Archive for August, 2015

Song of Songs: NSFW

// August 29th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Well, I said we were going to start talking about wisdom literature, but it turns out that’s not quite right.  It would have been more accurate to say we are going to talk about the Solomonic corpus, books that are attributed to Solomon.  Of course, it is likely that little to none of these books was actually written by Solomon, but the tradition gives these books some gravitas.  That may be the only reason they are included in our canon or our deutero-canon.  The books have a vague constellation of traits in common, but are mostly dissimilar.  However, the one thing they do share is a concern with the things of this world, perhaps none more than the Song of Songs.

The first question one must ask about the Song of Songs is: Why?  Why is it in here?  Why is it Scripture?  It does not mention God at all.  Much of the material is euphemisms for sex and poetic, imaginative descriptions of male and female anatomy.  It contains the story of a very human pursuit, the erotic longing between two (or possibly three) lovers.  Even the structure and genre of the text is unclear.  That is, some see a collection of love poems ranging in number from six to thirty, while others see the remnants of a fertility cult.  It may be an ancient pop song or even softcore pornography.  It might be the Skinemax of the ancient world.  And yet, one ancient rabbi called it “the Holy of Holies.”

Its inclusion in Scripture has always been a concern for both Jews and Christians.  Consequently, both groups have tried to construe it as a metaphor of God’s love.  For Jews it is God’s love for Israel; for Christians it is Christ’s love for the Church.  This interpretation constrains the text to be about marriage because God’s love must rest in absolute fidelity.  God is the groom and Israel or the Church is the bride.  This ignores the fact that the characters in the book are not married, sneaking off to have sex away from prying eyes.  It is not so much about constructing an appropriate, society-approved coupling, but sheer passion for one another, the bliss of pure desire and its fulfillment.

However, because it is in Scripture, it is assumed to have some spiritual purpose.  Aside from the metaphors mentioned, it has been a touchstone for erotic Christian mysticism.  Yes, that is a thing.  When nuns say they are “brides of Christ,” some of them mean that in all ways.  That is, they understand their love for Christ as erotic just as much as the more tame kinds of love we often associate with God.  Spirituality, it turns out, is embedded in the reality of bodies and expressed in the meetings of those bodies, even if one of those bodies is God’s.  The Song of Songs, if it is about God, speaks to a passionate desire for the Divine that is experienced in one’s body.  Perhaps even more so, it is experienced in the bodies of people together without regard for what other people might think of those assignations.  Desire, as we all know, overcomes good judgment.

Maybe that is how the Song of Songs ties back to wisdom literature.  The paradigmatic piece of wisdom literature is Proverbs, which we might see as a nag, full of pithy sayings that do not come close to coping with lived reality.  But Job and Ecclesiastes call that rigid cause-effect morality into question.  Proverbs is like the Highlights Magazine series, “Goofus and Gallant,” read in elementary school, but Job and Ecclesiastes are like Camus and Nietzsche in first-year philosophy.  Maybe the Songs of Songs functions that way, too, but gives some detail and inspiration – some va-va-voom! – to Ecclesiastes’ “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy.  If we’re all going to die anyway, perhaps desire for one another, even when frowned upon by the culture war wags, is the best way to spend the time we have.  And maybe in that bodily experience of mutual desire, in being passionately drawn to one another, we are drawn closer to God and the world of God’s dreams.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about embodiment, eroticism, and God.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

The Listening Heart

// August 15th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

There’s always a sequel.  Last week, we brought the story of David to a close, but this week we see his son, Solomon, take the throne.  We’ll spend a couple of weeks with Solomon and then move into some wisdom literature.  So maybe it’s more a coda than a sequel.

You may recall that Solomon chose wisdom from God and so God gave him wisdom, prosperity, and long life.  The thinking is that one who chooses wisdom will be able to handle the prosperity and long life.  That one will be a gift to the world rather than a burden.  That one will take us into a better world.

Solomon’s gifts are reputed to be many.  In addition to being a legendary ruler, perhaps the wealthiest and most virile the world has ever seen, he is reputed to have written the bulk of wisdom literature found in the Bible.  He is credited with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, many Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Wisdom of Solomon.  These books range widely in style and outlook, from the clever quips of Proverbs to the existential weight of Ecclesiastes.  It would be a fertile mind indeed to have produced them all.

