Rewriting the Psalms 3 January 2015
Andrew Grey interviews Revd Dr Carla Grosch-Miller about her new book Psalms Redux: Poems and Prayers to find out more about her alternative versions of the Psalms.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m an American import, ordained in the United Church of Christ (USA) and serving as a minister in the United Reformed Church in Oxford. Alongside parish ministry I teach short courses to ordinands and ministers fostering sexual-spiritual integration, which was the subject of my doctoral work. Before ordination I was a civil rights and poverty lawyer in Alaska. God essentially tricked me into switching to ministry, for which I am eternally grateful.
What first inspired you to write Psalms Redux?
In the nonconformist tradition, daily prayer was originally a matter of family devotion around the Bible rather than a formal liturgy or Office. This puts a lot of onus on the individual; and often I have failed! At the start of 2012 whilst beginning a sabbatical to write my doctoral thesis, I resolved that 2012 would be the year that every day I would use the daily prayer book I’d been dipping into for fourteen years. This book, Prayers for all God’s people, contains daily Scripture readings, devotional readings from diverse authors, a hymn and a weekly psalm.
On 1st January, on a flight across the pond, I opened the book and stumbled over the given psalm. The underlying conception of God did not fit my faith. I couldn’t pray it from the heart. I decided in the moment to tweak it so that I could pray it deeply; I rewrote it and prayed the rewritten psalm all week. The second week the same thing happened. So again I rewrote it. By the end of the month I realised that this endeavour was a useful spiritual discipline. I resolved to make the week’s psalm my own every week by dwelling in it on the Monday, searching out the deepest themes; reduxing it on the Tuesday, sounding out the prayer of my heart; and praying it the rest of the week. At first I resisted doing this with the psalms that are already written on my heart in NRSV or King James’ language, but reduxing even those became a springboard to a deepened sense of God. As the year went on I got more adventurous, letting the psalm redux express my emerging sense of what God is and who we are in God.
What is it about the Psalms that makes them useful for worship?
The Psalms are the prayerbook of our mothers and fathers in faith; the deepest longings of the heart expressed; nothing is held back. They invoke and express the intimacy which God offers us. In entering into that intimacy, grief is transformed into trust, fear is transformed into faith, joy is shared, contentment fostered, and praise is unleashed. The corporate recitation or prayer of a psalm can knit people to God and each other.
Some people may believe that your book indicates that you regard the Old Testament Psalms as out-dated. Would you agree?
Not at all! My reduxes were a spiritual self-help programme that helped me enter into intimacy with God. I have been delighted to learn that others have been similarly helped by reading or praying them. I am particularly interested in making a space in the tradition for people like me who don’t think dualistically, or for whom the idea of God as angry or male is a stumbling block rather than a stepping stone to greater intimacy with God.
The book contains about sixty psalms redux, derived in conversation with the originals. In addition there are a range of new prayer poems, written in the style of the Psalms, for specific occasions and needs, such as the beginning and end of the year, the days of the week, Mothering Sunday, for those who suffer in today’s world, and more. In these ways I sought to extend the concerns of the original Psalms and to structure my own prayer life.
Has the book provoked any opposition so far? Do you anticipate any future opposition, and how would you respond to it?
No, it hasn’t, although my non-Christian neighbour immediately flagged that it might. In the introduction to the book I clearly state that the reduxes are not meant to supplant the Psalms. Rather they are an aid to prayer. I think people who would be offended by the notion simply won’t read it.
For whose use is the book intended? Do you have any specific practical suggestions for how the book might be used?
This book is, first and foremost, for people who seek intimacy with God. Those who are put off by traditional articulations, who may rewrite scripture or sermons or prayers in their head when they attend church, or who feel wearied by translating the language of the Bible into something they believe with integrity may find the book helpful. Maybe it will free people to make the Psalms their own by writing their own reduxes. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Looking back over the collection, I am interested to see recurring themes that touch on an affirming theological anthropology (as opposed to the notion that “there is no health in us”) and the awakening to connections with the earth. I see God as the great Invitation to flourishing and the energy that sustains and recreates us and the world. This is a joyful, empowering vision. Praise features strongly, as does the sense of expansiveness that the original meaning of the Hebrew for salvation and deliverance expressed.
Finally, in one or two sentences, could you summarise why people would want to buy Psalms Redux?
For a refreshment of prayer, for the liberation of finding new words and concepts, for the challenge of encountering God anew.
Psalms Redux: Poems and Prayers (Canterbury Press, ISBN 9781848256392) is available now.
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