A society without Psalms

When contemporary poet Edward Clarke turned 40, he set himself the task of reading through the Authorised Version of the Bible in one year – half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening. The outcome of this was a project which takes the Psalms as a poetic starting point, and from them reflects on life, God, guilt, the future, and the nature of meaning. Some of the processes involved in writing, and the poems which have emerged from it, were broadcast on Radio 4, in a fascinating and discombobulating programme, part personal log, part reflection on society (it can be accessed here).

Away from the aesthetic and artistic concerns articulated in ‘Clarke’s Psalter’, there are some important points raised about the place of Scripture, and specifically of the Psalms for our wider world. As Clarke spent time in the Bible he shared that ‘one does feel enthralled to something greater’, and that while he is not a regular church goer, there was an element of spiritual catharsis in trying to think and write from the space the Scriptures provide. This, however, was no mere exercise in subjectivity, but the outcome of convictions which Clarke has developed about the 21st century and biblical literature. He states,

‘I can’t see how our culture can live without a holy book…by bringing my work back to the Bible I feel that I’m planting it in this necessary soil, the eternal great I AM. Without that book we don’t have a future, and without art’s completion of that book, we do not have a fructifying relationship with it.’

This is an astonishing and compelling statement, and one which those who affirm the inspiration of Scripture need to take seriously – the loss of biblical literacy is not merely an issue for the church and for our proclamation of the gospel, but is a felt absence by our world, a void which our culture must sense and will try to fill.

This stirred my own thinking about a society without Psalms, what our secular nation will look like without the bedrock of biblical categories through which to see the world, understand themselves, and articulate the things which most matter. From Shakespeare to Beckett, the language, the resonances, the cognitive space which the Bible opens to us are of tremendous social and psychological significance, a kind of grammar of the human heart, and of lived experience. What of a world which doesn’t have this framework, which cannot parse the silences, the recesses, the depths, the turbulences of guilt, which inhabit the human soul? What will the consequences of this be, and what does this disconnection from the Bible oblige the church to do?

Firstly, it should make us grateful for the health and help which all of Scripture, and specifically the Psalms bring to us. The Psalms are an anatomy of all that the human soul can feel and sense, a directory of the ‘slings and arrows’ which can befall us, and a register with which to address ourselves and God. My work in pastoral visitation is so often predicated on how the Psalms sing the soul of the world, and our own souls as followers of God. I can read Psalms to myself and to my brothers and sisters which are daring, ruthless, and at times shocking in what they can say about us and to God. The Psalms can articulate the murmurs of a soul which fears that God has forsaken it, can speak of the insurgency of personal sin which ravages our hearts and our world, they can welcome the newborn and they can farewell the dying, they can chart the constellations of our emotional life and show to us where God works in these things. Have we taken the spiritual, emotional, and cognitive benefits this brings for granted? Are we listening for this Spirit-given life which pulses on the pages of the Bible and meets us in our exile, strengthens us in our waverings, and focuses us on the further horizon that awaits us beyond this world?

Secondly, the Scriptures and specifically the Psalms provide a powerful apologetic for the veracity and necessity of Christian faith. So often our apologetics are propositional, intellectual, and reactive to the currents and trends which besiege the mind of our peers. But what of an apologetic which springs from the aesthetic, the paraenetic, the authoritative reality of what the Psalms say? What of an apologetic which sees that fallen image bearers of God are hungry for the beauty and the clarity which the Psalms embody? What of an apologetic which sees the need to minister to the soul of those away from God, as well as their intellect? I have a deep interest in poetry, and have good non-Christian friends who will gladly go to poetry readings, and will extol the therapeutic and spiritual itch that they almost scratch. As a Christian these sentiments present to me the symptoms of a society which senses its soul, but cannot find the salve it needs. This is where the objective beauty, the intuitive reality, and Spirit-given authority of the Scripture might speak most powerfully and profoundly.

We are in a society without Psalms, without its needed reference points to plot the co-ordinates of its pilgrimage. Our treasuring of the Psalter, our singing of it, our living of it in our lives, might be a first step in enriching our souls, and reaching other souls with the gospel of Christ Jesus.

‘Jesus died with a Psalm on his lips, and now we live in that mystery,
A line of personal lament, to lay the seed of our histories’ (Edward Clarke)

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