Review: Coloring the Psalms, Seeing God’s Patterns in Our Lives

Coloring the Psalms: Seeing God’s Patterns in Our Lives. By Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, illustrated by James Newman Gray. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016. 72 pages. $15.

In the spirit of the psalms, which do not carry strict prescription for their use and application, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s creative work, Coloring the Psalms: Seeing God’s Patterns in Our Lives, extends a flexible invitation for anyone to easily enter reflection on the wisdom and images of these Old Testament texts.  And, as Transpositions approaches our summer break, this seems an appropriate time to highlight this book and encourage readers to take some creative time with it.

However, while coloring the Psalms can be a creative, artistic endeavor, it can also be a cerebral and contemplative exercise.  Calhoun and illustrator James Newton Gray provide a means for integrating both as the reader encounters not only the words of scripture, but also meditative reflections and thoughtful, imaginative illustrations.  No matter how one comes to this book, illumination and inspiration await, even if simply through watching colors come alive as they hit the page. More likely, the words of scripture and the images illustrated, combined with the physical act of coloring, will provide readers with a prayerful kind of experience through which they can enter the world of the Psalms and humanity’s relationship with God.

Coloring the Psalms has an attractively eloquent and inviting introduction, encouraging the reader to “intentionally be with God as you color,” and to “notice the God who is seeking you” (Invitation).  Stunning art by Gray beautifully matches Calhoun’s invitation.

When I first opened this book, knowing it contained scripture passages, I hesitated for a moment at the appropriateness of making marks, in the way someone might be apprehensive to make annotations in a bible.  However, the artist in me delighted in the prospect.  As I perused the images, my mind amusingly considered the hermeneutical significance of coloring outside the lines.  The psalms themselves offer opportunities for multivalent interpretation and inspiration, and I felt empowered to offer my own colorful exegesis.

The psalmists’ emotional outcries of praise or lament stimulate the imagination and encourage response. While Calhoun emphasizes the worshipfulness with which one can come to this book through their body, mind and spirit, I was equally intrigued by the license I could take with biblical interpretation by literally making my mark through the physical, artistic act of coloring. It felt worshipful, I suppose. But it also felt liberating.  I considered the impact this empowering and inherently interpretive artistic endeavor could have for those, especially at the margins, who may feel inadequate or excluded from offering their interpretation of scripture.  My imagination envisioned the possibilities of what might happen if disparate groups entered together in the experience of coloring and contemplating this book and these psalms.  I imagined a beautiful and diverse array of artistic “interpretations.”

Following an introductory invitation, Calhoun has organized the book into four parts: Meditation, Attentiveness, Prayer, and Worship.  While a framework aids in navigating any book, I did not experience an identifiable logic or rhythm in her division. For example, the worshipful Psalm 148, “Praise the Lord from the earth. . . fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!” (148:7-8) is placed in the Prayer section (52); and I did not see a distinction between psalms designated to the Meditation and Attentiveness sections.

These concerns matter little in terms of engaging the psalms and the imagination, but since there is an organization imposed on the artwork, scripture and reflections, a hermeneutical key would have been helpful to satiate my cognitive curiosity.

Furthermore, a table of contents or index of the psalms contained in the book is also advisable for navigation and would aid in selecting psalms for particular application.  That said, simply spontaneously opening the book on any given page is a more than fitting approach that requires no organization or cognition whatsoever.  Therefore, I give much more weight to the success of Calhoun and Gray in sparking inspiration and imagination for readers while they engage the book.

Overall, I found the images and reflections cohesive, however, in one instance the image and psalm seemed dissonant.  The lion illustration depicted with Psalm 104 is stunning and drew my attention immediately (15).  It was the first image I colored and it held rich resonance for me.  However, my response to it was vastly contrary to the corresponding meditation.  The lion is roaring with an array of intricate, feathery locks flowing behind him. This image and the psalm text (“The lions roar for their prey,” 104:21) stir in me senses of and power, vibrancy and even force, yet the meditative reflection encouraged me to take deep breaths and slow down.  This was a counter intuitive directive that I had to ignore to pursue where my own imagination was leading me.

As I read and colored, I put expression to my own interpretive inspiration and realized this play and exercise was a form of my own prayerful cry to God. Whether these prayers felt joyful, petitioning, lamenting or praising, I did indeed live up to the expectations I set for meeting Calhoun’s challenge to notice the God seeking me.

Through color and intensity, and yes, even through the degree with which I kept to the framework of the lines (or not), I showed up on the hermeneutical radar and voiced my response to the Word of God and the cry of the psalmist.  In the process, I discovered new insights and a different kind of prayer.  I do believe I was responding to a God who has never stopped seeking me, a God who, when I slow down long enough, I also glimpse, especially through artistic endeavors and. . . color.

I recommend a spontaneous and imaginative approach to this book without care for a systematized journey through it.  Anyone who accepts the offer that Calhoun, Gray and the psalms themselves provide are in for an illuminating journey, and a fitting summer activity.

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