We’re taking a brief break from Pseudo-Dionysus today (that’s code for ‘There’s nothing I want to write about from what I’ve read because The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy is really boring’). Fortunately, I’ve been reading through Psalms on the side – I’ve been tracing different patterns of imagery to see if there’s any strict associations. I might do a full rotation looking at Psalms sometime later, but for now I thought we might take a look at how one specific psalm is put together. Our psalm of choice today is Psalm 3, because it points to one of the larger trends throughout the book as a whole.
There’s a link to the psalm here, but I’m not going to copy the full text – it messes with my word count. What I will do is summarise the flow of each stanza. There’s four stanzas, with a little coda on the end – there’s probably a technical term for those things, but I don’t know what it is. Anyway:
Stanza 1: I have many foes
Stanza 2: You, God, are my defender
Stanza 3: I am therefore not afraid
Stanza 4: Rise up, God, and save me.
From stanza to stanza the speaker shuttles back and forth: he focuses on himself, and then speaks to God. There’s a problem (enemies), and statements are made about the nature of God (He beats up enemies) which resolve the problem. It’s a really evenly balanced structure, in that sense – there’s all these different divisions. The problem, the solution; myself, God. There’s also a split between the first two stanzas, which tell us about the context or the situation, and the second two, which tell us about the actions taken. The first stanza is about the enemies, and the second stanza is a series of statements about who God is – what His nature is like. Once that situation is laid out in full, the speaker describes his actions (taking a nap) and God’s forthcoming actions (He gon’ smash them). It’s a highly structured piece of writing, in that sense.
The psalm also lays out or typifies a series of implicit positions. There’s a binary between those who belong to God, and those who attack God’s people. We don’t get a middle ground here. Now, obviously the Jews would read ‘God’s people’ as meaning themselves, but when the Christians hijacked the Tanakh (the Old Testament) they were quite happy to appropriate the meaning as well. So from this psalm (and the rest of them), we end up with an adversarial binary setting out two mutually exclusive paths. The conceit of Psalm 1 is kinda the classic example here: “the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,/ but the way of the wicked will perish.” The whole psalm revolves around the ‘two paths’ metaphor – the path of the righteous (read: Christians) and the path of the wicked (everybody else). It’s a concept that’s implied again in Psalm 3. The final two lines of the fourth stanza are these:
“For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.”
The Psalms do this thing where each second line is kind of a variation on the first one – so Psalm 3 begins “Oh Lord, how many are my foes!/ Many are rising against me”. In the same way, with these two lines at the end of stanza 4, there’s a variation: the enemies are struck on the cheek, and the wicked have their teeth broken. These two groups are basically the same though, right – that’s the point in a variation. The wicked are my enemies – or is that my enemies are the wicked? Obviously the latter idea has a long and especially violent history.
So the psalm sets up this structure where there are Christians, and wicked enemy non-Christians – or at least, that’s how it gets read. The implicit suggestion is that, due to our Christianity, we’re in the more righteous position – which historically is often not true. The institutional church was on the wrong side of the suffragette movement, apartheid in South Africa, the Nazi movement – there’s a long list here. Nevertheless, the assumption remains that as Christians, there’s something fundamentally morally superior about our culture. It’s the sort of assumption that’s underpinned by the sharp binary thrown up in Psalm 3.
As a corrective or counterpart to Psalm 3, we might gesture back towards other parts of the Old Testament. One of the most interesting things in Genesis is the success of second sons and women. The Jews had a thing going where their society was patriarchal, obviously, but also the firstborn son inherited all the good stuff. Culturally, you could say that the first son was more significant, more important – more rightfully positioned to inherit the superior things. It’s surprising, then, that second sons spend so much time getting blessed by God. Jacob and Esau – Jacob is the younger son, and yet he is named Israel. He tricks his brother Esau out of his inheritance, and instead of ‘righting’ this ‘wrong’, God’s like “Yeah, alright, you can have the blessing.” The implication is that God wasn’t all that bothered by the whole ‘first son’ thing. It was part of the culture, but that doesn’t mean it was the God-given path of righteousness.
This is kinda the crux that I’m working towards here. It’s a line I hear from both Christians and non-Christians, although for different reasons. Non-Christians say things like ‘Christian culture is shit, so their God/religion/beliefs must be shit.’ Christians say things like ‘Christians are walking in God’s path of righteousness, so Christian culture must be good.’ In both instances, there’s this unspoken assumption that the culture as it stands is an adequate representation or instantiation of God’s will and nature. My point, drawing on Jacob, is that it’s not. I would contend that Christian culture is flawed, stupid, and not at all what it should be, and is therefore not an adequate representation of anything. To put it more succinctly, Christian culture pursues God but falls short of God (naturally enough). Christian culture as such, therefore, is not always a useful representation of who we believe God to be. It is not necessarily the measuring stick by which the Godliness of an action can be judged. Fuck the stupid Psalms binary.