The Dark Side of Praise

Preaching, Theology

King David is remembered for being a master of praise. When you turn to the title page of our Book of Common Prayer, it lists the rites, sacraments and ceremonies of our common life in prayer as being there together “with The Psalter or Psalms of David.” This is the iconic portrait of King David: a psaltery, or a kind of lute or harp in his lap, mouth open in a song of praise to God, the precursor to that guy you knew in college who brought his guitar to every party and sat in the corner wailing away into the wee hours of the morning about some woman who was too good for him. Or perhaps the precursor to that guy you knew in college who sang a song so sweet you forgot for a moment that you’d gone a whole half hour without refilling your Solo cup. It cuts both ways. We see David soothing the madness of his precursor, King Saul, in this same way. He was so known for this talent for praise that the whole Book of Psalms, the whole Book of Hymns in the Bible intended to praise God, has been traditionally attributed to him. I think about this penchant of his when I hear the story of Bathsheba.

 

 

First, a thought experiment. When I say “Bathsheba” what do you think of? You all just heard our David read the story. What comes to mind? If we take the majority of Western Art as a guide, we might see her as a very pale, very shapely woman, very naked in the middle of a bath with at least one arm stretched above and behind her [like this *demonstrate*] which I can tell you is not actually a very effective bathing position. This iconic image, of course, is only to be found in the eye of the beholder, it is David’s image, not Bathsheba’s. In the passage which we just read, we actually know nothing about Bathsheba other than what David thought of her, and saw of her, and heard of her, and made her do. Everything we learn about Bathsheba is through David’s perspective. She remains his object, an object of his lust, an object to be captured and consumed, and in her pregnancy, a problematic object to be resolved by willful deception and murder. So what is it about all this blatant objectification which makes me think of David’s legacy as a master of praise? Only that praise -which many of us enjoy doling out as much as we revel in the chance to bask in some of its glory- has a dark side.

One day, back when I was a teacher of young children, a parent of one of my students handed me an article by Alfie Kohn called “Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job’” In the article, Kohn draws a line between healthy practices of supporting young children on the one hand, and the “sugar-coated control” of more typical praise on the other. He points out the way praise is often used as a tool of manipulation (we praise what we want more of after all, such as when a child is tidy or well-behaved) and can interfere with a child’s internal sense of motivation and achievement and value. A child can even become a “praise junkie,” more concerned with approval than her own interests. I thought the whole thing was crazy talk and initially I resented the parent for trying to tell me how to do my job. But then as it sank in I thought of all the praise I had been giving. “Good job!” to the blob-like painting of indiscernible content. “Good job!” to whoever put the legos I wouldn’t have to step on now because they were safely inside a tupperware box. “Good job!” to the line of squirming, clearly-ready-to-burst, but obediently silent children. The next time a kid ran past me with piece of paper smeared by goopy black brushstrokes I bit my tongue and tried out one of the lines Kohn recommended instead, “Hey! Come here for a minute; tell me about your painting.” And instead of running off to the next task as usual, the child disclosed to me what he had created. He open up not in my approval, but in the opportunity to be known as a creative person, an artist. It is a way of saying “I see you for you.”

Lisa Bloom has written about this in a famous blogpost from 2011 called “How to Talk to Little Girls,” in which she meets a four-year-old girl named Maya at a party and resists the temptation to tell Maya how pretty she is, choosing to ask her instead what she’s been reading lately. It is our cultural custom to tell little girls how pretty they are. It is countercultural to regard and respect (as Alice Miller says) “the person she really is at any given time” in all her “emotions, sensations, and their expression from the first day onward.” The young child does not need to be praised for the things which are beneficial and pleasing to us, she needs to be seen and mirrored for who she really is.

 

What does any of this have to do with King David? More importantly, what does it have to do with God? We can see what David’s implicit praise of Bathsheba’s beauty led to. We can see the destruction which comes from treating another sentient being as a mere object of our desire and our will rather than as an independent, subjective reality unto themselves. What implications does this have for praising God? Is there something as equally empty about sitting around around all day telling God that he’s done a “good job”? By many traditional standards the highest aim of creaturely existence is the praise of it’s creator. It’s always seemed a bit to me like talking about how pretty a meal looks rather than eating it, or perpetually extolling the beauty of a beloved rather than leaning in for a kiss. If the child who shows us his painting really, truly wants us to see him as the painter first, then what might God want? Confronted with our own complicated, awe-inspiring creatureliness, perhaps we could try changing our immediate address to God from, “you are so good,” to “tell me about what you have made.”

The funny thing about the psalms which we’ve ascribed to David is the fact that they do exactly that. We call them biblical hymns of praise but for every verse singing of God’s goodness there’s at least two or three more talking to God about how scared we are, the mistakes we’ve made, the anger we feel when we’ve been hurt. Perhaps this is because the Hebrew word for praise, “yadah” also means “to confess.” These are songs that take full advantage of being known by our creator as (to repeat Alice Miller’s phrase) the person who we really are at any given time. For David, this means being known as an adulterous, lustful murderer in cold blood, and he tells God all about it (see Psalm 51). We could chalk it up to a mere pity that for as much as David allowed himself to be known by God as human, and weak, and vulnerable to mistakes, he didn’t take the time to know Bathsheba or her husband on their own terms. Or we can take that as our charge from God, to ensure as best as we are able, that the people in our lives have as graced an opportunity to be so fully known, and seen, and mirrored for exactly who they are at any given moment. God, of her goodness, has done as much for us and more, and will continue to do much more for every time we consent to say, “I see you, come here and show me what you’re making.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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