Questions & Answers

Q: What is your favorite reinterpreted Psalm and why?
A: (Andrea) My favorite Psalm in our book is Psalm 91 by Michael Klein-Berndt. I love that Michael, who works as a custodian, wrote:

"Those that aspire for peace and serenity need but one thing...
Those that are from park ave or park bench need but one thing... on something greater than ourselves

I think this is the heart of what this book is all about: to take these ancient words of wisdom, lament and praise and make them real, alive, and applicable to today. Michael has done a splendid job of seeing this old Psalm anew, from his experience, based on his relationship with the Divine. I re-read his Psalm often and it reminds me why I tackled this project so long ago!

A: (Ellen) Psalm 19 by Jeannie Cooper. Jeannie, who is no longer alive, wrote a simple, direct and beautiful Psalm. My parents had both died by the time Jeannie and I got together for this project, and I was missing having older people in my everyday life.
She was so easy to engage and her eyes and smile were so open. And of course, I loved her reference to her camera in the Psalm.

“My camera captures the heavenly scene
Of clouds piling upon each other…”

During local events for the book, people gravitate to Jeannie’s photograph and Psalm. Her Psalm acknowledges that we are not perfect, but there is so much to be grateful for. Read aloud, it is a thing of quiet beauty.

Q: What kept you working on this project for 10 years? What inspired your stamina?
A: (Andrea) As a person of faith, I often take the long view. I know that important work/projects take years, maybe decades. Society believes in quick fixes and promotes instant gratification. But people of faith are good at looking out at the horizon and walking, step by step, toward their goal. I knew the book would be moving, beautiful, finished and published. Faith kept me going!

Q: Not everyone knows as much about the Bible as you do, Andrea. Why are the Psalms the most loved and best read part of the Bible? Why is Psalm 23 so well known? What is it about them that speak across the ages -- the raw emotion, the poetry?
A: (Andrea) The Psalms are the most loved Book in the Bible because they reflect every human emotion we experience: love, anger, revenge, joy, grief, sorrow, loss, bitterness, triumph, delight--all are found in the Psalms and all expressed with dramatic language that conveys these deeply held feelings. The Psalms capture our deep longing for a relationship with Spirit--something greater than ourselves--and they give us words with which to approach the Divine.

Q: The book is thought to be accessible spirituality. How do these new Psalms make the Bible even more accessible?
A: (Andrea) Although deeply loved and often read, some of the Psalms are also hard to interpret. This book takes those ancient words and translates them into contemporary language with common images. The book gives people a "way in" to hear the strong emotions in the Psalms in a fresh, new way.

Q: Do you know of any groups or people who have used the book as a model yet and are rewriting Psalms as an exercise? Say at their church or synagogue? Are you as the editor and photographer hoping to see this catch on?
A: (Andrea) I don't know of any group that has re-written the Psalms based on our book. I hope they will now that the book is out.

Q: Tell me how hard or easy it was to have 150 people write their own psalms. How did you find them? Was there a typical contributor experience?
A: (Andrea) To find 150 people who would each re-write a Psalm I had to ask about 250 people. Many people jumped at the chance, but many also said no--the task was too intimidating, they did not want to touch these ancient poems and songs, they could not imagine that they had much to add/say, they were taken aback by the request! Some people who said “yes” sat down and the rewritten Psalm poured out of them. Some worked and re-worked and re-worked their Psalm and would still be rewriting if we let them!

A: (Ellen) Andrea had laid a firm foundation before I came on board, and I was able to invite people as well to consider writing a Psalm. People had the same reaction to me as Andrea describes above…. but many were intrigued. I also had someone willing to write the Psalm, but didn’t want to be photographed.

Q: Was there any memorable story associated with a contribution or photo?
A: (Andrea) What I most love is the number of people who initially said, "Mine will probably be awful, but I will give it a try," or something close to that. And then they wrote beautiful, moving Psalms that they were proud of and we were delighted to include in the book. The surprise and delight that this book brought these modern-day Psalm writers is one of the great gifts of this book. That touched my heart deeply.

A: (Ellen) One thing we found is that many of the clergy that contributed to Psalms in Ordinary Voices, stayed close to the original writing, but one story stands out against this trend.

