Psalms, Shakespeare, and Remixing in the Priesthood of All Believers

For some people, the Psalms are the most boring part of the Bible. It’s not just poetry, it’s poetry about God, in a foreign language. Several months ago, I decided it was a good idea to do a three week sermon series on the Psalms. Since the first one was last Sunday, I’ve been doing some research.

Some of us read the Psalms and we start out, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!” and by the end we’re going, “heyh-heyh-my-savior-meh-meh-meh.”By the time we get to the end, it’s a funeral dirge. How was I going to avoid a dirge of a sermon series? Well. I needed a Fifth of Beethoven and about 15 seconds of Kanye West. Read on…

First. Psalms are like Shakespeare. The more you read, the better it gets.

Second. We can put Shakespeare in contemporary context and make a comprehensible version. In that way, the Psalms are like classical music. We hear it and we’re told it’s “good music” it helps us do better on the SATs or whatever—but many of us don’t know how to listen to it.

So let’s pick a piece of music. Say, Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to the whole 38-minute symphony (and you ought to), but for our purposes, you can get away with just the first minute and a half or so. Exhibit A.

Now. If you’re not familiar with classical music, this is the point where we nod wisely and say, “it’s very… evocative” (the technical term for what we are now doing is “bullshitting“). We aren’t really sure what we’re trying to say, and we have no idea what the symphony is saying.

If you listen to NPR’s program RadioLab, you may have heard the episode on Beethoven’s 5th. In it, Alan Pierson of the Brooklyn Philharmonic says, “there is an ethos of perfection around classical music.” We carry this same ethos around the Bible—it’s perfect, and if you don’t understand it, it’s your fault. Go back and rehearse, bore yourself into comprehension. No! Psalm 1 just told us “[our] delight is in the Torah”—the Scripture. This ethos of perfection is at odds with the priesthood of all believers that Mennonites confess—that we all see glimpses of God in our lives and experiences.

So in that spirit, I offer Exhibit B.

“A Fifth of Beethoven,” written by Walter Murphy, was a #1 hit in 1976, almost 200 years after Beethoven wrote the symphony! And it enhances our understanding. From here, when Walter Murphy adds a layer of music we find accessible, we actually have a better angle with which to explore Beethoven’s 5th.

But, if you were born after 1976, you may find this version even more instructive. (Warning: may contain explicit/offensive language after 0:14). Exhibit C.

And now you’re wondering what Kanye West and Beethoven have to do with the Psalms. We’ve heard Beethoven–as we’ve heard the Psalms–so many times that we often can’t hear them. We don’t let them in, don’t let them really speak any truth to our life. We shrug and say “oh I learned that lesson already.” But we don’t even know what the full title of the piece is, that’s how little we’re paying attention. It’s called “Fifth Symphony in C Minor.”

But as the journalist Tom Service observes, “it’s not until the four-note rhythm is played a third time that we really know we’re in C minor, rather than what could be E flat major. You see, if you hum the first four pitches of the piece – da-da-da-DUM; da-da-da-DUM, you could still conceivably be listening to a symphony in a major key, if you were next to sing the note of your first “DUM” and harmonize it with a major chord…”

Major chords are happy. Minor chords are sad. This symphony gets softer and darker as we get into it. But it starts on what could be a major chord! The Psalms are a dark book. Every other song is about someone surrounded by enemies. There are A LOT of sad Psalms.

If you listen to Kanye West, it’s very danacable, but it’s really a lament. He just lost the woman! He’s sad! (And Beethoven’s Fifth adds a sense of urgency to the song.) But still, there is this note of joy. Even though we know we’re going into the valley of the shadow of death, we begin with a major chord. We begin our song by praising God, knowing that we’ll get through the whole book. Only when we re-interpret the Psalm do we remember: there’s a disco beat in here. We can dance. We can dance when we hear these words.

We get from the Psalms what we put into them. And so we need to do our homework. We need to approach the Psalms as a rich, multilayered, intricately composed work that speaks to the core of who we are.

If we do this—if we do this—what we find is that there is no emotion where God is not present! There is none! It doesn’t matter if you’re playing major chords or minor chords, if you’re at the club or the woman just left you. Every emotion is in the Psalms, if we listen. And yet we begin all Psalms, all prayers, with the affirmation that God is good. The spiritual life is one in which we name all that we are before God.

Listen to Tom Service’s other comment about the 5th: “The Fifth is still a contested space, in terms of how it’s played, how it’s thought of, and even in terms of its text (another other things, a debate rages to this day about whether the repeat of the scherzo should be observed or not). Its familiarity is a sign not of its exhaustion, but of its endless potential for renewal. All we have to do is keep thinking, keep listening, and keep alive the possibility to be stunned by this symphony…” The Psalms speak to us as contested space. Let’s keep open the possibility of being stunned.

In the Psalms, we expose the anatomy of our souls and set it before God, in the one in whom we live and move and have our being. We raise up our minor chords and our major chords. We sing.

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