Page 6, 6th November 1981

6th November 1981
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Page 6, 6th November 1981 — An amateur Psalmist
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An amateur Psalmist

IN THE Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Psalms rightly hold an honoured place, for they have been found to be. over thousands of years, a book of prayers for every mood. and a collection that never fails to give expression to our dialogue with God.

It is not obvious, therefore, that they need to be updated, and indeed any updating runs the risk of trivialising these great poems by restricting their signiicance to a single time or place.

This, it seems to me, is the trap which Ernesto Cardenal's version of 25 psalms. freshly-trimmed, and put into smart twentieth century suits. with smart twentieth century opinions. has failed to avoid.

That is not in any way meant as a sneer at Cardenal himself; he is a fine man and a great priest, once a monk at the same monastery as Thomas Merton. with whom he maintained a close friendship until Merton's untimely death, who provided the Sandanista opposition to General Somoza with a good deal of their inspiration. and who subsequently became Minister of Culture in the Nicaraguan Government, while his brother. a Jesuit. was Minister for Education.

His life therefore testifies to the undying power of scripture to inspire mankind to change the world, and for that we are all in his debt.

Unfortunately he is not absolutely in the first rank as a poet, and might have done better to leave the psalms alone. Nor. in this volume, has he been uniformly fortunate in his translators (some of whom you would not have expected to find in connection with a venture of this sort).

Let me quote from his rendering of Psalm 94 (verses 9 to 11 ), which readers may like to check against the version in their own bibles.

You the famous inventor of the brain You think up this elegant system with auditory nerve endings and you can't even hear?

You work out the neurophysics of sight and you can't see?

Has your databank been stopping print-outs of our thoughts?

Haven't you even taped what we've been saving?

It is not all as pedestrian as this, however; Cardenal has the contemplative monk's joy in and awe for natural beauty. so Psalm 104 especially lends itself particularly well to his treatment. and his rendering of it is reasonably successful.

Cardenal reminds us. moreover. what the Psalmist and

the Hebrew prophets saw ter> clearly, that oppression and torture, concentration camps and killing, are an insult to the Creator.

These poems, which at times compensate with "fire in the belly" for what they lack in poetcraft, can serve to remind us that in our civilised world these doubly dehumanising things still happen.

Cardenal's history of courage in the face of oppression has earned him the right to our attention when he speaks: but his message might have been more clearly proclaimed had he leaned more on the example or Michel Quoist, whom in some ways he resembles, rather than interfering with Holy Writ.

The day when the Bible needs to be updated (as opposed to being explained to today's world in today's terms) has not yet come. and Cardenal would have done better to leave the Psalms alone.

A GOOD MANY people, especially in the Catholic tradition, want to get inside the Old Testament, but are either too nervous to pick it up or, having done so. find themselves thoroughly put off by it, because the bits that aren't interminable genealogies seem to be tales of the raciest sort, calculated to bring a blush to the cheek of even the most hardened readers.

People find themselves asking what this has to do with religion: would we not do better. they muse, to take refuge in the New Testament, which has very little in the way of genealogy. and where the stories are (at least on the surface) far less shocking?

This attitude fails, however, to do justice to the Old Testament as the inspired word of God. and as the only Scripture available to Jesus and his disciples; if they found the Old Testament a place where they encountered the living God, it is not for us to take up too antiseptic an attitude to it.

The problem remains. however, that unfamiliarity breeds an unhelpful sort of contempt. and a double approach is required: we need a scholarly guide through the world of the Old Testament, to explain some of its more off-putting features, or at least set them in context, and we need a spiritual signpost to give an indication of hos+, the Hebrew Scriptures can be made to speak to us today (and. if we are Christians, how they link with the New Testament experience).

Dr Ronald Wallace is able to combine both of these desiderata. since he is a Church of Scotland Minister. armed with a doctorate from Edinburgh. who has been a Professor of Theology, and this book, the first of a series that is projected to include also studies of Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, will provide an excellent first introduction to the tales that make up the Abraham narratives in Genesis 12 to 23. There is plenty to daunt the first-time reader in these stories: the repeated deception with regard to Sarni / Sarah recounted in chapters 12 and 20 (incidentally..1 find entirely convincing Wallace's explanation of this "doublet"). the lists of names in 14, the rather embarrassing rivalry between Hagar and Sarai in 16, the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah in chapter 19, the hauntingly grim tale of the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, the buying of the cave of Machpelah. even the ages or the actors in the drama, can all be very offputting for one reason or another.

Dr Wallace has sufficient background in biblical scholarship to show the inexperienced reader the way through these difficulties. the sufficient pastoral understanding to offer a contemporary meaning for the stories.

His great strength is his extremely careful attention to the English text. and in particular to what is not said, like so many of the great biblical commentators before him. especially among the Jewish rabbis.

At times. however, he is a little too imaginative in filling the gaps. as when he tells us that "Abram had a warm and friendly human nature" (p.8) or alleges that Abraham is being chided for "male chauvinism" when his visitors ask in 18:9 "where is your wife?" (p.77).

It is of course reasonable for contemporary man to look for prefigurings of the OT in the NT. but they are not necessarily the same thing as disciplined exegesis of the text.

A related difficulty that many scholars would feel is that he is perhaps a little too determined to insist on the historicity of the text, and tends to ignore the work of scholars in the last hundred years who have so patiently endeavoured to separate the different kinds of material that are collected here-.

On the other hand. Wallace could fairly argue that. whatever its origins. as it stands the collection is put together as a unity, and has some right to be treated as such, and that what he attempts here is no more than an invitation to read the AbramAbraham stories as tales with a single focus. one mans relationship to his God, which are not without their relevance to a twentieth century Christian.

On that level the book must be accounted a success: to those nervous about diving into the cold waters of Genesis it shouts "Come on in — the water's lovely!" It is therefore confidently to be recommended to such people, and we can look forward with some enthusiasm to the rest of the series.

Nicholas King S.J.




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