Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Dying Well

We joke that we don’t want to pray for maturity, or God might give us suffering. There’s more than a little truth to this. The New Testament book Hebrews is a whole letter written to a group of believers who were being called to expose their faith at a time when this was like sticking your head out of a trench in World-War 1. Except, it was not for the purpose of spiritual growth, but to keep from abandoning faith entirely. No one was pushing them out of the trench; in fact, they could stay there, blend in with other Jews and enjoy the official Roman toleration of Judaism, and their possessions, their families, and their lives would not be at risk.

The writer coaxes them out in a dozen different ways: God disciplines through suffering those he loves (Heb 12:6); this is the time, the day when God is acting (Heb 3:13); faith which leads to suffering is a constant pattern among the heroes of the Old Testament (Heb 11); those heroes are watching, even now, and waiting at the heavenly city to which they have been called (Heb 12:22-23).

Near the end of this winsome letter he says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). “Outcome” is ekbasin, which also means “the end of one’s life” (BDAG). In the words of Raymond Brown, rather than simply considering the way their leaders lived their lives,

...it is probably far more natural here to see in this statement a reference to the death of these leaders, possibly even by martyrdom. Even if they did not pay that supreme price, the very way in which they had passed from this life serenely and unafraid was a radiant example in a world terrified by death and an unknown future. Christians of this kind have an abiding influence; the readers are encouraged to imitate their faith.  

In the Victorian era it was common for Christians to contemplate those who had died well. They even collected into books the last words of believers. As health care has improved, though, dying well has become a lost art. In the culture at large, life is about self-actualization while collecting accomplishments and holdings, and death is the ultimate interruption to these pursuits. Talking about death is considered defeatist and depressing. Given our unprecedented control over the end of our lives, this generation does not simply succumb to death, it must often be willing to deliberately let go. When believers hang on, white-knuckled until the bitter end, we send a clear message that they have no peace with what comes next.

Thinking about this has given me a horrifying awareness of how limited our time is. Even if I don’t contract cancer or die in a car crash, my blood is circulated by the uninterrupted action of a muscle I don’t control, which is doomed to wear out. We struggle (and reasonably so) when someone dies an untimely death, but all death is untimely.

Belief in God’s existence is not enough (James 2:9). Do we also believe God loves us, and won’t fail us when we are so vulnerable we can’t even hang on to our lives? All of faith comes down to this: when you look back at your prayers and God’s answers, do you see someone who loves you, and is powerful to save?

If we want to die well, and if we want to be of any help to those around us who are dying, we must cultivate the discipline of recounting God’s faithfulness to us.

At the same time we should ask, was God was faithful to Jesus? If you can read the Gospels and see, standing behind Jesus in all his frustrations and travails and ultimately in his tortured death, a God who loves him, then you will be much closer to dying well.

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thess 4:13-14)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Mental Contortions on Pentecost

This past Sunday, all around the world, non-charismatic churches which observe the church calendar engaged in a fascinating annual display of cognitive flexibility. Pastors everywhere talked about the first Pentecost, at which the prophecy of Joel was fulfilled in glorious fashion, ordinary disciples spoke in tongues and the Spirit began to work wonders on a dramatic scale. It’s a date that invites messages and sermons on spiritual gifts and empowering among even the meekest of quiet, traditional congregations.

We see this empowerment on the pages of our Bibles but we may find it hard to locate in our churches, and be grateful that Paul includes not just prophecy, tongues, healing and other acts of power, but also teaching, serving, mercy, administration, etc. (cf. Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28; Eph 4:11). While the sermon at my church didn’t focus on this, it is not unusual for preachers to point to the use of ordinary “gifts”—talents, really—as representing the works of the Spirit in Acts.

When I look around at the churches I have attended, I do not see prophecy or tongues or anything demonstratively miraculous going on aside from the very gradual miracle of sanctification. And those whom I would point to as particularly gifted in teaching, administration, etc., did not appear to receive those gifts at conversion. Notions of common grace aside, why do we ascribe those to the Spirit in the same vein as the gifts bestowed on the church on and after the first Pentecost?

This is where the mental contortions come in: We know what happened to the early church and our doctrine tells us we are inheritors of that tradition, yet we see none of the power they experienced. This is ironic in the age of the Pentecostal revivals of the 20th century, an era where the greatest church growth is in the global South, often being led by charismatic movements. These can’t be explained away by pointing to charismatic abuses; many of these churches are experiencing genuine movements of the Spirit which include the very gifts which we are absent in churches like mine. Rather than face this fact head-on, we succumb to the temptation to squint until we can convince ourselves that our experience is just as first-century-Pentecostal as theirs.

