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Spring 2003 · Vol. 32 No. 1 · pp. 136–37 

Book Review

God and the Imagination: A Primer to Reading the Psalms in an Age of Pluralism

William P. Brown. Winnipeg, MB: CMBC Publications, 2001. 102 pages.

Reviewed by Douglas B. Miller

This small book represents another publication of the excellent J. J. Thiessen Lectures series sponsored annually by Canadian Mennonite Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba. The present treatment of the biblical psalms was delivered in 2000 by William P. Brown, Professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia.

The book’s subtitle as a “primer” is apt because its first chapter offers an introduction to imaginative reading, its second walks through the Psalter’s “landscape” chronicling the transformation of tree imagery (in special reference to Ps. 1), its third chapter offers careful and insightful treatment of a specific piece, Psalm 19, and, in the final chapter, Psalms 8 and 104 receive lesser yet still valuable study in the midst of an exploration of animal imagery across the whole book. What Brown has to say about God is mostly in terms of the divine as Creator, a theme addressed in each of the final three chapters.

The author’s concern with our “age of pluralism” is taken up in the early pages of the first chapter where he contends that “persons and communities of faith must assess the cultural images, symbols, and narratives that saturate our lives, as well as develop counter images, symbols, and narratives that exhibit their own compelling, transformative {137} power, if only to sustain us through the living of these days and invite others to join us in the calling” (3). The theme of pluralism is also reflected in the author’s exploration of the diversity within Scripture itself, for example (ch. 4), the dominion of human beings over the creation reflected in Psalm 8, and the placement of humans on par with the rest of creation in Psalm 104.

This book in several ways presents a delightful introduction to important aspects of the Psalms. It is well-edited from its original oral incarnation and, in general if not entirely, it avoids overly technical language. The studies of individual psalms are models of careful investigation. They reflect what this reviewer believes to be a most essential methodology: studying the Psalms both as poetry and as worship pieces within their ancient historical setting. Yet the author also engages the texts in a thoughtful dialogue of significance for our own time and culture.

One quibble is that the initial chapter, with its helpful introduction to the importance of poetry and imaginative reading, gives less than could be hoped on the subject of metaphor itself. Rather than understanding metaphor as an “event” which an author (it would seem) tosses into the realm of discourse to be played with and reconstrued by the reader (or listener), it is much preferable, from this reviewer’s perspective, to view metaphor as an act of communication from author to reader in which a careful author gives helpful clues to assist the reader in discerning that which is intended. (This is not to ignore the difficulties of the “intentional fallacy” nor the fact that authors easily and often “say” more than they intended.) The author, through metaphor, does not merely hand the reader a lens and say, “Here, try looking at the world through this,” but rather, “There is something I see which I’d like you to see. If you use this lens, you may also be able to see it.”

Brown’s work reflects scholarship which is biblically and theologically well-informed. In particular, the author’s treatment of Psalm 19 reminds how essays such as this, with an extended discussion, deliver more than the restricted limits of a commentary can ever quite provide. The Psalms offer a divine Word to equip God’s people for the challenge of responding to the Vanity Fair of images generated by our postmodern culture. This book is recommended for all who recognize that or can hope it is true.

Douglas B. Miller
Assoc. Prof. of Biblical and Religious Studies
Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas

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