Of course, he probably did not write them.  Again, we see the gloss of memory.  Solomon begins his reign by lionizing his father, David, ignoring all the clear faults.  There is an irony here that Solomon’s chief virtue is his wisdom, his ability to make good judgments, to know good from evil, yet the text reveals a lot of questionable decisions, even in the eyes of the author, the Deuternomistic Historian.  This text that regularly proclaims the virtue of its characters is written as an explanation of what went wrong with the dynasty.

Perhaps that is the way that wisdom literature works.  Wisdom literature purports to present the collected wisdom of earlier generations.  It’s as if we get a head start on the good life by paying attention to what the dead say.  For us to believe in the advice given, we must believe in the outcome.  Do good, get good. Unfortunately, to believe that, we have to ignore a lot of personal experience and seriously edit the lives of our forbears.  Like all Scripture – and all texts – perhaps there is some value there, but it has to be tested.  Rather than simply following their advice, we should ask: What values do they present?  For whom are those values valuable?  What and who is left out of their imagination of the good?  Only by questioning the text with Solomon’s “listening heart” can we see their real value in our lives.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we talk about the good life in memory and imagination.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Help a Homeless High School Student

One of our community members is working with a young man who is homeless. He is a 17-year-old athlete, and he is a junior in high school. He has back to school supplies, but he could really use some clothes, shoes, and a few other things. There are other agencies working with him on housing, food, and financial issues.  Please purchase items on the list and bring them to services at Church in the Cliff at 11am on Sunday August 16th or 23rd. Please message Scott on Facebook, email pastor@churchinthecliff.org, or text at 214-505-6205 to arrange drop-off during the week.

To learn more about homelessness in high school here in Dallas, visit American Graduate, a special report by KERA.

Absalom, Absalom! The Original

// August 8th, 2015 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

I wish I were a more literary person.  To my regret and my enduring hope for the future, I have not read the classics, the great works of Shakespeare, or much of the great literature of the 20th century.  I suspect that if I did I could make all kinds of comparisons with the stories of David.  It is an epic tale of the rise and fall of the powerful, of mistakes big and small, of strategic regret and hollow redemption.  In short, it is a very human story.

Google is not being helpful right now, but I distinctly remember an interview with a Jewish writer of TV westerns, maybe Gunsmoke.  The interview was conducted in light of some achievement, so they asked where his ideas came from.  He confessed that he stole everything from the Hebrew Bible.  Everyone else at the show was nominally Christian and hadn’t ever really read their Old Testament.  So this author would just pick a story from his Scriptures, change the names, eliminate some messiness, and present an epic tale with a neat moral at the end.  They thought he was a genius with a vivid imagination.

As Christians, we don’t pay a lot of attention to our Old Testament.  The names are hard to pronounce.  The geography is unfamiliar.  And it’s sooooo looooong.  Besides, we all know the answer, regardless of the question, is “Jesus.”  Why read this stuff?

It is hard to understand the story of Jesus without understanding the story of David.  To the people of Israel in Jesus’ time, the Davidic Kingdom represented the last time they enjoyed autonomy and prosperity.  We tend to spiritualize the story of Jesus, placing every hope in an eschatological future, either our own death or the end of the world.  But the Eschaton is only a vision that tells us the future we might live into.  Historically, Christians have said that the Jews missed the boat because they sought material good rather than spiritual reward.  (That view quickly veers into racism.)  Maybe we missed the boat, forgetting how much of Jesus ministry consisted of changing the material reality of the people around him.

Even as the story of David gives us some insight into the story of Jesus, we must view that story – both of those stories, really – critically.  Perhaps the people of Jesus’ day spoke of David the way that some speak of Ronald Reagan or the Founding Fathers today, as idealized figures rather than actual human beings.  Many of the Founding Fathers held slaves even as they spoke of equality.  Reagan’s hope for America was infectious and inspiring, but he did some shady stuff on the way to living into that hope.  David, as we have seen, was terribly flawed.  Those flaws reveal something about the very dangers of romanticizing these figures.  This week, in the story of Absalom, the chickens come home to roost.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Church in the Cliff, as we bring the story of David to a close.

Grace & Peace,
Scott