In March of this year I set myself a task of spotting where the Spirit is active for 21 days. No repeats, no historical events, just current events which are consistent with Scripture’s M.O. of the Spirit. It wasn’t easy—both because I, like others, am unused to seeing the Spirit around me, and because of the no-repeat rule. (The work of the Spirit, like the work of rain and sunshine on flowers, is often repetitive.) 

On a global scale I observed acts of mercy and kindness, such as Christiane Van Heerden who teaches a pre-school in rural South Africa and makes care package for child victims of rape as they prepare to testify in court. I saw acts of courage, such as the Orthodox priests risking their lives and praying on the frontlines in Kiev despite government warnings, and the spread of the gospel in Bali in the midst of a sometimes violent Hindu majority. On a national level, I saw the Spirit working in individuals, as in Malcolm Gladwell’s return to faith and the efforts of the mother of Jordan David to forgive his murderer. A powerful work of the Spirit is seen in the volunteers of the Kairos prison ministry who bake literally hundreds of cookies for prison residence, a simple act of generosity which has a profound effect on the prison residents who receive them.

Most importantly, on a local level I began to see things which I believe are the work of the Spirit. I saw Christians coming into the presence of God confident that his love for them was greater than any parent: ‘And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”’ (Galatians 4:6). I saw my wife and others from our church went downtown to serve food to the needy at Cameron Community Ministries. (I should also include my occasional experiences of the Spirit in prayer, Bible study and worship.)

In my own small group of believers, I saw what Gordon Fee calls our “lavish experience of the Spirit”. Well, perhaps it isn’t exactly “lavish”, but if you are there you see that we care for one another (1 Cor 12:25); pursue one another's good (1 Thess 5:15); bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2); and consider one another better than ourselves (Phil 2:3). I saw zeal for service on the part of the elders of our church I am privileged to be friends with (Rom 12:11), who sacrifice blood sweat and tears, with little reward in sight. And I see my friends who have adopted or married inter-racially, or come from inter-racial families. This racial unity is one of the most powerful acts of the Spirit; “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (cf. Eph 2:14-18).

What do all of these have in common with tongues and prophecy and healing? They are out-breaking of the kingdom so we might better spread the gospel and more effectively love and minister to one another, and they are experiences which go beyond simple exercise of natural talents.

That does not mean we have nothing to learn from the first-century church’s experience of the Spirit, or the charismatic tradition. This tradition offers an immanence of the Spirit which can strengthen faith and help us shake off our torpor. We should pray boldly for the works of the Spirit, including those charismata which require us to be uncomfortably vulnerable. Or we are too timid—or too comfortable—to break ranks and try something new?

What we should never do is sell the Spirit short and mistake the talents of common grace for the charismata. Make no excuses for God. Look reality in squarely in the eye, ask God to show you where his Spirit is at work, and then ask him to use you in even greater ways.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


My sister, experiencing the goal of all those late nights
Grad school had its share of professional and personal crises, like the night when my drunken apartment neighbor ripped the building door off its hinges and aimed his fist at my face, to the time I discovered a missing minus sign in an important derivation, invalidating my current research and taking my work off in a totally different direction. For all that, the dark times during college were deeper and much longer. My junior year, when the full force of coursework really hit, was boot camp, and the massive curriculum was like a drill sergeant trying to break me. I had always dreamed of being a physicist, and that dream hung in the balance as I climbed mountains of work and slept very little, wondering if I would make it through.

I was at a college in a small town in rural Ohio, without a car, and the brightest times that year, in fact the whole four years, were the visits. I can remember one clearly, when my brother drove up for the weekend to collect me for a holiday. Just having someone there from the outside put everything into perspective and made me realize that whatever happened, I would survive. That visit was a light in a very dark place. I remember also visiting my sister a year or two later, at another small Midwestern college. It was the end of the year, and all her friends had left, yet she still had a big project to finish, and I knew the look in her eyes, like a tired swimmer a mile out from shore. We put on some good music, and squared up against the pile of books and papers and at the end drove away with a sense of emancipation.

Letters, calls, care packages—these are all important. But there’s no substitute for being there in the flesh.

