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From Poetry to Prose: New Book Series on the Psalms Comes to Life

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

What if?  It is a two-word question that has seemingly endless possibilities.  For writers of Biblical fiction that question literally provides the freedom to explore scripture in an honest and creative way.  It allows for putting one's self into time-tested stories from the Bible to feel what those characters might have experienced and to gain a better grasp of what their culture may have been like.  Simply put, it is a great way to emotionally connect with scripture.

With this in mind, McPherson Publishing is releasing a collection of short biblical novels inspired by the psalms called The Psalm Series.  The series debuted in July with The Hunter and the Valley of Death (Psalm 23) by author Brennan McPherson and continues with Mesu Andrews’ By the Waters of Babylon (Psalm 137) in August. Deep Calling Deep (Psalm 42) by Carole Towriss completes the initial collection of stories in September.  The series will continue with more offerings in 2019.

The books will be available e-book, paperback, and audio book format, and in-depth Bible study will be included as an added feature.

To purchase any of The Psalm Series books please visit psalmseries.com.

I recently spoke with all three authors to discuss the significance of reading a fictional account of scripture, challenges they encountered while adapting what is essentially a book heavily influenced by poetry and song, and new truths about the psalms they uncovered during the writing process.

Even though the books of the Psalm series are based on scripture they are what is known in the publishing industry as biblical fiction.  How do these books differ from the poetic nature of this Old Testament book?

Brennan McPherson: What we wanted to do was have the freedom to explore cases of scripture that aren’t necessarily narrative in nature. They’re poetic, because about a third of the scriptures are poetry, not necessarily narrative. So you kind of miss out on a lot of engagement with scripture if you limit yourself to such a small portion of just a few stories. So it’s nice to be able to expand and look at things from a different perspective. The value of exploring scripture through fiction is called “The Ignatian Method”. It’s a method of kind of putting yourself into the stories of scripture so that you feel what those characters might have felt, those real people, you envision what their culture would have been like. It’s a way of emotionally connecting with the scriptures. I think in the West, a lot of times we go at the scriptures from such an intellectual perspective, but it’s extremely important that our emotions be involved in our faith. We look primarily through faith, not through the intellect. That’s how we engage with the Spirit. So we just find that fiction is a great way to connect our emotions to the truth of scripture.

There will be skeptics who say that if it is not written in scripture than you should not take creative license in interpreting what may or may not have happened in these Biblical accounts.  How do you answer those skeptics?

Mesu Andrews: I appreciate those who feel this way.  I actually thank the person who points this out to me because I am thrilled to have warriors for the Gospel.  A warrior is the protector of the Word.  I love their zeal because I want people to protect the Word of God.  I am a protector of the Word too.  I want everything I write to be accurate.  And if at any point something I have written is inaccurate it is completely an oversight. It was not in any way intentional.  Their zeal is my heart as well.  If someone questions my research I am more than happy to share my notes with them on how I arrived at that those conclusions.  They are almost always thankful and understanding of my response. 

The first three books of the series are based on Psalm 23, 137, and 42.  Why these Psalms to kick off the series?

Brennan: For me, the 23rd Psalm was the first significant verse of scripture that I memorized as an adult, and I’ve used it time and again as a personal prayer, a way of focusing my heart on God. It’s also so rich with imagery that it just got my imagination running, and I started to envision a story that took the imagery and made it into a fantasy parable; because it sort of is telling a bit of a fantasy parable in itself. So I just wanted to explore the deep messianic truths in the psalm. It’s all about lamb, shepherd, and sheep symbolism. It’s all about forgiveness and being welcomed into God’s family, living with Him in eternity. Then there are so many promises in that psalm that link up with our New Testament hopes. It’s pretty remarkable.

Mesu: I wrote The Waters of Babylon about Psalm 137. It basically wrote itself.  I started out wanting to explore the fall of Jerusalem and the captive march.  I love the history of Israel and it was a huge thing when the temple was burned.  And the march of those captives from Jerusalem to Babylon is just such a huge part of Israel’s history. I’m passionate about people understanding scripture and that is a huge part of it, that they understand that transition from the kings to the diaspora.  If people don’t understand how all of that happens they don’t understand that whole second aspect of the later prophets. I want people to understand what that transition was about and how traumatic it was for the Jewish people when the temple was destroyed.

Carole: Deep Calling Deep is based on Psalm 42.  When selecting this, I just started going through all the psalms, trying to find one that wasn’t inherently Old Testament.  I wanted to use something that would have the types of characters and settings that I already knew.  Psalm 42 is a psalm that looks at why people are so downcast while they keep asking where is God.  The psalmist keeps coming back to ‘but I will praise God.’  That roller coaster of emotions just really intrigued me.  The story takes place during Paul’s first imprisonment.  He is under house arrest.  This can be found in the last few verses of Acts. 

