With his characteristically engaging writing style that couples detailed exegesis with philosophical meditation, professor and author T.A. Perry interacts with the Psalms from a Jewish perspective in his newest book, Psalm 19: Hymn of Unification. Perry’s intensive and guided reading of Psalm 19 advances his thesis that Psalm 19 presents a vision of “universal unification” for the entire creation, one that is not restricted to Jews but that embraces all people and, indeed, all of nature. The dual method of analysis (literary and philosophical) Perry employs in Psalm 19: Hymn of Unification will challenge readers to understand, appreciate, and approach Psalm 19 in a larger philosophical setting rather than the traditional exegetical one.
Now, we’re excited to share with you this exclusive interview with Perry about Psalm 19.
1. Why Psalm 19? 150 Psalms in the Bible why this particular one?
I conceptualize my life the way the Bible does: the world is created as heaven and earth, a day is composed of night and day, I am a mixture of body and soul. These oppositional binaries occur at the highest level, since the Creator God at the very start is called Elohim and only later Yahweh. In daily living we reduce these pairs to unities: one world, day, person, God, but in living our lives and in our theologies they are typically treated as oppositional. Think, for example, of the chasm between matter or extended substance and consciousness, or body and soul, or God’s justice and his mercy. Monotheism argues for their unity, or, better, their unification as operated by humans and within God too. Psalm 19 gives a careful analysis of this process.
2. What place should Psalms play in the life of the believer?
For me Psalms is a practical manual on how to feel and express praise and thanksgiving. The first helps to see that even “bad” things are kindly intended. Gratitude in its practice enables us to appreciate that it too is a divine gift, one we should be thankful for. How’s that for rebound: being thankful for being thankful!
3. What was your favorite part of the book to work on?
As I exclaimed in one of my Hendrickson books, “I just love this Bible!” Whatever part I am working on today is my favorite one. How so? Because of its perpetual newness and direct relevance to living a meaningful life.
P.s. I am aware of responding to a slightly different question, namely “what was your favorite part of The Book to work on.” My excuse is that exegesis or commentary is an integral part of the Bible itself. Indeed, this is how the Bible comes alive, by making it mine. If it is not in my heart and mind and actions as on this book, where (on earth) is it?
4. You’ve spent significant time living and teaching in Israel, how has that impacted this particular book?
Martin Buber claimed that the particular contribution of Israel to the culture of humankind is unification. I subscribe to this view and still pin my hopes to its realization. Living in the Holy Land continues, in a very concrete and daily way, to activate and deepen this commitment.
5. The book opens suggesting Psalm 19 presents an existential dilemma between the world of nature and humans and closes proposing a particular epistemology for knowing God. How does Psalm 19 solve this dilemma? How do you feel this is a corrective for the church today?
Unresolved dualisms are leading to our destruction. At the level of our careless and domineering destruction of the environment, for example, Bruno Latour proposes a reversal of even deeply embedded theological assumptions such as Mark 8, Matthew 16. Latour asks “What does it matter to save my soul if it should cost the loss of the world?” Is it all only about me? I add that such pursuits as epistemology and ontology have overextended their importance and that we should turn instead to ethics and a concern for the Other.
6. Next to this book what is your favorite book you’ve written?
One of my greatest teachers (Harold Fisch) liked to evoke the paradox of a “remembered future.” Looking back over my 14 books, my memory projects that my most favorite book is my next one. In all likelihood, it will (again!) focus on a single psalm, this one #119, the longest and according to many the most boring of the psalms, the one that Dietrich Bonhoeffer nevertheless regarded as his “favorite Psalm and the climax of my theological life.”
7. What’s the best piece of wisdom you’ve learned over the years from reading or writing?
In backcountry Maine where I come from, some folks define a fool in two related ways: as one who makes the same mistake twice, and as one who never makes a mistake. With all the problems of the experiential path to wisdom (one’s first mistake can be costly!), I find it usually works for me; I learn best from experience. For me the path to wisdom is reading and writing. When complaining about his lack of many things that enhance human life, an ancient sage exclaimed: “If you have wisdom and understanding, what more can you want or need.”
A central focus of Psalm 19 is its analysis of human pursuits into three broad categories: pleasure, power, and wisdom. While all three are seen as having a legitimate place in a human life, the third is privileged. In fact, my second most favorite book written by me focuses on the central plot of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), how King Solomon converted his life from the pursuit of power and pleasure to the humble task of understanding the secret of words.
T. A. Perry (PhD, Romance Philology and Comparative Literature, Yale University) has taught at the University of Connecticut, Ben Gurion University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In recent years, he served as a faculty associate at Hartford Seminary and as the Corcoran Visiting Chair in Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. Perry is the author of numerous books, including Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible: Exploring God’s Twilight Zone and Jonah’s Arguments with God: The Honeymoon Is Over.