I have never felt this more deeply than as a parent not being present when my boys were in tough spots. Last year Sam transitioned to public school. He was the youngest in a class of strangers, with a teacher who had the warmth of a stone. He learned a lot that year, but many were the days when he pleaded not to have to go to school. What I would have given to have been there with him!

I have never resonated with Christmas, maybe because Jesus as a baby has always seemed so foreign to me. This year it’s finally sunken in what God was doing. God knows there’s no substitute for being present in the flesh. Like any parent, God’s heart ached to be with his people in all their struggles, in a way that a pillar of flame simply can't be. And so God implemented a plan so strange that Paul refers to it as a “mystery” which he says "has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints," a mystery which amazingly neither his people nor even the angels in all their wisdom nor the demons in all their cunning anticipated. 

No road, no journey across the furthest seas, could take God to his children the way he wanted. The only way to traverse the gap was to actually allow himself to be born as a child among us, to learn to speak and move anew, and to grow up among the people his heart ached for. (Next time you have to wait in a packed, smelly airport for a delayed flight, be glad your journey doesn’t involve a birth canal!) And God did this even knowing that many of the people he was so eagerly wanting to be with wouldn’t recognize him: "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?"

We who do recognize what God did to be with us, have a great reason to cheer this Wednesday. If you are a sibling who has taken time to visit a brother or sister in a dark place; if you are a parent who has longed to be with your scared or lonely child, then you understand. Emmanuel: God with us. 

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Laws of Church Dynamics

The Laws of Church Dynamics

I. Ecumenical movements are good at dialogue but bad at action.

I am reading Metaxas' book on Bonhoeffer, and currently Bonhoeffer's trying to convince the ecumenical movement to speak out against the Reich church. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. To paraphrase Thurber, falling back on ecumenical movements when times are tough is "very much like falling back full-length on a kit of carpenter's tools."

II. A church's ability to hold onto the strengths of its tradition is inversely proportional to the ability to see the strengths of other traditions.

The same wall needed to hold back the eroding waves of culture obscures what the other branches of the church are up to. This tends to result in ignorance and even suspicion of other traditions.  (Of course, it need not, and there are always those open to learn from other traditions.) 

It's sadly impractical in this culture to require adult Christians spend time in more than one tradition. 

III. It's impossible to use creeds and confessions to protect against heresy without elevating them to the level of Scripture.

If the creeds are able to serve as a correction, they must be able to decide between different readings of Scripture, and to do that, they must be able to stand over Scripture and serve as referee, much the same as other passages of Scripture are meant to do. I have spent most of my life in the Episcopal Church and the Christian Reformed Church.  For all their differences, in both churches their creeds (Apostles', etc. for the Episcopal Church, Dordt, Belgian and Heidelberg for the CRC) are functionally at par with Scripture. In the CRC this means that no reading of Scripture can ever contradict the creeds. In the Episcopal church where from time to time you run across an unfortunate priest who has lost a belief in the physicality of the resurrection (and thereby abandoned the creeds), it only means that he has also abandoned Scripture.

In fairness, I should point out that most serious Christians in credal traditions would disagree.

Churches without creeds shouldn't be smug. Creeds do serve a role, despite their dangers. The creed follows the sermon in Episcopal liturgy for a reason: no matter what the priest just said, the congregation is reminded of the divinity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. 

IV. The more competent the clergy, the less trained and equipped the laity.

This is not to say that the less competent the clergy the more capable the laity--though that may happen at times.

Paul, in the pastorals, pointed out the importance of qualified elders and deacons. At the time, synagogue leaders were not fully supported by their congregations, but had "day jobs" as well. Over time both adopted something closer to the priesthood found in pagan churches, by establishing a full-time trained clergy. 

If you have been in churches without seminary-trained clergy you know there's some value to a formal seminary education. 

However, if you are the parish priest or church pastor, you may quickly think that training your flock in all the things you learned is like a dentist training his patients to fill their own cavities. The simplest equilibrium is the one which has dominated the past 2,000 years of church history: a weakened laity under the direction of a strong clergy.

This may not seem fair to the clergy who will tell you that their flocks aren't clambering for more training. William Willimon among others has eloquently defended the value of the pastorate. The traditional way can't be all wrong, right? [2]

Trouble is, that means there's a single person on which everything depends. It also means the laity are less equipped for ministry than they ought to be. This is easily demonstrated by asking what fraction of your church's council, vestry, etc. is well versed in Scripture. 

What's my counter-example? Check out Xenos Christian Fellowship, which has a central structure surrounded by a huge network of home churches, each of which survives (many of which thrive) without professional clergy. Their leaders are required to take at least two (?) years of training courses. How many council/vestry members can say they've done the same?

V. Churches have a finite shelf life: all churches eventually decay from the inside out and dwindle, disband, or become apostate.[1]

There are many factors which contribute to this. Multigenerational churches tend to become dynastic, and when the church contains your whole family it's very hard to make the church your new family, hating mothers and brothers for the sake of the kingdom.

The more you have to lose, the harder is it to give it up. A church which has been alive for centuries feels like a treasure to be protected more than a tool to be used for the kingdom. 

If you think your church is suffering from stagnation what should you do? It's a question of balance. Churches do experience revivals. But it's possible to spend too much time helping breathe life into your church, at the expense of other kingdom work.

I actually find Law V encouraging. In a roundabout way it reminds me that while one church declines (shrinks or acculturates) the Spirit is nevertheless at work elsewhere. This is the parable of the wedding feast, where the servants scour the hedgerows for guests. God is throwing a party, and when God throws a party, you can bet the hall will be full, of people and surprises.

VI. The Holy Spirit will eventually form a remnant of true believers within any apostate church.

This is Ezekiel's dry bones. Time and again this has happened. The mainline charismatic movement is a wonderful example. The seed will eventually find fertile soil in the hearts of those who recognize the shepherd's voice and are willing to use their talents (and minas) to give all for the pearl of great price hidden in the field. 

Seriously, of all the Laws above, this is the greatest hope: For all the Church's flaws and weaknesses, God has chosen this Body as the vessel for his Spirit. And God knows what he's doing.

I think I managed to offend everybody. What laws would you add?

* * *

[1] Walls describes how this has worked on a global scale--the centroid of the Church moving from the Roman Empire to Europe and most recently to Africa and Asia. I am thinking on a smaller scale. I have heard of research showing that the church always becomes more like the culture over time (certainly never the other way around).  I would love to see those data.

[2] The past 2,000 years has also seen predominantly mono-ethnic churches, but that's clearly not the NT pattern. Not to say you can't serve God the way it's been done historically. You can also do ministry in mono-racial churches, but thank God that some churches feel a higher call. 

(Image credit: http://pinterest.com/pin/415386765600731859/)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Seeing the unseen

Last fall I was reading the Bible with my son when we came across the account of the Garasene demoniac. This naturally led to questions about demons. I assured Sam they are real, but visible encounters with them in the U.S. are rare. In fact, most people here believe they don't exist.

I suggested Sam not bring up demons at school. I might as well have cautioned him against mentioning demons at church. Even those Christians who agree to belief in a devil will look askance at anyone who spends time talking about him. Bring up demon possession and you will certainly get some strange looks.

Americans enjoy a good demon possession movie; a new one with a Jewish exorcist is due out soon [1]. But despite wide-spread belief in God, we generally don’t believe in demons. It’s hard to be critical of this, given that most of us have had no direct experience to support their existence. We are children of the Enlightenment, and (with 19th-century Biblical scholars like Rudolf Bultmann) we tend not to believe what we don’t see.

A recent paper by Craig Keener [2] turns this logic on its head. In it, Keener surveys anthropological data concerning modern spirit possession phenomena. Anthropologists have spent a good deal of time studying possession, because it is wide-spread. In the words of an anthropologist quoted in the article, to deny demon possession as a phenomenon is the “anthropological equivalent of ‘being a flat-earther’”. It's widely enough attested in ethnographies that of 488 societies surveyed by specialist Erika Bourguignon, 74% had spirit-possession beliefs. While it is not commonly found in the West, it is found in “a wide variety of societies in most regions of the world, among them Africa…, the Middle East, Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas” [3]. Furthermore, in those societies it is not necessarily reserved for the lunatic fringe. For instance, Keener writes, “…in many African countries a third of Christians claim to have witnessed exorcisms, and in some that figure rises to roughly half (Uganda, Mozambique), 65 percent (Ghana), or 74 percent (Ethiopia)” [4]. Keener writes, “Generally when I have asked educated persons from Africa and many other parts of the Majority World whether they believed in the reality of spirits, occult activity, and the like, their response has been, ‘Of course,’ sometimes with the caveat that they are careful with whom they discuss such matters, especially among skeptical Westerners.” [5]

What do we mean by “spirit possession”? From the anthropologists’ perspective, it’s an altered state of consciousness which the local culture describes as due to control by an external spirit. In some cases ritual is used to bring it about, as in the Yoruba culture in Nigeria, where a ceremony with drums is used to induce a trance state, allowing the shaman to heal, curse, predict the future, etc. Not all who experience what might be labeled possession seek it for their own ends, however. Dennis McCallum, for instance, related the following experience:
When I was preaching at a village church in India, an elderly woman suddenly began to cry out and gesticulate in an unnatural way. I asked my translator what she was saying, and he translated, “I am more powerful than any of you! She has been mine for thirty-five years! There is nothing you can do!” Four men carried her out of the meeting to a nearby hut with a covered front porch where they prayed over her. Amazed, I asked if we shouldn’t stop and pray for her, but the other Christians made it clear they wanted me to continue with my teaching. They did not seem surprised by the experience. [6]
 In some cases it appears to be tied to a pattern of occult practice. The spectrum of possession practices and experiences is simply too broad to describe here. Importantly, modern possession includes phenomena similar to those found in the New Testament.

Anthropologists themselves have historically sought to sympathetically understand a culture while retaining scientific objectivity. In recent years, though, some have gone beyond this. As Keener writes,
One obvious example of this phenomenon is the noted anthropologist Edith Turner, who describes her gradual transformation from skeptical observer to convinced observer and finally participant, now rejecting her former stance as cultural imperialism. In 1980, she and her husband, Victor Turner, were leading some students at New York University in some rituals addressed to Yoruba deities, with drumming and songs; right there a street theater director went into a trance and made accurate predictions afterward. The Turners had not expected the ritual to function this way outside its original context. [7]
Turner has written extensively since on the reality of spirits. While they are by far in the minority, Keener gives other examples as well of academics thus persuaded. Since Westerners generally do not believe in the reality of spirit possession, it is noteworthy that a even small number of those academics who make a living studying it have become convinced of its reality.
A mediæval illustration of Jesus 
healing the Gerasene demonaic

Even Christians who accept belief in spiritual beings may be wary of mistaking supernatural affliction for personality disorders, and the damage which a misdiagnosis could cause. Indeed, some cases which are described as possession may not be the result of psychosis, but rather heightened suggestibility due to cultural pressure and inculcation. But the weight of data forbids us from dismissing out of hand demon possession as a real phenomenon, especially given the Biblical witness. The data beg the question, though: If demon possession is real, why isn’t it found in the West? Its societal correlates suggest some possible answers. Quoting Keener again,
Increase in occurrences of possession often accompany dramatic changes in society. Even in the nineteenth century, observers noted that ‘cases of possession are less frequent in peaceful times, and more frequent in times of civil commotion; also less frequent in prosperous families’ and ‘among educated people.’ Possession without a trance is more common in hunter-gatherer societies; increasing societal stratification and complexity increases the likelihood of added trance states…Including ecstatic Christian experiences in her analysis, Bourguignon suggests that possession trance is most common among the more marginalized members of a society; groups that once experienced it, such as early Methodists, that have now become respectable are far less likely to display it. It often appears among those marginalized from other means of power in their society, especially women, although this pattern varies from one society to another. [8]
Since possession gives power to the powerless, albeit at a price, it’s not surprising it’s found globally more among those lacking power, and in unstable societies. The West, being more stable and powerful, would tend not to attract this sort of phenomenon. Westerners, with their post-Enlightenment culture, are also less likely to become involved in cult activity, with its ties to spirit possession. Many have also wondered if it might represent a larger demonic strategy, in which supernatural demonic aggression in the West is deliberately covert to encourage materialistic and atheistic religious-philosophical beliefs [9].

Let’s say, then, that some fraction of spirit possession phenomena represent actual demon possession. What are the implications? Keener quotes the famous Chinese writer Watchman Nee, saying “one Chinese church leader of a previous generation reproved Western critics with the observation that their theological hairsplitting would benefit them little in his country ‘if when the need arose you could not cast out a demon.’” [10] Still, a Westerner might be justified in regarding this as irrelevant if it doesn’t happen in his or her own back yard [11]. McCallum argues that the relative lack of guidance on exorcism in the epistles indicates that it is not intended to play a central role in the lives of believers. It’s one thing to have a fire extinguisher on hand and in working order; it’s another to use it every time you see a light.

One day when Sam is much older, I will tell him about these data. What would it look like for him to take seriously the biblical view that the earth is populated not just by humans, but also by a species of spiritual creatures which, while generally invisible, can exert influence on the physical world? There probably won't be much assistance for him from the pulpit--when was the last time you heard a sermon on spiritual warfare, or heard a prayer in a church service aimed at resisting the enemy? [12] He may not feel the need to bone up on exorcism techniques [13], but given the data described by Keener on spiritual activity we surely can't blame him for feeling some curiosity about Satan's covert (i.e. non-possession) tactics [14]. If the prevailing attitude in the West remains the same, he may be one of the few in his church who does.

* * *

[1] The Possession (2012).
[2] “Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience”, from the Bulletin for Biblical Research (20, 215; 2010). This work is expanded upon in an appendix of Miracles, Vol. 2 (Baker Academic, 2011).
[3] Miracles, 792.
[4] Miracles, 813.
[5] Miracles, 837.
[6] Satan and his Kingdom (Bethany, 2009), 197.
[7] Miracles, 830.
[8] Miracles, 824-25.
[9] E.g. McCallum, ibid., 185. A further theory is that overt spiritual attack only occurs on the missions front.  Keener notes a similar correlation.
[10] Miracles, 835.
[12] We currently attend a Christian Reformed church. In the Episcopal, American Baptist and Evangelical Free churches I have attended I can’t recall even one sermon on this topic. Certainly other churches don’t have this blind spot.
[13] Though if you need to, see McCallum, ibid., ch. 17, or Spiritual Gifts in the Local Church (Bethany House, 1987), 198ff, by Anglican bishop David Pytches, both of which offer considerably more information than the single page in the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003, which simply directs those in need to visit the local bishop. (We can only hope the bishop has more in hand than The Book of Occasional Services.)
[14] This is too large a topic to address here, though a good place to start is Ephesians 6. A more thorough exposition of the topic is the subject of McCallum's book.

The first image is a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Getting practical about doing right

For those not in the Huddle, we are current studying Ron Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and John R. Schneider's The Good of Affluence. Our second meeting last week saw some  brainstorming about how we are better aid the needy and steward our resources. This post is meant to give us a convenient place to brainstorm further. Post ideas! Even if they occur to you half a year from now, post away. Here are some ideas to start with, from last Friday:

  • Write a letter to your congressperson, local store, etc.
  • Buy used clothing
  • Start with the basics, such as looking to buy minimally packaged goods.
  • Gradually get educated regarding fair trade companies
  • Check out Slavery Footprint
  • Do activities such as walk for homeless, raising money via 5k run, etc.
  • Donate items you don't use much to shops like Second Thought Resale Shop etc.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"...for your love is more delightful than wine "

How did medieval Christians use the Bible differently from the way we do?

First, in the way they read Scripture, their hermeneutic. Given their focus on Scripture as written not just by human authors, but by the divine author, they were much more likely than us to interpret using allegory.

Second, in what they read. For instance, did you know that the Song of Songs [SoS] was “the most frequently interpreted book of medieval Christianity” [1]? Bernard of Clairvaux, in the 11th century, wrote no fewer than sixty-eight sermons on just the first two chapters and three verses. The Patrologia Latina, a collection of writings of the Fathers, “lists thirty-two Latin commentaries on the Song of Songs written from the time of Jerome and Ambrose to Peter Damián in the eleventh century. By comparison, …Galatians comes under study only six times, …Romans only nine.” [2] So popular was this book that the SoS was second only to the Psalms in the number of times it was set to music by Renaissance composers [3].

This book makes no mention of God, and by all appearances is simply erotic poetry. Yet the face-value meaning of the text, is certainly the minority one for pre-modern readers. It has been seen as an allegory for God and Israel (the traditional Jewish interpretation), God and the Church (the traditional Christian view), God and the believer (also popular historically) and even God and Mary.

