Thursday, 6 March 2014

One or Many? The Problem with Praying Inclusive Psalms

Image: Júlio Reis via Wikimedia Coomons
"Blessed are those who fear the Lord and have great delight in his commandments," says the Psalmist in Psalm 112. Apparently. Actually, that's not what the psalm says, and it grated on me while I was praying this morning. Here's why.

I'm generally a fan of using inclusive language in Bible translations; when Paul's "brothers" gets turned into "brothers and sisters" (as, for example, in the NRSV), I think it simply brings out the meaning more clearly for a gender-language-sensitive generation like ours.

But inclusive language becomes a real problem in the psalms.

The Common Worship Psalter (used in Anglican churches in England and Wales) begins Psalm 1 like this:

"Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the assembly of the scornful.
Their delight is in the law of the Lord
and they meditate on his law day and night."

Which all sounds very good. But the Psalmist actually wrote, "Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked ... his delight is in the law of the Lord." (The Latin begins with a similarly uninclusive Beatus vir ...) And, in terms of the way Christians have always prayed the psalms, this time it really matters.

The ancient Christian commentators on the psalms always began by asking the same question about this psalm: who is the man? To them, at least, the answer seemed obvious: this is a psalm about Christ. He is the one who doesn't walk in the counsel of the wicked. He is the one who delights in the law of the Lord. He is the one who is ever fruitful and flourishing. And, of course, we can be too - but only by virtue of our participation in his life and grace.

In other words, this isn't primarily a psalm about us, which is why inclusive language just doesn't work well here. It doesn't clarify the meaning, it shifts and obscures it. The same could be said of Psalm 112, which I was praying this morning. How much difference does it make if, instead of reading it as a eulogy about all righteous people, we read it as praise of Christ the righteous one?

"Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments ...
Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious, merciful, and righteous ...
the righteous will never be moved;
he will be remembered for ever ...
His heart is steady; he will not be afraid,
until he looks in triumph on his adversaries." (ESV)

I can't read those last words without the cross and resurrection springing into my mind. But the inclusive version in Common Worship ("their heart is sustained and will not fear, until they see the downfall of their foes") just doesn't catch that in the same way. Again, too much about us, not enough about him.

Interestingly, in a more obviously Christ-centred passage in Psalm 8, the Common Worship Psalter (which, other than on this one issue, I think is truly superb) actually offers two parallel texts and lets us choose. So you can either have, "What is man, that you are mindful of him; the son of man, that you should seek him out?" (not inclusive, but obviously a phrase echoed often by Jesus in the Gospels), or "What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them; mere human beings, that you should seek them out?" (inclusive, but having lost the Gospel resonance).

It's tricky - I get that. How do you balance these competing concerns? Is it better to be Christ-centred and non-inclusive, or inclusive and accept the loss of the Chris-centred focus? Is there any reasonable middle way? What do you think?

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