Words on the Word Interview with Leslie C. Allen, Author of Liturgy of Grief

Not long ago I reviewed Leslie C. Allen’s Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. The book gently yet steadily coaches the reader in processing grief, expositing and drawing on the rich Biblical tradition of lament. I interviewed Dr. Allen this week.

You write, “Contemporary Western culture provides little space for grief.”  Why do you think this is?

A very good question. Perhaps, in reflection of a technologically advanced and relatively stable society, our culture expects comfort, convenience, and control, and won’t face up to anything contrary. Medication is assumed to be the answer to psychological as well as physical ills. So we feel embarrassed by grieving (and dying) people.

How can churches and worshiping communities better attend to the grieving processes of their community members? In addition to Lamentations and the rest of the rich Biblical tradition, are there other resources available to worship leaders and liturgists to better help them guide their communities through experiences of grief?

One example comes to mind. When I moved my home and started attending a new church some years ago, I found the associate minister’s morning prayer each Sunday was prayed on behalf of those present who were suffering in various ways. It was a different prayer each week, always wide reaching and beautifully crafted. I (and doubtless others) appreciatively felt she was praying for me, at a time when I needed prayer but found it difficult to pray.

You say, “‘Why?’ in the complaint psalms is never an intellectual request for information but a loaded rhetorical question that conveys emotional bewilderment and protest.”  Is there ever an appropriate time for the pastor/chaplain to address questions like “Why did this evil happen?” through a more deliberately theological-philosophical lens?  If so, how does the chaplain discern if and when it’s appropriate to go there?

C.S.Lewis’s The Problem of Pain evidently brought him no help as he penned A Grief Observed. Lamentations felt free to eventually tackle theological issues, using prophetic revelation as the guideline, whereas we and those we try to help are not living in the immediacy of such a situation when prophecy was being directly fulfilled. And Lamentations is able to give a variety of answers, perhaps in the hope that some at least would be found helpful. If a grieving person truly seeks an intellectual answer, one may tentatively broach some thoughts to be tried on for size. Otherwise, it is better considered when the emotional passion of grief does not intrude.

You mention the New Testament story (Mark 4:35-41) where Jesus’ disciples ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  Especially given Jesus’s reply (“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”), how can we who worship God know when it’s appropriate to lament or complain in prayer and when it’s not?  This is the “how far is too far?” question with relation to lament and prayer!

If our prayers are to be real, we must pray from where we are, emotionally and in other ways. We miss a tone of voice in the written form of biblical revelation. I suspect Jesus’ reply was mainly meant as reassurance, rather than rebuke, like the examples of “Do not fear” in Isaiah 40:9; 41:13, 14; 43:1-2; 44:2, etc.

I happened to read Allen’s book just before the Colorado movie theater shootings. Reading it inspired me to find and pray two lament prayers in response (here and here). As a Professor of Old Testament and hospital chaplain, Allen in his book provides the reader with good space for grief and Biblically-inspired means to lament.  A Liturgy of Grief is available here.

Good Grief (a review of A Liturgy of Grief)

There is a Yiddish proverb that calls tears the soap of the soul. The release, rather than the bottling up, of inarticulate emotion is a valuable first aid to be applied over and over again to the raw wounds of grief.

A Liturgy of Grief, p. 2

My boss and I have recently lamented together the lack of good lament liturgies for the Church. Worshiping communities seem to be good at celebration and constant in intercession–maybe even at times confession–but lament? We’re too scared or too complacent to adopt that difficult posture. We may think that even if we wanted to lament, we don’t have the words with which to do it. “Contemporary Western culture,” Leslie C. Allen says in his Liturgy of Grief, “provides little space for grief.”

And yet we do have resources, scripts to help us unbottle the anguish and woe we inevitably experience. Allen, whose book is aptly subtitled A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations, writes, “The book of Lamentations is best understood as the script of a liturgy intended as a therapeutic ritual.”

A Liturgy of Grief is a unique kind of commentary. Though Allen has written technical commentaries and contributed to commentary sets (a few are here), this book is a monograph, a singular contribution to Lamentations commentaries. Baker Academic publishes it, but it is not so academic or technical so as to exclude readers who have only a passing familiarity with Lamentations or the Old Testament.

The book includes the full English text of Lamentations, in Allen’s own translation. Though he often references the Hebrew he translates, he rarely lists the Hebrew words themselves. Language and translation buffs, however, will be happy to see nine pages of translation notes in an appendix. (This language buff appreciated that Allen saved his longest translation note for the single English word “but” in the last verse of Lamentations.)

