Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 74) transports me to a 1968 voyage to the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Aden for a de-mystifying study of the behavior of killer sharks. This is the maiden voyage for a television show that was one of my childhood favorites, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Coming to an appreciative understanding of how and why sharks do what they do was only the beginning. Week after week, after some introductory narration by the Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, Captain Cousteau and his crew of the Calypso would don their wetsuits and scuba gear, fall backwards off the boat into the waters, and film all sorts of marine life, from the sharks to sea elephants to the mysterious dragons (iguana) of the Galapogos, logging over a million miles sailed. When they weren’t diving and filming, they were smoking pipes, drinking wine, and educating us (in their wonderful French accents) about the complex ecology and biodiversity of sea life, with a good bit of conservation advocacy thrown in for good measure. It was groundbreaking, or surface-breaking, to be more precise, work, for prior to Cousteau the world of the dark oceans were largely unexplored; it was the mythic space of sea monsters and lost worlds.
The Psalmist didn’t have the advantage of watching Jacques Cousteau, living as he did back in the days when the sea retained its shrouded mystery and was haunted by all sorts of threatening monsters. God is portrayed as an Olympian Poseidon-like deity, dividing the sea by his might, breaking the heads of the dragons in the waters. God crushes the head of that most feared and diabolical of sea creatures, Leviathan, giving the beast as food for the creatures of the wilderness. This is the kind of imagery depth psychologists like Carl Jung loved, revealing the archetypal enemies that lurk deep beneath the surface of ego, in the collective unconscious of the human psyche. What is striking to me is how the Psalmist defined the attributes of this submarine spiritual foe. The dark places, according to the song, are full of the haunts of violence. Leviathan rules when the downtrodden are put to shame. The Psalmist would no doubt see Leviathan swimming freely in the currents of our cultural waters, to the extent that the we have made a civil religion of the right to be violent, and have made oppression of the poor and needy part and parcel of patriotism.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of the complexities of ocean life since the days Jacques Cousteau smoked and drank and sailed his way around the world. And we’ve come a long way in our understanding of the complexities of the murky deep waters of the human psyche. The sea monsters in our collective unconscious that drove us to do all sorts of destructive things are now analyzed in the labs of cognitive scientists, who work at the intersections of neuroscience and biology and chemistry. Leviathan is now understood to be some misfirings of the neural pathways. Even the diagnoses of neuroses and psychoses are being re-defined in terms of the physiology of brain activity. That’s all well and good, but there’s still something that rings true in the poetry of the pre-Cousteau Psalms. There’s something that rings true about a mythical battle between Poseidon and Leviathan taking place in the deepest recesses of the human soul, a battle between the forces of violence and oppression that threaten us on every side, and the forces of compassion and peace that offer us rescue. And there’s something to be said for telling a story that proclaims the good news that the Holy force of love is able to crush the head of the dragons of destruction and the Leviathons of luxurious lifestyles built on the oppression of the poor. Don’t get me wrong; I’ll welcome any scientific breakthrough that may help us learn to reinforce neural pathways of peace and justice. I’ll be glad for the neuroscientists to help us unravel the knotty cognitive connections seen among people of faith in the dissonant affinities for semi-automatic weapons alongside scriptural mandates to love enemies, for hoarding alongside the holy writ’s warnings about possessions. But for now, in this culture of ours that is so addicted to violence and so possessed by the prospects of concentrated wealth at the expense of the poor, we need this Psalm and its hopeful imagery of ultimate victory for the forces of peace and justice. Who knows, maybe the brain scientists will one day discover that by singing this Psalm over and over, people will in fact be creating new neural pathways for peace.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.