From disruption to dialogue

New book on the psalms explores how the Bible’s diversity calls us to tear down divisions

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. William P. Brown, who teaches Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, has written a new book on the psalms, “Deep Calls to Deep.” (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

LOUISVILLE — Given the stark reality of the pandemic that has been so disruptive to the American society and churches, Dr. William P. Brown went back to his Bible.

Pondering how the pandemic exposed deep-seated divisions over politics, racism and social inequality, he was drawn to the Book of Psalms.

As this professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary listened again to the 150 psalms, Brown heard their theologically and socially diverse voices carrying laments of people trying to survive amid great disruptions.

The result of exploring how these voices in the psalms were so transformative for biblical tradition is a new book from Brown, “Deep Calls to Deep.” Released in late September, it is a study on one of the most diverse books in the Bible.

As he wrote this book in the midst of trauma and disruption, the psalms gave Brown a vision of a long oval table with 150 seats. Every psalmist seated was talking to each other in true dialogical engagement. Searching for meaning, some were talking to the person next to them, some across the table from each other, while others shouted from one end to the other. But all remained seated together in their praise and prayers to God.

Abington Press published Brown’s most recent book last month. (Photo courtesy of Abington Press)

“This is what churches need to be,” Brown said, “models of engagement at the table of fellowship, where genuine dialogue is happening.”

One can see this vision in the book description for “Deep Calls to Deep” posted by the book’s publisher, Abington Press:

“Brown explores uncharted territory in the Bible with a particular focus on the Psalms, the most diverse book of the Bible. By taking his cue from Martin Luther, Brown explores how the “little bible” (the Psalter) engages the larger Hebrew Bible in dialogue, specifically how the psalms counter, complement, reconstrue, and transform biblical traditions and themes across the Hebrew canon, from Creation and law to justice and wisdom.

“In this deep study of the Psalms, Brown asks:

  • What is humanity’s place and role in Creation?
  • What makes for a credible leader?
  • What is ‘law and order?’
  • What is the role of wisdom in the life of faith?
  • What is the shape of justice in a society polarized by power and fear?”

 Brown asks these questions during a time when U.S. culture is riven with political division and awash with lies and misinformation about everything from vaccinations to critical race theory. Writing the book in the context of U.S. culture coming to terms with the legacy of slavery, Brown is hopeful that the kind of dialogue his book calls for will inspire and equip people to be honest, open and inclusive as they look back on history, not choosing any version that ignores the reality of suffering and lament in order to move forward.

Dr. William P. Brown (Photo by Paul Seebeck)

For Brown, this means people in churches will have to be honest with God and with each other as they share their deepest anxieties and fears at the table instead of using the Bible as a political weapon.

“The conviction carried at the table is that each person will be heard and listened to, and that God is a witness,” Brown said. “We are called to be witnesses too. As we listen deeply and engage each other with open hearts and minds, we are seeking mutual understanding and growth.”

Brown insists that this dialogue, based on the witness of Scripture — particularly in the Psalms — isn’t the kind of dialogue that necessarily seeks common ground.  Rather it is the kind of dialogue that seeks to break new ground in understanding each other and providing opportunities for mutual growth.

While acknowledging that people’s first reaction to disruption is to hunker down and circle the wagons, Brown believes we can learn from the psalms to respond in another way, one that guides us as we reach out in love across the landscape of division to tear down divisions in the name of Christ, the way of transformation.

‘In this book I’m trying to show that what some consider the Bible’s liability, namely its sheer diversity and even contradictions, is actually part of its power to engage readers in transforming ways.’

“In this book I’m trying to show that what some consider the Bible’s liability, namely its sheer diversity and even contradictions, is actually part of its power to engage readers in transforming ways,” he said. “The Bible is its own e pluribus unum, a plethora of differences held together canonically. By preserving and lifting up these diverse voices for every generation of readers, the church can model the way of transformation amid conflict and healing amid division.”

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