by Bill McKibben

A confession: I’ve always loved the Psalms, but mostly for their glorious language. All those lyres sounding and leviathans spouting, all that oil shining on brows, those glorious cedars of Lebanon, the roaring floods.

Despite that, though, the Psalms never meant as much to me as I thought they should. Part of it, maybe, is that I haven’t yet wandered into the valley of the shadow; my life’s been less traumatic than many, and perhaps not as demanding of constant comfort. But more, I think, it’s just that so much of the writing is over the top. All the browbeating and breast baring, the constant lamenting, the God-praising that sounds to a modern ear like some kind of bizarre sucking-up. All those eager demands that one’s enemies die particularly nasty deaths. To my ear it often came out sounding like opera.

Which is why the Psalms reconfigured in this new collection seem to me so moving. For the most part they’re quieter, written not so much in the language of our time as in the volume of our time. The despair is quieter, the exultation more personal. Less wailing, less trumpeting. But no less pain, and no less hope, and no less feeling. And that in turn is why the photographs are so crucial, with their reminder that this is us talking.

That these deep emotions come from ordinary people, just as they must have done originally. And of course ordinariness is the most moving thing of all—the recognition that roughly six billion of us are going through these trials, dealing with these feelings, as we make our short journeys through this life.

New translations from the Bible only occasionally clarify. Usually they manage to strip away emotional power, and leave only simpleness as recompense. But these Psalms are not translations—they’re more like improvisations, riffs on the images and the moods of the original. You can recognize the theme in many cases, but that theme is refreshed.

The intonation of the pulpit reading drops away, the rhythm of the conversation wells up. These writers have performed a great service, given a great gift. To hear these phrases stripped down and then restored in a tone we instantly recognize as real is, in a certain way, to hear them again for the first time. Praise be!