Tuesday, April 19, 2011

my worst essay?

last week my wife commented on a recent essay, "I think this is the worst essay I've ever written in my seminary career," and a friend noted, "technically, you've got to have a worst essay anyway so you might as well get it out of the way." he's absolutely right about that and this little story is intended to introduce the following, which I think is my worst essay of my seminary career, researched and written over about 24 hours after realizing sunday morning that it was due.


Context: I’m a product of the punk movement. My spiritual awakening came, not in a church or through a Bible reading or even in sitting zen, but in dancing alone on a southern summer evening to a scratchy tape of X’s Los Angeles album roaring out of a dusty boombox hotwired to the radio of the car I was living in. In that moment I saw myself as a part of everything and everyone, perhaps not in harmony with it all but in intimate relationship with it nonetheless.
Much of my ministry focuses on the marginalized—the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill—for whom some religion and scripture has a lot to offer if it’s relevant and presented on their terms. I look at my experience a few years ago, in CH 161, upon learning that it was possible to interpret the Exodus from the perspective of the wanderer who has come off the road, as a breakthrough I needed and am excited by.

My current ministry is divided between being a teacher and interning as a minister, and a lot of the people I work with in both cases are kids in their late teens. For them scripture is dry, it carries the weight of official interpretation, and is heavily judgmental, especially as against them and the people they know. For years I‘ve taken it as my responsibility, when I work with scripture from any faith tradition, to find as near a contemporary approximation of that original scripture as possible (allowing for a little tweaking when necessary). It’s rare, in my Unitarian Universalist context, for me to be called on to explicate a psalm, but I can envision using Psalm 46 and its contemporary corollary to reinforce a congregant’s feelings of safety and well-being.

Exegesis: Coming near the beginning of Book II of the Psalms, the so-called “Elohist Psalter” (“so named because it uses the generic name for God [Elohim] which has been systematically substituted throughout these Psalms for the proper name, Yahweh” [Caresko 287]), 46 is an example of what Kathleen Farmer (150), echoing Peter Craige (who credits it to Leo Krinetzki [:342]), calls a Psalm of Confidence: such psalms “present the community of faith with the bases from which succeeding generations of worshippers learn to recognize and to trust in the present involvement of God in their lives…[They] invite readers to recall their own previous experience of God’s steadfast love in their lives” (150).

Unlike a lament or a psalm of praise, 46 opens with a bold statement: “God is our refuge and our strength” (:1). Singing such a statement places both the listener and the singer in a state of assurance in the authority of the assertion. This is reinforced by the repetition of the lyrics “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” in :7 and :11. As Patrick Miller rather inelegantly puts it, “The whole point of the psalm is wrapped up in [this] line” (:42). Farmer cites scholars who posit that the term “’alamot is a technical term referring to women’s voices and that the heading [to the psalm] indicates that the psalm should be sung by women. If so, then women in the community of faith that preserved this psalm are being encouraged to claim [‘God is with us’ {Farmer’s emphasis}. Thus,] when the psalms are sung by women’s voices, when women claim the traditions as their own, then the…’God of Jacob’ becomes the refuge and strength of women” (:146).

The psalmist reinforces the statement both with a greater assertion and concrete imagery. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult” (:2-3). This serves to locate in the psalm what Walter Brueggemann calls the social construction of reality: “The world mediated by the Psalter, amidst the tensions of Torah conditionality and Jerusalem unconditionality, is a world always at risk but on which the community gathered around the Psalter bets its entire destiny” (:288).

Miller points out that the psalm “envisages the possible chaotic breakdown of the natural world (vv. 1-3) and the nations (vv.4-7)—all of which is caught up in the several references to ‘earth’…One of the ways [the psalmist emphasizes God’s refuge] is in the three uses of the verb mut, meaning ‘to shake, totter’…In the first case it refers to the mountains shaking (mut) in the heart of the sea; in the third case it refers to the nations and kingdoms tottering (mut). But in between those two…the poet uses the same verb with a negative to say that the city wherein God is present shall not shake or totter [:5a]” (:42).

“God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved…The kingdoms are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts” (:5-6). While the world around them quakes and trembles, the people of God’s community take comfort in the steadiness that comes of trusting in God. Brueggemann further points out that this psalm is also a “Song of Zion”—emphasized by Craige as a certainty by “implied association” with references to “city of God” and “holy habitation” (:342)—in which the “temple is celebrated as the place of YHWH’s residence and therefore is the guarantee of the safety of the city and of all who reside there…In the Jerusalem temple, YHWH is celebrated as Creator and King [whose rule] is constituted in justice, righteousness, equity, and mercy…YHWH’s city is the place of the Davidic King, YHWH’s regent…” (:285-6). This “Jerusalem focus,” Brueggemann later asserts, illuminates the relationship of the temple to the Psalms’ theme of orientation-disorientation-new orientation (:288-90).