One sunny day I arrived to photograph Rabbi Justin David (Psalm 70) at Congregation B'nai Israel. He told me that he had completed his Psalm. I had brought with me a copy of a Psalm written by our mutual friend, Hannah Todd (Psalm 53). Getting ready to leave, I asked Justin for his Psalm and he hesitated, but then said that after reading Hannah's, he decided to rewrite his. Reading Hannah's interpretation “released” him to take another look and to write something unusual, energetic, emotional and unexpected.

Q: You're very proud that the Psalm contributors in your book represent the diversity of the human family, from sexual orientation and family configuration to race and socio-economic status. Tell me about this diversity, why it's so important to this work.
A: (Andrea) It feels very important to Ellen and to me that the Psalm writers in the book reflect the diversity of the human family and look like the world. We did not want a book in which all the writers were white, or middle-class, or heterosexual or middle-aged, or able-bodied--that simply is not what our country looks like. The human family is wildly diverse and beautiful and we wanted to lift up the beauty of God's sons and daughters. I think the diversity makes the book special and real and will help people of all colors, ages and abilities relate to this work.

A: (Ellen) And, in addition, this diverse group of people also come from diverse religious backgrounds, including those who question their faith, which gives these writings another layer of interest.

Q: The Psalms comes from the Old Testament also known as the Hebrew Scriptures. Is this a book for Jews, Catholics and Protestants then? What about Muslims and other faiths? Is it for people who are religious or for folks who don't go to organized religion? Please talk more about who will enjoy this book in terms of faith, spirituality and religions.
A: (Andrea) Because the Psalms strike such universal themes--fear, alienation from the Divine, loneliness, loss, joy, anger and delight--I believe people of many faiths and no faith will find the book interesting and compelling. There is such a wide range of interpretations in the book, these rewritten Psalms are so varied and so colorful, I believe people from different faiths will find special ones that speak to them individually.

Q: How did you typically take someone’s photo?
A: (Ellen) For this project I joined people at their home or workplace, and tried not to take up too much of their time. Many people fit it in during their workday. Almost all are taken outdoors.

I would arrive, take a look around for the best light and place where a person could be physically comfortable, and then dive into the photo taking. I’ve gotten good at bossing people around (in a nice way) and I gave directions to relax, to lean into the photo. I always ask what is typical body posture for them sitting and standing. That is often a good starting point and I tweak it from there.

I try to draw people out; not so much in talking, but a “softening” towards the camera, when their guard lets down and they can look at the camera open and calm.

Q: Are the videos on the website a taste of the book? Are you hoping that the video might spawn its own project for yourselves or at the grassroots? Tell me about the video.
A: (Ellen) The initial purpose of the videos was to make the website more interactive and interesting. Ten people generously came to read and be videotaped. I was surprised by the emotion that some of the Psalms elicited when read aloud, a feeling that hadn’t hit me when reading to myself from the book.

And, yes, hopefully the videos on the website will be an example of how to use the book, in a small group, alone or perhaps during a service. I would love it if the book came to be used as a guide for groups that want to do rewrites. Perhaps an entire congregation or religious school might work on rewrites of the 150 Psalms and put together their own Psalms in Ordinary Voices.

Q: Have there been surprises along the way?
A: (Ellen) Many of us know that there are at least 23 Psalms, but have no idea that there are, in fact, 150….and I was surprised.
As a Jewish atheist who doesn’t attend synagogue, I am always interested in people that practice faith and have at times thought that there is something very basic missing in my genetic makeup. This project has introduced me to the Psalms in an intimate way. I like that this project “forced” me to take a good look at something that means so much to so many people…a way of opening my eyes.

Q: Since so much of what you do is perceived through the lens of a camera, how do you feel about the photographs?
A: (Ellen) We all know the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but in the case of this project, I’m not so sure. In the book, the photograph and Psalm sit across from each other as a mirror image, complementing and equal. As you flip the pages of the book, it may be the image that makes you stop and read the Psalm, but for others, it may be the Psalm that makes you want to study the image. I think many people will turn to their most loved, traditional Psalm to see who and how it was handled in this interpretation.