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The Phoenix and the Psalms

Last week I put on my smart hat (I don’t actually have a smart hat) and went to Vanderbilt University. Professor David Michelson is teaching a course on early Christian poetry, and after one of the recent Local Shows he kindly invited me to audit the class. “As long as I don’t have to write any papers,” I said. He convinced me to stop by for a session, and—other than the fact that my smart hat was smoking and singed around the edges—I loved it.

Here’s what I learned in just two hours.

  1. Homer’s epics were written to be sung. Obviously, we have no way of knowing what the music would have been, but there’s an inherent rhythm to the original Greek. (Also, another Greek professor came to the class and read some of it aloud, and it was awesome. I greeked out.)

  2. There was a guy named Lactantius who was a Christian apologist—there were apologists in 250 A.D.?—who also wrote some poetry. We read through one called “The Phoenix,” which wasn’t explicitly Christian, but stuck more or less strictly to the resurrecting phoenix myth. It made me wonder if old Lactantius (to whom the poem is attributed by most) was subversively writing to a Roman audience, seasoning their hearts with a tale of resurrection so that they might connect the dots and see that the true myth had played itself out in Christ. Maybe he wrote it knowing that Christians (who were being persecuted at the time) would see Christ in it and find some edification or encouragement. Either way, it was interesting that there wasn’t a one-to-one correlation between the phoenix in the poem and Jesus, but rather a poetic ambiguity about it. The ambiguity kept my mind engaged and made me want to go back and read it again. (I’m with Tolkien on the opinion that allegory is boring.)

  3. There was another guy named Juvencus. Around 330 A.D. he decided to write out Matthew’s Gospel as an epic poem, a la Homer. Homer’s works cast a long shadow (they still do), and Juvencus wanted to tell the story of Jesus in the language that history had proven was all but immortal, so he more or less converted the Gospels into verse.

  4. Athanasius wrote a letter about the Psalms to Marcellinus on the interpretation of the Psalms. This would have been in the fourth century. He pointed out a few fascinating things:

  5. The entire story of Scripture can, either thematically or explicitly, be found in the Psalms–even prophetic psalms about Christ’s suffering and resurrection.

  6. The Psalms are unique in scripture because we read them as our own words. We inhabit the psalms as we read them.

  7. The Psalms are written by God, through David (and the other psalmists), for us.

  8. Since Jesus was Jewish, he would have grown up reading the Psalms, and of course quoted them–notably Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Get this. That means that the Spirit was inspiring David to write the words that the Son would need to express his own desolation to the Father. That’s mind-blowing. The Psalms give us a picture of not just the Trinity but the way God invites humans into his creative act for his glory.

  9. So the Psalms were written by David to God. They were also written by David, through the Spirit, for Jesus. Further, they were written by the Spirit, through David, for us, for the purposes of our own comfort and edification, and also for God’s praise.

There you have it. Class dismissed. What a great blessing it is to know that our faith is ancient, that it is poetic and reasonable, that it speaks to every human need, every single corner of our hearts, every nook of our experience. Now go read a Psalm. Many thanks to Professor Michelson for letting me hang out.


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