Song of Exile

The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137

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David W. Stowe
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A gem of lyrical prose and expansive erudition, Song of Exile lays out a comprehensive vision of the reception of Psalm 137, adding another voice to a now well-established field of reception studies in religion and a growing field of scholarship on religion and music. An expression of the biblical experience of exile, Psalm 137 has been an inspiration for musicians, preachers, and political activists across the globe. Stowe pursues his investigation of the reception of the psalm in a counterpoint between historical critical biblical scholarship on it and the varied interpretations of it in history. The chronological and geographical terrain Stowe covers in his study is genuinely expansive. Song of Exile refers to times and places as varied as seventeenth-century Italy and contemporary Korea, though contemporary North American settings of the psalm receive the most attention. While Stowe discusses the psalm’s reception in a variety of media and genres, musical interpretations are prominent. The book sits conceptually in a space where assumptions of a guiding question and the evaporation of those assumptions through research overlap. Stowe cites (101. 106-7) Jonathan Boyarin’s excellent essay “Reading Exodus into History” (New Literary History 23:3 [1992], which shows how clear parallels between a biblical theme and other historical situations may not always be made explicit in a given historical instance. Yet Stowe’s question as to why the Exile has had less appeal to the American imagination than the Exodus, despite both being stories of displacement (ix), has opened a very fertile line of inquiry that would not have been as rich had he simply moved past the expectation for explicit cultural parallels between the Exile and other experiences of migration to materialize. On a personal note, my first Bible class in seminary was on prophecy in the Exile, so Stowe’s insights on how popular culture holds up Exodus over Exile were illuminating regarding how my perspective on the overall narrative of the Hebrew Bible differs from the dominant way of reading it.

I deliberately say that Stowe lays out a vision rather than a history because Stowe eschews a linear narrative. It is in the structure of the book, above all, that Stowe forges his unique perspective on how to pursue an argument about the reception of biblical texts. It is as if Stowe answers the question “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” by diving into the river and seeing where it takes him. Song of Exile ends with a line from Psalm 138, “leave not my work unfinished,” which suitably defers closure in a book that structurally emphasizes flow (182). The book’s organization follows the cue of Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting (University of Chicago Press, 2004), reorganizing Ricoeur’s three terms so as to follow the structure of Psalm 137. The first section, “History,” treats the first third of the psalm; the subsequent two-thirds of the psalm are dealt with under “Memory” and “Forgetting.” Forgetting is a particularly apt term for the last section because it deals with a verse in the text that is regularly expunged, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” (Psalm 137:9, NRSV). But if Ricoeur is a theoretical underpinning, one sees little of it, as Stowe always keeps descriptive narratives at the forefront. To hide one’s theory as one writes is harder than it looks. As Stowe pivoted from one example to the next, I sometimes thought of Theodor Adorno’s description of the composer Alban Berg as a master of the smallest link, though “mastery” implies a control that Stowe both has and relinquishes in his gentle, sometimes seemingly unmotivated movements from one example to another.

Another strength of the book is Stowe’s ability to engage in ethnographic enquiry without objectifying his subjects, which is also harder to do than it looks. His interactions with a wide variety of people from the Sacred Harp composer Judy Hauff to the scientist Steven Pinker, from the Jewish reggae rapper Matisyahu to the Frederick Douglass scholar John Stauffer, show a remarkable evenhandedness and ability to listen. There is an almost pastoral quality to Stowe’s approach, which sometimes reminded me of Marty Martin’s ability to combine observation and care in both his ministry and scholarship. Stowe shows himself interacting with his interlocutors, but he does not show much of himself explicitly. I was left wondering, “What psychic or geographical sites are his Babylon? His Jerusalem?” Stowe says at the opening, “For over a decade I have inhabited Psalm 137” (ix), but is that inhabiting a matter of finding home or experiencing exile? Here, I felt a slight affinity but stronger generational contrast between Stowe and H. Richard Niebuhr. Like Stowe, Niebuhr valued diverse perspectives, but his own standpoint rooted in a Reformed faith is always clear. Stowe follows a more postmodern, even millennial sensibility of respecting difference to the point of effacing the foundations of one’s own positionality. In this respect, the book fully embraces the shift from Exodus to Exile (see 100-8). While the Exodus narrative fuels various ideological positions through the imaginative creation of a national identity, the Exile leaves a more open-ended, shattered identity that raises more questions than answers. It is in the book’s post-ideological openness that it reflects a current sensibility. To what extent this is a gain and to what extent this is a loss will be for readers to decide. But in the course of making that decision, the reader cannot but gain the benefits of the subtleties and nuances that emerge from Stowe’s adventurous pursuit of the meanings people make of Psalm 137.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dirk von der Horst is Instructor of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David W. Stowe teaches English and Religious Studies at Michigan State University, where he is interim chair of the English Department. His most recent book is No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. His previous book, How Sweet the Sound: Music in the Spiritual Lives of Americans, won the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP.



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