Sometimes, you want to scream

Norway, 1892. The sun is beginning to set over the city of Oslo, and artist Edvard Munch is out for a walk with two friends. The walkway overlooks a tranquil fjord; the city can be seen in the distance. Then, suddenly, Munch experiences a moment of existential terror:

…the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red — I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence — there was blood and tongues of fire about the blue-black fjord and the city — my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety — and I sense an infinite scream passing through nature.

The experience was the inspiration for one of the most recognizable works of art in the world: The Scream (or “Shriek” in Norwegian). Munch painted the first of four versions in 1893, and together they have become an iconic representation not only of Expressionist art, but of human anxiety. Munch had his share of trauma as a child, and may have suffered mental illness as an adult (personally, I wonder if what he describes above was a panic attack). To some extent, his art reflects his own idiosyncratic state of mind.

But the popularity of The Scream suggests that many, many others relate to what the image conveys. That group includes the American businessman who forked over more than $100 million for the privilege of owning the 1895 version of the work.

For my part, I’m not sure I’d want that hanging in my bedroom, watching me sleep. Not even for free.

But why mention The Scream here? Because when I was casting about for an image to represent Psalm 14, that’s the one that came to mind.

. . .

Recently, we’ve been examining a series of lament psalms. We’ve seen complaints about the psalmist’s enemies, and a complaint about personal illness. On the surface, Psalm 14 (and its near-twin, Psalm 53) may seem like another lament about enemies — and not just the psalmist’s personal enemies, but the enemies of the people of Israel. The psalm ends, after all, with these words: “O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the LORD restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad” (Ps 14:7; 53:6, NRSV).

Whoever it is that’s troubling Israel, they are described as “evildoers who eat up [God’s] people as they eat bread” (Ps 14:4; 53:4). The reference to eating bread could suggest different things: the people’s enemies are devouring them ravenously, or daily, or without thought, as if gobbling them down was nothing to write home about.

But there’s more going on here than just a plea for God to put a stop to the persecution, more than just a lament over personal suffering. The psalmist seems to complain that all of humankind seems twisted, a perversion of what humans were created to be:

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is no one who does good.

The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind
    to see if there are any who are wise,
    who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
    there is no one who does good,
    no, not one.
(Ps 14:1-3)

The contrast between foolishness and wisdom is an important one. Biblically, a “fool” is not a clown or buffoon (think Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame). Indeed, fools can be shrewd, powerful, and dangerous. What makes them foolish is not their lack of intelligence but their inability or refusal to see the truth: there is a God; that God is the God of Israel, and no other; that God is righteous; that God cares how we live and will hold us accountable.

When the psalmist says the fool believes that “there is no God,” I don’t think this means believing that “there are no gods.” The cultural world surrounding ancient Israel was filled with competing gods, and God’s people themselves were constantly tempted to some form of idolatry (“Hey, don’t you think that little statue would look nice on the mantelpiece next to that picture of your mother?”). Moreover, the word translated as “abominable” can be used for “detestable” things like foreign idols (e.g., Deut 7:26; 1 Kings 21:26).

Thus, I believe the psalmist is describing a world in which people may worship many gods but not God. They do not seek the one true God; this makes them deluded fools rather than wise. They have veered from God’s way. They are “corrupt” and “perverse,” two synonyms that suggest something good that has decayed or spoiled.

And the psalmist says that God has examined all of humankind, looking for an exception to the rule. None have been found.

No, not one.

. . .

Munch’s painting is emblematic to me of a nightmarish vision of reality; if we were to see things as he did, we’d want to scream too. But that’s just the point. It’s too easy to read some lament psalms as supporting a black-and-white vision of good guys and bad guys, of God’s people and their enemies. Our continually contentious cultural mix of politics and religion thrives on such a narrative.

But the psalmist’s vision is more complicated, as we’ll continue to explore.