Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms by Glenn Pemberton

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers

A few pages into this book I realized that Glenn Pemberton and I live in two different worlds. He devotes the opening of the book to lamenting (yes, lamenting) that the church does not lament, and has no language for lament in its public worship (or thereby offer people ways to lament in their private devotions, which would be the logical corollary).

For the last decade I have lived in traditional Christian liturgical circles (of various types and flavors, I admit). All of these have in common the traditional liturgical practice of reading the psalter straight through, skipping nothing and glossing over nothing. Yes, the heads of children are bashed against stones. In traditional Anglicanism the Book of Lamentations is read during Holy Week, and in Eastern Orthodoxy Psalm 50 is read so often that it is the first Psalm most Orthodox memorize. So his statement that churches today don’t lament strikes me as a very insular assertion.

I do realize that in many of the modern “liberal” churches this is not the case any more, with the Psalms being carefully redacted for use in public worship, beginning with the 1928 BCP and God knows what has happened since then. And in non-liturgical circles (which Pemberton seems to be a part of) this can easily devolve into Psalms only being read/sung according to their popularity. So in the age of sentimentalism the only exposure to the Psalms most get in churches today is “As the deer panteth for the water…” often and ad naseum.

I get that this is a problem. Though I have personally solved it by leaving it behind, Pemberton wants to fix it. Which is fine. However, it becomes immediately clear that his academic training is in the realm of Biblical Criticism, notably Textual and Redaction Criticism. He clearly is very aware of the text of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Old Testament. Perhaps too aware. It ends up bogging down his entire argument and leads him into many strange places for a book with the subtitle “Learning to Lament with the Psalms.”

He begins chapter two by trying to explain away the fact that the Hebrew title of Psalms is Sefer Tehillim, “Book of Praises.” What are lament psalms doing in a book of praises? Are they are praises or praiseworthy? Bah humbug, I say. The title Sefer Tehillim is Rabbinic, meaning it post-dates Christ by at least two centuries, if not more. The title does appear in the DSS in the War Scroll, but it is not at all clear that it refers to the whole Book of Psalms, something else entirely, or maybe just the psalms that carry the superscription of “tehillim” and may have been collected together at some point (see The Dead Sea Scroll Psalm Scrolls and the Book of Psalms by Peter Flint, page 23). In any case, the Bible itself refers to the Book of Psalms as – guess what? – the Book of Psalms, biblio psalmon, in Acts 1:20. A translation of this, if we need one, is “Book of Songs.” Why does it carry a different title in Hebrew? Because as nearly everyone in biblical studies these days knows, the Rabbi’s putting together the Masoretic Text occasionally made editorial decisions in order to make the MT more different from the LXX which was popular among Christians. I’m not going to make a value judgement upon that, only to say that I think Christians should be fine referring to the Psalms the same way that the author of the Book of Acts did.

Pemberton’s near-sightedness because of his reliance upon the Hebrew ultimately obfuscates his point later concerning Paul and Silas singing psalms in prison. Were they actually psalms? Were they laments? Was it the psalms themselves which caused the guard to convert? Yes, yes, yes, and only because they were singing the Psalms in Greek – from the LXX. He should have been able to flesh this out, but he couldn’t, because he was so stuck on Sefer Tehillim.

Moving on. In the fifth chapter he goes through three particular lament psalms. Concentrating just on his treatment of Psalm 51 (50, for those who don’t follow the Hebrew numbering), a psalm full of interesting metaphors for sin, grace, and forgiveness, his discussion is remarkably superficial. He concentrates instead on the textual history of superscriptions, and when he does get to theology it consists merely of denying that the psalm says anything about Original Sin or Pneumatology. Yes, we get that Psalms are constructed as parallel metaphors, but even so, even a general understanding of biblical inspiration would say that those metaphors carry more than just their bald meaning.

I could go on with examples, but in the interest of length… these are indicative of most of the book. He textually deconstructs numerous psalms (at one point speculating about the age of the author of a particular psalm) and breaking out the various components of lament psalms and how they work. He says that this book was written because of his own personal struggles, and I believe him. I also believe that his method of textual criticism is the only way he knows how to read the Bible in order for it to have any meaning for him.

Eventually, the book seems to hit upon its subtitle in chapters eleven and twelve. If the whole book was more like these chapters I would find it much more worthwhile. He wraps it up by giving some suggestions for how Christians and churches can include more language of lament in their spiritual expression, pointing to an appendix with a list of traditional metrical psalters (yes!). Though I have a feeling that some of the newer publications in that list may have had the Psalms undergo a thorough “scrubbing” before they were set to music (thus undermining his point), but I am not familiar enough with some of them to say for sure.

The Chapter Discussion questions and Further Reading parts at the end make the book easily adopted for use in church book clubs or Bible Studies. Though with all my issues with his over-reliance on Biblical Criticism, I personally find the book to have limited value in those settings.

In the end, I think his point is laudable. Christianity isn’t all about having happy, smiling faces. When it comes right down to it, Christianity demands rather the opposite. But in the age of Moral Therapeutic Deism I am afraid that this won’t be enough to encourage Christians to return to the gritty Christianity of “deny yourself” and instead this book may be read as just another shade of “spiritual self-help.” “Haven’t received what you asked for yet? Use this struggle as an opportunity to lament. Thanksgivings will surely follow!” No, this is not what Pemberton is saying, but he doesn’t seem to really deny it either.

One last problem with the book: He quotes from C S Lewis’s commentary on the Psalms, and I have thus found something where I completely disagree with Lewis. Damn. And here I was starting to give credence to my latent belief that Lewis may be personally infallible. Just goes to show, even all good saints have their warts. (***)