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David Van Biema on Why the Psalms Matter

David Van Biema left his job as chief religion writer at TIME Magazine to work on a forthcoming book about the Psalms for Simon & Schuster. He gave this interview while visiting Calvin College in September 2011.

David Van Biema left his job as chief religion writer at TIME Magazine to work on a forthcoming book about the Psalms for Simon & Schuster. He gave this interview while visiting Calvin College in September 2011.

David Van Biema


How would you describe the book you’re writing about the Psalms?

The working title is Speaking to God: A History and Cultural Interpretation of the Psalms. It will be a popular history of the Psalms, combined with stories from people for whom the Psalms have had tremendous importance. Part of the audience is people who’ve have had some contact with psalms, and whose parents may have had more contact. Other readers may have wondered about psalms but have been too busy to look into it. And of course I hope that people who pray and love the Psalms will want to have a look. The book is not written from inside a faith tradition, so people who read it will have to be open to that.

Did you grow up with the Psalms?

I didn’t grow up with a religious background. My father is a-religious but has a sociological approach to religion, so he would read to us from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, which he regarded as culturally important. But I don’t remember him reading any psalms to us.

What made you want to write about the Psalms and how real people engage with them?

Part of it is what you'd have to call an aesthetic attraction. I was an English major interested in poetry, I think because poems were these short, powerful, beautiful bursts of ideas and feeling. The idea of the Psalms as a bunch of poems in the middle of the Bible felt attractive and mysterious to me. I felt as if they were a box of chocolates; 150 little things, 150 small grace notes that added up to something bigger.

After 9/11 a lot of people were quoting psalms, and Psalm 46 especially. I’m not a very religious Jew but I had a good friend who was a rabbi. He saw the Psalms as part of the treasury of Jewish heritage and made me more aware of their presence in the liturgy, both in their entirety and as passing verses. I didn’t know if I knew enough to write about them, but I’ve always been attracted to stuff I don’t know about. Having thought about them on and off for a decade now, I’ve certainly learned more. I became very conscious of one particular psalm “voice”  expressing  a frankness that is not just chutzpah but models an allowed intimacy with God. That voice is attractive to me.

Can you share a psalm story from your life?

Well, it’s a post-9/11 story. I learned that women at Stern College, the sister to Yeshiva University, were organizing a shmira for the body parts of victims that continued to be found. Many Orthodox and Conservative Jewish congregations observe the shmira ritual, that assigns someone to watch over the newly dead. Among other things, you’re supposed to say psalms while sitting with the body. This shmira was different—because of the circumstances, it went on for months, in a kind of bucket-brigade, relay-race form. I ended up participating. I did my hitch in a chaplain’s trailer near the city morgue. I got through the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of all 150 Psalms before my stint ended at midnight. For me, it was a powerful meditation.

Do you have a story about what a particular psalm meant to someone else?

I met a woman whose husband had been charged with sexually exploiting their daughter and her friends. The couple denied it. She went to a charismatic church and was praying Psalm 91 with deep intent that the case would be thrown out of court and God would bring everything to a happy conclusion. But the judge sent it to trial, the husband pled out to a lesser plea, and the judge was frustrated that the sentence was limited.

It made me reconsider how to use a psalm. It caused me to go back to the temptation story in Matthew and Luke, where the Devil quotes Psalm 91. He invites Jesus to jump off the temple pinnacle and use—abuse, really—the Father’s words for their power. Now I tend to see the temptation story as a kind of manufacturer’s warning on Psalm 91: “This is not a spell or magical incantation. These words are deeply woven into an understanding of the world. Take this psalm out of context and you will be, at the very least, quite disappointed.”

How might Christians and churches change if they spent more time with the Psalms?

In churches that don’t engage Scripture intensively, the Psalms can be a bridge back into Scripture. Wanting to learn more about certain psalms has brought me back to parts of Second Isaiah and the Christ story. I am a big fan of the complaint, or lament, psalms. They’re the largest genre in the Psalms. Most laments are almost “twofers,” because they contain that bracingly honest “complaint” but end up with praise and an affirmation of faith. They make you consider two postures toward your life with God. And congregations that become collectively more Psalms-aware might be led to helpful conversations about similarities and differences between Jews and Christians.

Which psalms or psalm fragments pop most often into your head?

I think that at the moment it’s the first few verses of 19, for the imagery…and verses 7-12 of 139, for their sense, although my response to them is complicated…and 133, for its entirety.

David Van Biema is still looking for people who can say how a particular psalm has been important to them during an important life moment or over time. He welcomes stories of people “from any tradition or no tradition” and invites you to contact him on Facebook to tell your psalm story.


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