Thursday, April 23, 2009

Psalm 51: Acceptable Sacrifices, Acceptable Starts

I admit that it might seem a little odd to start a Bible blog midway through the text—kind of like trying to pick up halfway through a David Lynch film. But I'll admit that my choice to do so is fortuitous, because I think that the Bible has a lot more in common with a Lynch movie than you might first expect.

You see, I believe that Lynch’s movies—or at least every one that’s not “The Straight Story”—aren’t about telling tales in the way we’re used to hearing them. No eye-catching opening … no well-planned rise in the dramatic action, followed by a carefully orchestrated climax and denouement and end credits. No morality tale where we all grow a little bit or get our comeuppance or learn something valuable in the end.

Yes, Lynch’s films all have beginnings and ends and character development (if you call waiting for Laura Dern’s face to go all crazy-clowny in “Inland Empire” “character development”), but watching his movies isn’t like watching “Citizen Kane.” Or even “The Usual Suspects.” Lynch, so far as I can tell, doesn’t want us to try to put the pieces together, just as Picasso doesn’t want us to “fix” his “Weeping Woman” so it looks like the “Mona Lisa.” So sure am I of this conviction that a couple years back, I spent a half an hour in a graduate film seminar vainly trying to convince my classmates that they were dumb for treating “Mulhollond Drive” like a puzzle to be reassembled. Needless to say, I didn’t get invited to their next wine and cheese party.

My empty social calendar notwithstanding, I feel the same way about the Bible. Granted, the Bible has a fantastic beginning—with all the booming and lighting and blowing into nostrils. (Actually, two beginnings, but we’ll save that for another post.) And Revelation brings the whole show to a rip-roaring conclusion. But to try to make all the rest of the book tell one “straight” story is to completely miss the multifaceted, disjointed, arbitrary wonder of this greatest of texts, religious or otherwise.

Indeed, as I always tell my students—I teach the Bible at the university level, for those of you who care—it’s a foolish fiction to even think of the Bible as one book. Its title comes from the Greek ta biblia—“the little books”: a much more precise description of this cobbled collection of dozens of scriptures composed by perhaps thousands of authors, editors, redactors, and translators. Said differently, the post-modern menagerie that is the Bible makes Lynch look like Henry James (if you’ll allow me to mix media for a moment).

So I start my yet-untitled Bible blog as near to smack-dab in the middle of the text as possible—actually, in the Psalms, the book you’re most likely to hit if you just let the thing fall open where it may. To Psalm 51, to be exact—perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole blasted doorstop. For Christians, this psalm is recited on Ash Wednesday, that cheeriest of “holidays,” devoted to having us remember that we are dust. For the rabbis, this psalm is spoken (sung?) by David shortly after his bedding of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah come to light. Neither setting makes complete sense to me, but I understand the motivation behind both.

That the psalm remains one of my favorite Biblical texts still comes as a bit of a surprise to me, given my general aversion to the type of Judeo-Christian-ish self-flagellation it seems to espouse. For Augustine, the psalm is an early proof text for establishing original sin—the largely worthless Christian doctrine that suggests that we all spring from our mothers’ wombs innately imperfect.

But to read Psalm 51—as beautiful an exercise in confession as has been written—as evidence of our genetic fallen-ness is to miss out on the pathos it tries to convey. When the author croaks, “Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” in verse 5, he is not making an anthropological argument about some inborn penchant for error. He is expressing the pain caused by making a mistake so bad that it feels stuck in our very bones—a sin so great we want either to erase it from human memory or fast forward to some future moment when we hope to have lived it out. But this isn’t the part that I like best.

The kicker comes in verse 17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit …” Historically speaking, this verse takes part in a conversation on the evolving content of Jewish religious belief and practice during the Babylonian exile and, later, the Diaspora. In the golden age of Israelite history, Solomon’s temple (or a near-replica of it) stood in Jerusalem—enduring as the physical and spiritual center of Jewish practice. However, many read Psalm 51 as an exilic or post-exilic piece—a work written after the destruction of the Temple (again, more on that later) and during the Jewish people’s captivity. How, Jewish writers asked, can we be devout when we have no temple? How can we offer sacrifices to our God when we have no altar on which to carry out the sacrifice? For some—and perhaps for the author of the 51st psalm—the Jews would begin to understand sacrifice figuratively. If they could not sacrifice bulls or doves to YHWH, they could yield up their “broken spirit,” their souls, shattered in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy.

However, I read this verse more personally. To suggest that God accepts “broken spirits” is a comforting thought for half-believers like myself. To me, this verse allows for the possibility that God takes our confusion, our uncertainty, our mystification, our fractured mental capacity—cracked from observing a world that often seems to reject the idea of divine presence. Our brokenness. I read that brokenness as partaking in the mind-numbing frustration that sometimes comes from reading this book that—if we can believe it—stands as God’s only lasting message to us.

I hope this space will serve as a venue where I can put some of that brokenness on display while at the same time arguing that “brokenness” might be the organizing principle behind the Bible.

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