In Praise of Robert Alter, Part 2

In November 2009, after reading Alter’s translation of Psalms, I sent the following encouragement to a friend who was wrestling with serious questions of faith and doubt. In it, I quote from a footnote in Alter’s commentary on Psalm 34:

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation last Saturday. I just wanted to affirm that the questions you are asking are good ones: candid, defining, essential, humbling.

The struggle to believe, and finding a practice that honors those beliefs, is lifelong, one that is worked out in countless conversations with tradition (“the democracy of the dead,” according to one writer), family, community (which comes and goes), and Scripture.

Perhaps the best encouragement I can offer is for you to “seek the face of God” by reading and meditating on the Psalms. These poems show a remarkable collection of individuals in the midst of that struggle to believe and trying as they may to reconcile those beliefs in difficult, if not adversarial, cultures.

Robert Alter captures this idea much better than I can, of course, quite unexpectedly in the middle of a footnote on page 120: “Part of the spiritual greatness of Psalms, part of its enduring appeal through the ages, is that it profoundly recognizes the bleakness, the dark terrors, the long nights of despair that shadow most lives, and, against all this, evokes the notion of a caring presence that can reach out to the broken-hearted.”

Breathtaking, that. It’s a truth that we all long for—a truth that is rich and complex and one that is capable of satisfying the longings of our hearts. But perhaps it is also a truth that Micah, under similar circumstances as the Psalmist’s, encapsulated simply when he asked, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8).

Such nuggets of wisdom and insight are to be found throughout Alter’s commentary, and they keep me returning time and time again for edification and insight. As I tried to suggest in the message above, they model a way of understanding and a mode of engagement for contemporary readers who, from paraphrase, caricature, or rumor, otherwise regard the Bible as “antique volume, written by faded men” (ED #1545).

Alter clearly doesn’t think so, but he still keeps his cards close. In the further reading section at the back of The Book of Psalms, for instance, he notes that Nahum Sarna’s book on the Psalms has a tendency to reflect an “apologetic view,” as if that were a shortcoming. Given Alter’s sensitive and humane reading of the Psalmist’s intent, doesn’t Alter himself offer an apologetic view, one that places the Bible and the genius of its authors in a league of their own?

I’d like to suggest that Alter’s move, particularly in “an ideological age” such as ours, is both primary and necessary before the significance of the Bible’s stories can receive the same attention and veneration—and, indeed, before we submit to its authority and its radical claims over our lives.

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