Allen has written lengthy technical commentaries, yet this is not that, nor is it intended to be. However, Allen does not neglect to thoroughly elucidate the text. He understands the five chapters of Lamentations as “five poems,” each with their own distinctive theme and contribution to the larger book. The climax of the book comes in the fifth poem. Here the grieving community, having heard the model prayers of a pastoral mentor/liturgist (Allen calls him “the reporter”), at last can pray to God in their grief.

Allen weaves together narratives past and present, from the 6th century B.C. to today, in order to guide the reader section-by-section through the book of Lamentations. In addition to being Senior Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, he is a hospital chaplain. Nicholas Wolterstorff comments in the foreword, “[Allen] brings to his commentary an understanding of grief that was already deeply informed both by the contemporary literature on grief, all of which he seems to have read, and by his own activities as a hospital chaplain.” In reference to the repeated expressions of grief in the first poem (chapter 1 of Lamentations), Allen writes:

For those who grieve, but not for their regular hearers, the old story is ever new, always filling their consciousness and needing to be told once more, as intensely as it was the first time. Patience is the prime virtue that empathy requires.

Any preacher, liturgist, or worship leader will appreciate Allen’s commentary. He gives attention to the approach and words of “the reporter”/liturgist in Lamentations, drawing important conclusions that can guide today’s liturgist in helping a community deal with grief:

In this [third] poem a wounded healer offers his knowledge of God’s ways and his experience of them in a context of suffering. At beginning and end he ministers out of his own suffering and presents himself as an object lesson. A fellow sufferer, he points the congregation forward to a new wholeness that both he and they yearn to attain. In turn, we readers who are wounded have the potential to be wounded healers.

A Liturgy of Grief is a special book and a gift to the Church, both its leaders and its members. Contrary to lament-free churches or a Western culture which knows not how to grieve, Allen opens up a space for readers to recall and feel their hurt and the hurt of others. The commentary is “pastoral,” just as it promises, with Allen a pastor to any who will receive the ministry he has to offer through this book. “When believers find themselves in such a fearfully dark valley,” Allen concludes, “the biblical tradition is there, providing challenging words for souls in pain to use.” In addition to Lamentations, Allen evokes the biblical traditions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, and makes reference to numerous lament Psalms.

Allen illuminates all these “challenging words” of Scripture beautifully. His final chapter perfectly matches the surprising ending of Lamentations. (No spoilers here, but I will say that all I could write in the margins was, “This is real, true, holy.”) I finally realized hours after finishing the book that, all along, Allen as author plays the same role to reader as “the reporter”/liturgist in Lamentations did to his 6th century B.C. worshiping community:

He mentors members of the community by giving expression to the grief he and they have in common, turning incoherent feelings into words and explaining the experiences they have all been through. …He is also interpreter of their loss…. and finally involves them in a creative response of their own that they are ready to make in the final poem…

…that of prayer to God. As a result, A Liturgy of Grief serves as its own sort of book of Lamentations for the 21st century, with Allen “giving expression to the grief” of his readers, interpreting their loss and–finally–guiding them into a response of prayer.

I offer my thanks to Baker Academic for providing me with a free review copy in exchange for an unbiased review. A Liturgy of Grief is available at Amazon.

UPDATE: I interview the author here.

Magnificent Monograph Monday: The Later New Testament Writings and Scripture, Reviewed

Eisegesis. Not a label most evangelical Biblical interpreters want to wear. If exegesis is drawing the meaning out of a text–with a careful eye toward its original context and authorial intention–eisegesis is taking one’s own set of meanings and intentions into the text. Evangelical scholars aim to practice the former and avoid the latter, although of course everyone comes to any text with some presuppositions. (And new hermeneutics like reader response criticism may see this as a good thing anyway.)

My seminary teaches an exegetical method that majors on reading a text in its original context and understanding its original purpose. I’ve often thought that if New Testament writers submitted any of their works as exegesis papers, they’d fail because of the various “hermeneutical fallacies” they commit! It seems that New Testament writers freely appropriate or proof-text Old Testament passages for their own purposes, no matter the original context or intention of the passage at hand. They might even be accused of eisegesis, were they employing their methods today.

Baker Academic has just published the third volume of Steve Moyises’s de facto trilogy, in which he examines how Jesus, Paul, and the later New Testament writers use Scripture. He seeks to “give an account of” and “consider the use of Scripture” in the later NT writings. This is a “study” of “important engagements with Scripture.”

