the McSweeney’s of the Old Testament?

Deck chairs on the top of Mt Pilatus, high in the Swiss Alps

I’ve had the opportunity to speak on the Psalms a bit lately. And I’ve been doing some obligatory puzzling about the authorship and ascription of the whole Psalter.

David’s authorship or influence towers over the Psalter. Many of the Psalms are labelled with the Hebrew for ‘of David’ (or possibly ‘for David’).

And even though a good number are ascribed to other authors, there’s a sense in which the Psalms are still overwhelmingly ‘Davidish’ — if not Davidic.

While ancient composers may not have had the same scruples as we tend to about plagiarism, I’m beginning to wonder whether the Davidic ascription is less about authorship and more about style and voice.

Kind of like the indie publisher, McSweeney’s.

A host of authors (and aspiring authors) write for McSweeney’s.

They write in different genres, about different subjects, and for different purposes.

And yet there’s a striking similarity — of style (casual, observational, shoot from the hip), tone (usually ironic), stock literary devices, etc — across them all.

A McSweeney’s piece is always recognisably a … McSweeney’s piece!

It’s like the literary version of the hipster dress code.

None of which is meant as a criticism. The highly conventional — even stylised — feel of things that are published in McSweeney’s can mean they come off as hollow and unoriginal. But they don’t have to.

In fact, sometimes the very same conventions of style and tone can become vehicles for brilliance — substantial, personal, transcendent and unique.

In doing this, the recognisable conventions also seem to help us find ourselves in the pieces published by McSweeney’s.

And my hunch is that the Davidic/Davidish ascription of the Psalms — as the tip of the iceberg for the collection of conventions that make up the poetry of the Psalter — may be part of what lets us take them on our lips as our own songs and prayers…

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