I grew up in the evangelical tradition. My experience with the Bible was not as a piece of literature but as an authoritative flawless text that was inspired by God and delivered to man. My academic career and time as a writer have chipped away at that view, sometimes in significant pieces, and sometimes in subtle ways. Yet, for those that still hold to that view of the Biblical text — my next statement is unfathomable –I remain a devoted follower whose principle identity remains as christian. Questioning the authority, authenticity, or the validity of the biblical text has been an authentic and natural progression in my faith — what I would term in Paul’s language moving from the infants milk to the substantive harder food. What I found instead was that my academic-based tendency to question not only texts, but the believability of their authors offered a bit more than just surface level clarity. Its in the backgrounds, the pretexts and the politics of the biblical record that the nuance of faith is best exemplified. There is value in hearing from flawed men, attempting to shape a narrative of God in explaining their everyday world.
Today we often look beyond these texts when they are not convenient. The political and legal background of the Biblical text is often omitted in modern churches when it serves to question narratives that we prefer not to face. Today, the text’s ability to “speak” to modern ears has a stubborn capacity to accept textual accuracy over questioning the authenticity of the sacred word.
One of the most compelling set of texts that the biblical record offers is the psalms. I prefer to refer to them as the subversive Psalms. To be clear, all of the Psalms are subversive of some ordered pattern of life. They each represent challenges to authority, whether they are psalms of the exile questioning God’s faithfulness, psalms expressing fear of the unknown (Psalms 23), Psalms expressing repentance for some act of betrayal (Psalms 51) or other. And then there are the Psalms that passionately suggest that God’s abandoned his people, even to the depths of sheol. We sanitize their subversiveness by focusing on our need to understand their voice in our own experience rather than understanding the author’s own subversive purposes in writing them in the first place.
The Psalms themselves as poetry are part of a literary tradition that in the ancient world was thought to be subversive. In Plato’s Republic, he writes that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” (Rep. 607b5–6) A bit later, he tells us that poets “corrupt the youth and incite the passions” which means they should be banned from the city. For Plato, the poets were the illogical rabble-rousers that caused havoc and disruption while the philosophers offered order, thoughtfulness, and peace the social unit of the city. At the center of the biblical record then sits by ancient terms a collection of writings that at best should be distrusted, and at worst lack order, logic, and confidence.”
One need not look much farther than the Psalms of David to get a glimpse at the subversion that the Psalms reflect. Notably, the writing of the book of II Samuel carefully interweaves into David’s narratives reminders that the Shadow of the House of Saul remains overhead. It is notably in times of disruption when David’s authority is questioned, when his own unlawfulness is exposed, and his throne threatened that the shadow of Saul is most apparent. Even as David is being chased out of Jerusalem and he is seeking shelter while on the run from Absolom, an older man reminds the reader that David’s claim to the throne is illegitimate and that Saul was the rightful King. But a careful reading of II Samuel reveals that the Kingdom of David never truly experienced a lasting peace that later king’s enjoyed. His wars with the Philistines continued to wage on through a good portion of the book; and when those wars are over, he faces more strife from internal factions, including his own household. David may be thought of as Israel’s greatest king, but its not because of the peace in the realm.
The Davidic Psalms as literature show a king on the verge of losing a kingdom; facing death from rebellion and inciting “god’s staff” as the valley grows darker; and claiming the yoke of forgiveness from God in the face of lawlessness that would warrant death. They are often in contrast to the unruly state of the kingdom during David’s reign. Here the true nature of the subversive psalms is to cover over the imperfections of the kingdom by sanctifying them with God’s mantel. If in fact David “walks through the valley of the shadow of death” and survives, then the presence of God’s rod says something about his validity and claims to the throne; if God declares forgiveness of David’s sin, who’s place is it for the legal system to punish; and if the King can claim God as his “Rock and Fortress” then David’s claim to the throne is valid and acceptable. If on the other hand David loses to Saul in his claim for the throne, his acts have been heresy, treason, and criminal. Its only because David prevails in each of these places his Psalms are thought of as tales from the heart, rather than the subversive literature that they were intended to be.