than more “Jesus my girlfriend” songs – to borrow Steve Camp’s phrase.

  5. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/by-topic/poetry/a-psalm-for-passover/5933/

    Psalm 136

    Give thanks to the Creator for all that is good—
    for God’s kindness is toward the world.
    Give thanks to the Judge of all judges—
    for God’s kindness is toward the world.

    etc.

    Well, I guess the Hebrew olam can mean “world” as well as “forever” (kind of like the Greek aiôn can mean ages or worlds). This puts the Psalm in a new and interesting light.

  6. The psalms remind me every day that the heart of faith is not a lack of doubt, but rather it is taking that doubt to God. It is not a lack of inappropriate requests, but rather putting them before God honestly and trusting his character in which to fulfill.

    • JoanieD says:

      Tokah said, “The psalms remind me every day that the heart of faith is not a lack of doubt, but rather it is taking that doubt to God. ”

      I like that, Tokah. I was just reading some of the Psalms last night (NIV) and some of them are just so beautiful. And I agree with commenter Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) about learning to appreciate the difficult Psalms that maybe don’t reflect my current state of being.