Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “You hoped that the more thoroughly you rejected the tangible, the closer you would be to the spirit?” He challenges our pietistic temptation to abandon the incarnation and replace our earthiness with a disembodied credo. Likewise, Pamela Greenberg’s new translation of the biblical psalms puts the hunger back in our hallelujahs and recalls the slaughter that is sometimes sacrifice.
The psalms are about faith, writes Greenberg in her introduction to The Complete Psalms, “but not as faith is often imagined.” No indeed. The biblical psalms, written over a period of about 1,000 years, are an ancient poetry with none of the contemporary politeness we tend to use when addressing our Deity. In Greenberg’s translation, she re-energizes the psalmists’ wild poetry. Psalm 140 calls out a curse: “The heads of those who come intending harm—let the dirt of their own lips cover them” (v. 9). In Psalm 141, there’s desolation: “Like trees cleaved and ruptured upon the earth, our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave” (v. 7). And in 69, despair: “I am sunk in the swamps of sun-flickered depths and can find for my legs no foothold” (v. 2).
Greenberg, a poet and writer, came to religion as an adult, as an “act of desperation,” she says. She taught herself Hebrew in order to get at the psalms’ word-roots and to refresh her relationship with her ancient poetic kinfolk. In studying the vast array of psalm translations, she noted that many had been sponsored by a particular religious denomination, with a particular perspective. “The King James Version,” said Greenberg in an interview, “brings to the translation a concern for the divine right of kings, which was of course a concern for King James.”
Accordingly, the savor of Greenberg’s own experience of desire and depression flavors her translation. Her best word choices are found in the anger and despair psalms. In Psalm 40, the poet calls on the God “who lifted me up from a pit of roaring waters, from the slippery slime of mud” (v. 2) and in 136 the one who “slew kings who seemed invincible” (v. 18). “Anger at God is a part of religious life,” said Greenberg. “Religious life is always a trajectory, a way of orienting one’s self toward God and sometimes that manifests as anger or fear or feelings of betrayal.”
In Susannah Heschel’s foreword to The Complete Psalms, she quotes her father, Abraham Heschel: “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.” Greenberg’s psalms lure us into new depths of prayer with their muscular terror and fleshy joy.
The Autumn House Press edition of Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry, edited by Robert Strong, collects contemporary psalms from within the American experience. Strong writes, “American verse was born from three traditions grounded in direct experience of the spiritual in everyday life: Native, African, and Puritan. These cultures were at radical remove from the ‘literary’ traditions of Europe and the empires beyond.” Like the biblical psalms, Strong’s collection has an implicit political gaze—outside empire. From the Modoc hymn (“I, the song, I walk here.”) to Rebecca Wolff’s “The Lord Is Coming: All Bets Are Off,” this collection takes the reader on an unconventional, four-century pilgrimage through the American holy land. In an era of cultural fragmentation, Joyful Noise becomes a modern hymnbook for re-tuning our hearts “to sing Thy grace” from the coal towns in West Virginia, tent cities outside Newark, Indian reservations in South Dakota, migrant camps in Florida’s orange groves, or the temporary trailers along the Gulf Coast. It’s all America and it’s all ours.
Both Greenberg’s Complete Psalms and Strong’s Joyful Noise are reminders that we must not “reject the tangible,” as Teilhard de Chardin warned. And both are evidence for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip that God “doesn’t speak prose.”
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, is the author of Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood.