Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Song of Songs (1): Disruption

My dove
in the clefts
of the rocks
the secret
of steep ravines

Come let me look at you
Come let me hear you

Your voice clear as water
Your beautiful body

Poem 10 in Marcia Falk's translation of The Song of Songs.

In reflecting on the Song of Songs over the next week, I am responding to my own experience of the book as disruptive. Read as a description of erotic love (particularly in careful and evocative translations such as Marcia Falk's) it is a book that sits profoundly uncomfortably within traditional Christian ideas about sex (and, to a lesser extent, gender). This is made obvious by the almost 2000 years of allegorical interpretation that Christians have developed, in which the poem(s) becomes an extended description of the relationship between the human soul and the divine lover.
In being disruptive, I think the Song fits well with other texts that are characterised as 'wisdom literature'. My own experience of teaching and studying Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes with evangelicals is that they are each experienced as problematic. I well remember the anxiety created in a bible study group I was leading over the question: 'In what sense are biblical proverbs true?' More dramatically, Job offers no easy answers to the problem of suffering and Ecclesiastes is an almost unrelentingly bleak vision of human experience. The attempt to summarise these books within a simplistic system (eg. Ecclesiastes is the viewpoint of a person who doesn't know Yahweh; Job provides a watertight theodicy; the Song is about the delights of conjugal love) does violence to the complexity of the texts and, I assume, to their purpose.
Modern scholars like myself delight in disruption and tension, and it's possible to just embrace these texts as overturning any attempt at systematic theology. But the anxieties these books create do reflect real pastoral issues that any Christian should be deeply concerned over. For example, simply celebrating the erotic adventures of the characters in the Song as a vindication of wholehearted sexual expression may insensitively ignore the agonies, longings, humiliations and doubts that bedevil most people's experience of sexual desire in this life.
So this week, I don't plan to explain the text, or preach it, or simply ogle it. Rather, I want to sit with it for a while. In particular, I want to reflect on a number of responses to the text and the issues it raises - in a movie, in a hymn, in a modern song, in Marcia Falk's amazing translation, perhaps even in a papal encyclical! And also, I hope the responses of those of you who continue to read my ramblings.
Tomorrow: an eighteenth-century hymn on the Song.


dsg said...

"Disruptive" is, I think, an entirely apposite term for this genre in the canon. As regards Job, I often think that his friends got it exactly right when they came and sat with him for days... until they opened their mouths! Likewise our own reading of these texts: we're often too quick to blurt out an attempt to schematize them, at the expense of just continuing to sit with them.

Have you been following Chris Tilling's series on Biblical Inerrancy? Your remarks about evangelical discomfort with these books resonates quite well with the discussion there, I think.

Thanks for starting this series - I'm looking forward to the rest of it!

JoBloggs said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment (and the plug on your blog!). I've been reading Chris's discussion with interest - I'm particularly interested to see what he proposes in the place of inerrancy. There's a much broader question here about what to do with 'disruptive' texts, but I'll leave that to the theologians!

W. said...

Just found your blog and this series via PerCaritatem. Enjoying it. Can't wait to read the one dealing with Pope Benedict's encyclical.

If you haven't, you should spend some time with St. Bernard's commentary. WOW! is all I can say. Very erotic and incarnational.