Just picking up the book before reading it was a pleasure–the layout is great, the paper quality is high, the font is clear and easy to read, and the cover design is appealing. Especially for a paperback, it’s an attractive volume to have on a bookshelf. (I note here that I received a free copy from Baker in exchange for an unbiased review.)

Moyise treats Acts, 1 Peter, Jude/2 Peter, James, Hebrews, Revelation, and includes a brief excursus on 1-3 John. He is thorough in the Scriptures he treats, which is especially aided by a UBS index in the back that serves as an index of all the quotations of the Old Testament in the above books. (There are full Scripture and author/subject indeces, too.)

The author groups the Scriptures thematically or by Old Testament book, rather than going verse by verse through each of the New Testament writings under consideration. In Acts, for example, he considers how the author Luke uses Old Testament Scripture to address themes like “Salvation for Jews and Gentiles,” “Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation,” “Judgement,” and so on. In 1 Peter Moyise has sections devoted to I Peter’s use of the Psalms, of Isaiah, etc. Moyise does this so as not to “miss the wood for the trees,” and he is successful. The reader, then, can conclude each portion of the book with a solid overview of how each NT writer uses the OT.

The text is accessible to a non-scholar or non-specialist in this field. For example, Moyise explains on p. 4:

[I]n some cases the New Testament authors appear to know a version of the text that differs from the majority of manuscripts that have come down to us. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1948–) has shown that the biblical text existed in several forms in the first century and it is not always clear which form is being quoted.

He uses gray shaded boxes at various points to succinctly explain key concepts such as “typological interpretation” or to address things like 2 Peter’s use of the largely unknown 1 Enoch. The endnotes include more textual details and point the reader in the direction of the scholarly writings about each book. One does not need knowledge of the original language to read Moyise, but he does at times use transliteration of various Greek words if it helps his explanation.

The potential reader might be concerned that a book about intertextuality could end up as just a dry list of references. Moyise does thoroughly catalog the quoted OT passages, yet he draws conclusions from such use, as well:

Although James’s use of Scripture is not christological in a doctrinal sense, it bears comparison with Jesus’ own interpretation of the law, particularly his emphasis on seeing the law in the light of the twin commands to love God and neighbour. (63)

Moyise presents various interpretations in an even-handed, balanced way. I felt more than once like I was reading R.T. France, a favorite commentator of mine. He includes, too, the full text of many of the verses he cites, eliminating the need to flip back and forth through other reference works while reading this one. Jude and 2 Peter have a helpful table of comparisons where the two are lined up side-by-side, and this feature is present for other passages also.

There were a couple times where I thought Moyise might be guilty of the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (inferring causation just because one thing chronologically follows the other). In Revelation, for example (which he notes quotes no Scripture explicitly but is full of allusions), he speaks in terms of the “source” of (129, 137) or “inspiration behind” (130) John’s descriptions of his visions. My response to this was–just because John’s language has much in common with the Scriptures that came before him, do they therefore have to be his source? What if his source was, in fact, the vision he had, and he just used Scriptural language to express it?

Finally in the conclusion to his section on Revelation, Moyise addresses this very question. In fact, he is quite aware of questions like mine, and in the end treats it thoroughly and fairly, citing those who advocate a “scribal model” (where John is said to have basically just compiled Scriptures into a new presentation) and those who advocate a “rhetorical model” (where John uses OT language to express something new that he actually saw).

My question about whether or not NT writers are in some sense eisegetes is not an uncommon one. Students often ask: If we’re not supposed to handle Scripture that way, how can they? Though Moyise doesn’t necessarily set out to answer that question in this volume, he answers it beautifully:

The important point in all this is that the Scriptures did not exist in a vacuum. They were part of a living tradition where text and interpretation were transmitted together. (148)

In describing Revelation’s use of Daniel, for example, he says it is “not necessarily an ‘improper’ use of Scripture but hardly what Daniel had in mind” (140).

Moyise (87) quotes Susan E. Docherty from her book The Use of the Old Testament in Hebrews:

The author of Hebrews as much as any ancient Jewish exegete…regarded it as legitimate interpretation to seek out what scriptural texts imply as much as what they actually say, presumably believing that the new meaning he gave them was inherent in the original revelation, which he regarded as having endless depths of meaning and real contemporary relevance.

That Moyise’s trilogy of books on NT use of Scripture exists is a testament to the depth of Scripture. Moyise is a fantastic guide for exploring what can be confusing and difficult territory.

(Here’s the book at Amazon.)