In these post-modern days, in which every word and deed is supposed to veil a bare act of power, the Bible and those who express themselves in its pages are often accused of totalitarian urges. The accusation, upon careful review, nearly always rings hollow.
Yet the spirit of our age is familiar with power and at the same time too distracted for nuance, layers, and textures. Sucking that spirit into one’s lungs sets a person up for simplistic explanations and nicely posed theories that, in their own way, are attempts to corral all others into the pen that one knows best. Totalism, though it will not admit to such, is rich with irony.
The final line of the biblical psalter, viewed with glib self-confidence, stands out as a poster child of totalitarian urges.
Everything that breathes is summoned to praise. But why not to critical analysis?
Everything that breathes is convened to praise YHWH. But why not laud the human spirit or some other deity or the universe or, say, beauty?
Everything that breathes becomes the object of an unyielding, presumptively all-inclusive command? But who is this ancient, biblical, arguably patriarchal voice to lord its presumed authority over us, to tell me what I am to do?
The psalm does not address these concerns:
Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD!
One finds the psalter’s closing verse to be ordinary only if one has become too familiar with the psalms themselves. The post-modern critics are right, after all, to point out the extraordinary audacity of its sentiment. It is totalist. The very hortatory and vocative nature of its language implies that it calls persons and creatures to do something that they might otherwise fail to do, to participate in doxology from which they might have chosen to abstain.
In the biblical trajectory of history and hope, it is a stubborn fact that biblical rhythms will not finally coalesce into their smooth and cunning final sounds until all clap their hands, until every toe taps. There is, in this hopeful desire for all of creation, plenty of room for syncopation but none for arrhythmia and still less for inert silence.
Yet this undeniably totalist biblical impulse is no bare exercise of power or will to violent imposition. It represents rather a divine encounter with the work of his hands that, by the movements of an irrepressible combination of strength and beauty, will finally achieve an outcome where everything that breathes praises the Lord.
Those who praise YHWH already understand this, though we struggle to articulate the willingness of our participation. Those who do not yet understand this will some day. From this point forward, the calculus fails as one struggles to hope that their breath-filled voices will be raised to praise with a heart’s full endorsement. Yet the biblical trajectory speaks also of the sadness, of the tragic reality that some breaths will grow still, indeed will be stilled, finding that they cannot praise YHWH.
Can this, too, be seen as consequence of holy love rather than raw, self-serving power on the part of the deity whom it calls Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer?
It can, if one joins the story line of the biblical drama, if one reads it as one’s own and trusts its insistence that the hand that guides its turnings moves to the impulse of profoundly mysterious goodness.
It cannot, if all expression articulates bare power, stripped of love, of long-suffering, of patience, of costly redemption, of the very breath of God.