In writing about the Psalms you are essentially approaching a book of the Bible that is heavily comprised of material that was originally songs and poetry.  Did that create an extra set of challenges as you set these psalms to fiction?

Mesu: It did and it didn’t because this psalm was really just a jumping off point.  This psalm was basically only one of the scenes in the broader story.  So, I didn’t use this psalm to tell the whole story.

Carole: For me, I’m starting with the emotions and the feelings of my characters.  A lot of the psalms are people crying out to God.  Psalm 42 is one of the lamentation psalms.  So, it is essentially someone crying out to God because there is something terrible going on.  These are ‘please help me’ cries. All of the psalms are just so full of raw emotion which gives me a lot to work with.

Brennan: It’s just a different set of rule that you have to write by. It’s actually more challenging to write a story based on a narrative, because you have such tight confines for your plot. You have things that you can’t, there’s so little wiggle room in your plot. Sometimes plots in the stories don’t work well for pacing in a modern novel. It becomes very difficult to adapt it faithfully. It was actually pretty liberating to be able to explore real scriptural truths without those confines. That being said, trying to do the story line by line through the psalm was extremely difficult.

What significance is there in reading a fictional account of the psalms? Many people would say, “Well, I’ll just read the biblical text. I get everything I need just from reading it in the Bible,” but is there significance to reading this as a fictional account? Does it bring it to life even more so than what you might find just reading the text?

Brennan: Many times we skip over things in the scriptures that we don’t have a frame of reference for. Fiction can break that down, give you a frame of reference and help you to have empathy for people who’ve experienced things you haven’t experienced. There’s incredible value to exploring it through fiction. Another kind of auxiliary benefit is that we’ve read a lot of these texts over and over again. Psalm 23 is one of the most well recognized psalms of all times, and familiarity can make things feel stale and they can drive distance between your emotions and the text. Exploring the text from a different perspective, through fiction, can bring that freshness and give you a new connection with the truths that texts contain.

Carole: I think we always learn and can remember something better in a story.  That’s why Jesus taught in parables.  And I think by coming up with different ways of looking at it, it shows you that it can be relatable to anybody at any point in their life.  You don’t have to be a captive to understand the feelings that are in Psalm 137.  You don’t have to be David hiding to understand the psalms he wrote.  You still experience all of those feelings, fears and cries to God.  They can always bring you back to a point of faith and God.  That is where all of these psalms end up, a declaration of I will continue to believe in God and trust Him.

Are the first three books of this series interconnected in any way as far as characters, continuation of story, chronology?

Brennan: No, they’re not. They’re completely stand-alone just like the psalms were. And that’s something that we forget as well. The psalms were written by many, many people over thousands of years: The Sons of Korah, different priests, King David, Solomon, and othes. Each one was very specific to a moment in time. Each one was a specific expression of the writer’s heart in that moment and, a lot of times, what Israel was going through at that time period. So we just approached it as if all were standalone, but the same essential structure of picking a psalm, writing a story based on it, ending it with an explanation of the author’s approach of the text and Bible study of that psalm in focus. So the whole focus of the entire series is scripture engagement.

After people have read the The Psalm Series in its entirety what would you like to see readers take away from the experience?

Brennan: My greatest hope is that their hearts are reconnecting with the scriptures in a deeper way. When we engage with the Bible, when we engage with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, we’re demanded to engaging with our emotions as well. I think that’s something that we forget. The command “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind” is not just talking about your actions; it’s also talking about training your heart on Christ, putting on the Spirit of Christ, praying with thanksgiving. It’s all talking about emotional connections to God and His promises. So I hope that, when people read the book, they will connect deeply on a heart level with God and with the scriptures and will be reignited to go back and take their time to really read through the scriptures more slowly and to savor the Bible.

Mesu: I hope my readers realize that no matter what they think the plan is, it may be different.  And just because the plan is different doesn’t mean it’s worse.  It could very well be better in the end. I think what God is showing through these stories is that just because our plan gets interrupted doesn’t mean that the plan is over or is going to end up worse than we hoped. His plan it is always going to be better.  

Carole: I would like them to go back and read more Scripture.  But also, that they would see that God can meet you in any situation.  Every one of my characters has something different going on but God can meet all of them where they are and offer peace and hope.

To purchase any of The Psalm Series books please visit psalmseries.com.

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