Book Review: Psalms for Everyone
Author: John Goldingay
Publisher:Westminster John Knox Press
[I am required by the FCC to inform you that Westminster John Knox Press provided me with a free e-book preview copy of this book for review purposes. Truth is, I'm afraid not to tell you because, well, one never really knows about the long arm of the FCC. Anyhow, there you go; it was free and so are my opinions of the book.]
I have read other books by John Goldingay (in particular, his WBC commentary on Daniel) and have enjoyed his keen sense of seeing the finer details of the biblical text and his understanding of and attention to the grand narrative that stretches from one end of the canon to the other (context). Some writers get too caught up in one; some too much so in the other. Goldingay balances both nicely in his writing.
I have also listened to lectures Goldingay has delivered at Fuller Theological (they are accessible through iTunes) and I have appreciated his sense of humor and the depths he is willing to probe in order to understand what Scripture is and what Scripture is not. The Bible would be better understood if people took time to unhook themselves from whatever preconceptions they have and listen to the text from front to back and, for that matter, if they would stop viewing it merely as a collection of sayings and start view it as a library, full of books, each with its own literary purpose. An example is his understanding that even the Penteteuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is best and properly understood as one book with some rather artificial divisions imposed on the text.
This is all so much backdrop to my review of The Psalms for Everyone, pt 2 which I think is necessary because if a person just jumps into this book without ever having read or listened to Goldingay they might get frustrated early on and simply walk away from the book. This is not a book that is necessarily easy to read or easily understood. It is definitely not a book to sit and read cover to cover (as one must do when writing book reviews). This is a book that is meant to be read slowly, deliberately, and with brain fully engaged and in concert with the Holy Spirit of God.
I say this as a sincere compliment to the author because one thing I have grown weary of is the rather shallow writings on Scripture that get published by publishers in today's world–worse the amount of people who buy and read them and then wonder why life makes no sense. They (publishers) seem to think that the average everyday Christian cannot handle digging deeply into the Scripture or understanding the Scripture as a complete, unified body of work designed to teach us something less about ourselves and something more about God. For example, "the division of the Psalter into five books thus draws our attention to the reason that the book of Psalms exists. It's to teach us how to praise God and how to pray to God" (3). It also, thus, neatly parallels with the Penteteuch too. But I suspect that Christians are not so much interested in depth, nor the prophets who sound those depths, in this strange apocalyptic driven wasteland of shallow Christianity we live in today. We are not so many Bereans. People want the big, the noise, the amazing and glittery Christianity. Goldingay's thoughts on the Psalms invite us to plod along each day, slowly, whatever may come, and live God's thoughts to us and offer our thoughts to Him.
A perfect example of this plodding is found in Goldingay's translations of the Psalms. I belong to a generation of Christians who have been raised on the New International Version of the Bible. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that except that the NIV translations of the books of the Bible are thin and, almost, too easy to read. The first thing the reader will notice about Goldingay's translations is that they are thick, heavy, and deep. They are complex and startling–I'm still debating how I feel about 'God Almighty' being translated 'YHWH Armies'–and sometimes downright frustrating, but, like Shakespeare, as a professor used to tell me, they are worth the effort.
I have a practice of reading through the Psalms monthly (5 Psalms per day) and I can usually get my reading done in about 15 minutes or so. This would not be the case with Goldingay's Psalms. They force the reader to slow down, to think, to sort of chew their way through the molasses like language he uses. This is a good thing. It means that I have to make space each day to read the Psalms (or any Scripture for that matter) and not merely do it as a matter of habit or add-on to each day. One must have strong chops to read these Psalms; one must have strong will to press on when the language gets thick, hits too close to home, or confounds us. Sometimes I simply read the Psalms (Goldingay's translations) aloud in order to better appreciate the language and the content and, frankly, in order to understand them. I'm not ashamed to admit that I often had to re-read his translations in order to understand them. Again, this is a good thing because it is good to be challenged and startled out of complaceny–which I suspect is a large problem when it comes to a people where there are so many thin translations available.
Another important aspect of this book is the personal anecdotes and the connections he made between life or movies or news and the Psalms–the way he made them as relevant to a today Christian as they were to a yesterday Israelite. I do not know how long it took Goldingay to write this book, but I can imagine him sitting down to morning breakfast each day, reading a Psalm, reading the daily paper, then heading off to the study to see how the two relate to one another. Or maybe he sits down at the end of each day and thinks about all that his life experienced throughout the day, read a Psalm or two, and then reflected on his life again to see how God has instructed him through this or that occasion.
This is exactly the way it has worked for me. Again, reading through the Psalms each day makes me think carefully about what I have experienced in that day and provides a better clarity to the life I have experienced. On the other hand, if I read them in the morning, it gives me opportunity for a perspective on the day that I may not otherwise have. Either way, we are invited to look on life with a God point of view: "The psalm makes that assertion by faith against the evidence of present experience" (48) he writes commenting on Psalm 85. I love that Goldingay keeps the focus squarely on the way YHWH speaks to us in and through the Psalms and invites us to new reflection on life or better perspective on living. Continually he draws us back into the text, the ancient song-book of Israel, and invites us to repent and return to YHWH: "We are in perpetual need of such reframing, one way or another, so that we stop thinking in a way that leaves out God's involvement with us and resume thinking in a way that puts God's involvement with us at the center" (11). It is, to be sure, a beautiful way of thinking about God. It makes God personal and our response is worship.
I judge a book based on whether I will read it again and this is a book I will reread (but this time much more slowly and deliberately). I will return to it precisely because of its depth and precisely because it forces me to slow down and savor the Psalms, to have courage to speak to God with a certain chutzpah (his word, p 14), and to love the community of believers from whence these Psalms sprung and were read (see Psalm 78 comments). Goldingay has given me an entirely new language to use when I pray (because his translations are deep, wordy, and thick). I appreciate this book and I believe that if someone wants depth and wants to savor and enjoy the Psalms as desperate cries of a broken people to a faithful God, then this book is a good place to start or to return.