Despite the difficulty SoS had making it into the Jewish canon, and further challenges to it by Christians in the 4th and 16th centuries, some have owned it proudly. As Rabbi Akiba said at the council of Jamnia in 90, “All the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” [3]

As you can imagine, the allegorical method can be nowhere as stretched as when applied to erotic poetry. So for Origen, the breasts, hair, lips, neck, etc. are the “powers” of the soul. According to Ambrose (4th cent. bishop of Milan), “What are the breasts of the church except the sacrament of baptism?” For Gregory the Great, the fawns feeding among the lilies are saints who “are unto God a sweet savor of Christ” (quoting 2 Cor 2:15). Again from Ambrose, on the SoS 7:2: “Small, too, are the navel and belly of the soul that ascends to Christ.” [4]

A medieval Jewish interpreter, Saadia, said the Song is like a book for which the key has been lost [5]. Indeed, it seems no interpretation is without its problems. The love-song reading appears to revel in loving but premarital sex. The poem is more a collection of poems, and the narrative at times unclear. At the same time, it has such detail that any allegory either ignores those details or contorts to fit them.

Still, similar allegory is not without precedent; both Hosea and in Ezek 16 draw a line between God’s love for his people and a suitor for his love. Even Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom.” But these passages are clearly figurative, whereas SoS gives no hint it wants to be read this way. Indeed, allegory limits what one can learn from the text. Where it agrees with the rest of Scripture, we affirm the allegory; where it doesn’t, we reject it. Thus, we cannot learn anything new from the SoS.

Well, not quite. Even if it says nothing new doctrinally, SoS may say it with greater depth and feeling. I had a friend in college, Amy, who was a very trusting and spiritual Christian. I remember very clearly her telling the rest of us in a prayer meeting of how she’d wandered Tappan Square in prayer, as if wandering with her boyfriend lost in conversation. You could see from her eyes that her passion for Jesus was deeper than many married couples have for one another.

Many of us will find it awkward thinking of Jesus as husband. But I have never forgotten Amy’s intense desire for intimacy with God.

So it is with curiosity that I have begun to explore some of the vast literature on the SoS. John of the Cross, for instance, while imprisoned for his support of Teresa of Avila, wrote his own Spiritual Canticle [6]. His poem is essentially a rewriting of SoS in a form more amenable to the allegory of the soul pursuing intimacy with God. Here is an excerpt:
We shall go at once
To the deep caverns of the rock
Which are all secret,
There we shall enter in
And taste of the new wine of the pomegranate.

There you will show me
That which my soul desired;
And there You will give at once,
O You, my life!
That which You gave me the other day.

The breathing of the air,
The song of the sweet nightingale,
The grove and its beauty
In the serene night,
With the flame that consumes, and gives no pains.
The nuns of John’s day prevailed upon him to write a commentary on his poem, but even without it we see a clear and eloquent description of the pursuit of a soul for and by God’s Spirit. John sharpens the God-soul allegory while retaining the eloquence of the Song.

Rabbi Shalom Carmy wrote, “Holiness is synonymous with intimacy; that is what the Song of Songs tells us, in a way unique among the books of Jewish Scripture” [7]. Perhaps it is hard to read SoS as pure allegory, and certainly it is a waste to disregard its beauty as romantic poetry. But it can be more than just advice to young lovers. Its history challenges us to set aside modern exegetical inhibitions, to read SoS with Christians through the centuries, and to learn of a passion for Christ which is as strong as death itself (8:6).

* * *

[1] E. Ann Matter, "The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity" (1990), 6; quoted in Thomas F. Ryan, “Sex, Spirituality and Pre-modern Readings of the Song of Songs,” Horizons, 28/1 (2001), 81-104.
[2] Endel Kallas, “Martin Luther as Expositor of the Song of Songs,” Lutheran Quarterly, 2 (1988), 323-341.
[3] http://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137800097/stile-antico-asks-a-different-kind-of-love
[4] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, OT vol. IX.
[5] J. Paul Tanner, “The history of interpretation of the Song of Songs,” Biblioteca Sacra 154 (1997), 23-46.
[6] You can read it online at http://www.ccel.org.
[7] “Perfect Harmony,” First Things, Dec 2010, p. 33.

Figure 1: Bede, Super cantica canticorum, England, St Albans, first quarter of the twelfth century; from St Albans Abbey, where this copy of Bede’s commentary on the Song of Songs was made. Illuminated by an itinerant professional, the Alexis Master (act. c.1100-1130). The initial to the first book shows the intimate embrace of bride and groom, interpreted as the mystical union of the Church and Christ. [http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/cambridgeilluminations/themes/2.html]

Figure 2: Capital from the Song of Solomon in Winchester Cathedral. Author unknown, date 1100s, source http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~jtreat/song/270.html