The final section of the psalm returns us to more traditional hymn territory: “Come, behold the works of the Lord…” (:8a), a call of praise, is again reinforced by the concrete references to “desolations” (:8b), to wars ceasing, bows breaking, spears shattered and shields burned. This martial imagery is juxtaposed with the more bucolic images of the second section: “a river whose streams make glad…” (4), “when the morning dawns” (:5b), and “the earth melts” (:6b, this last a translation of muwg “faint” and translated in Psalm 65:10 as “softening”). Zion, the city of God, is a beneficent, peaceful place for rest in contrast to the desolation and war of the outside world. To be a citizen of Zion is to “Be still, and know that I am God!” As verses 1-3 are orientation, and verses 4-7 are disorientation, this section is Brueggemann’s new orientation which “celebrate the new world that is given in YHWH’s powerful generosity. In such psalms…YHWH is credited with a radical novum in the life of the world that is not derived from antecedents but is a fresh ‘miracle’ of YHWH” (:290).

Lesson Outline: Punk is divided into several camps and the one I am in focuses on the DIY—do-it-yourself—method of getting one’s message across. The patron saint of this style of punk is Lou Reed, a secular Jew from Coney Island, New York. In contrast to ancient hymns such as Psalm 46 and more traditional takes on it such as Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a contemporary psalm must take into account the complexity people living in modernity experience. We cannot say with the Psalmist, without opening ourselves to charges of naiveté, that “God is our refuge and strength… [and therefore] we will not fear,” as if faith in God alone is shield enough against metaphoric and physical assaults. When the earth shakes and wars rage, God alone will not quench our fear.

A more modern poet like Reed can neither bring himself to believe fully in a beneficent God nor to assert that all one needs is acceptance of God. However, in his song “Busload of Faith,” Reed, probably unconsciously, echoes the Psalmist’s iteration that what’s needed in the midst of devastation is exactly that faith. Although Reed wouldn’t identify it as a faith in God, or only in God—and in fact in lines 6 and 19-22 he discounts traditional religion itself—he might identify it as something God-related, something innate in people that is at least as powerful as “cruelty, crudity of thought and sound” (:29-30). It’s faith in this Unnamed Element—call his song the same as Craige does Psalm 46, a Psalm of Confidence—that Reed has. Despite the concrete images of betrayal and violence in lines 9-14 and, heart-breakingly, in lines 17 and 18, and despite his avowal that “You can depend on the worst always happening,” it is this faith that allows us to “get by.” This is a song meant to comfort. It’s a cold comfort but, like a song of confidence in which one takes confidence by the desolation God brings “on the earth,” but cold comfort is comfort nonetheless. Sometimes getting by is as good as it gets.

“Busload of Faith”
Lou Reed

You can’t depend on your family
You can’t depend on your friends
You can’t depend on a beginning
You can’t depend on an end
You can’t depend on intelligence 5
You can’t depend on God
You can only depend on one thing
You need a busload of faith to get by

You can depend on the worst always happening
You can depend on a murderer’s drive 10
You can bet that if he rapes somebody
There’ll be no trouble having a child
And you can bet that if she aborts it
Pro-lifers will attack her with rage
You can depend on the worst always happening 15
You need a busload of faith to get by

You can’t depend on the goodly-hearted
The goodly-hearted made lampshades and soap
You can’t depend on the Sacrament
No Father, no Holy Ghost 20
You can’t depend on any churches
Unless there’s real estate that you want to buy
You can’t depend on a lot of things
You need a busload of faith to get by

You can’t depend on no miracle 25
You can’t depend on the air
You can’t depend on a wise man
You can’t find them because they’re not there
You can depend on cruelty
Crudity of thought and sound 30
You can depend on the worst always happening
You need a busload of faith to get by

• Brueggemann, Walter. (2003.) An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY.
• Ceresko, Anthony. (2005.) Introduction to the Old Testament: A Liberation Perspective. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY.
• Coogan, Michael, editor. (2007.) New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV). Oxford University Press.
• Craige, Peter. (2004.) World Biblical Commentary, Volume 19: Psalms 1-50. Nelson Reference and Electronic.
• Farmer, Kathleen. (1998.) “Psalms” in Women’s Bible Commentary. Carol Newsom and Sharon Ringe, editors. Westminster John Knox, Louisville, KY.
• Miller, Patrick. (1986.) Interpreting the Psalms. Fortress Press, Philadelphia.
• Reed, Lou. (2000.) Pass Thru Fire: The Collected Lyrics. Hyperion, New York.

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