Monday, August 11, 2008

the Song of Songs

Why doesn't the Song of Songs ever come up in the Lutheran lectionary?

Given the 2009 ELCA-wide vote on the draft Social Statement On Human Sexuality -- and the number of individuals and legalist groups lobbying the church for conveniently "literal" interpretations of Scripture, in their quest to exclude active gays from a full share of life in the faith -- why not look more deeply into the Bible for a response on those terms?

I recently read an interpretation of the Song of Songs, by Marcia Falk (with illustrations by Barry Moser). In the book Falk ascribes lines and passages to male or female speakers (or in some cases both.) Familiar up to this point only with the King James version of the Song, I was struck anew by the perspective of the Song as a real dialogue between women and men -- not as a metaphoric poetic tribute to God and the church.

Falk's "The Song of Songs, Love Lyrics from the Bible" (1990 re-release by Pennyroyal Press, originally published in '73 by Brandeis) is the careful work of a poet and scholar in search of a Hebrew text containing genuine women's voices. Further the translation doesn't assume fixed characters -- the male voice is not necessarily Solomon's, nor the female his lovers'. "It is finally simpler and more illuminating to view the Song as a collection of different types of lyric love poems spoken by a variety of speakers -- poems that did not necessarily derive from a single author or serve a unified function in their original milieu."

"Although God's name is not mentioned even once in its lines, the rabbis of the first century chose to include it in the biblical canon...Women speak over half the lines in the Song -- an exceptionally large proportion for a biblical text...In it, women and men alike share a range of emotional expression..."

"Even the descriptions of the lovers' bodies challenge the stereotypes we encounter later in Western tradition. Only later, in the poems of Petrarch and the Rennaissance sonnetteers, do gender roles become fixed, with men acting as the suitors and women as the objects of their praise. Taken as a whole, the poems of the Song express strikingly nonsexist attitudes towards heterosexual love and, by implication, toward human relationships of all kinds."

Falk's respected translations bear out these assertions. Why the avoidance of a discussion around these themes in the Song in the context of both daily worship and larger issues? Should we ask, does the Song embrace a vision of love and equality in the context of the physical, relational human existence into which God has delivered us? Why not use this most lyrical segment of the canon to reach those who would exclude with or feel excluded by other passages in different books of the Bible, proving if nothing else the possibility of another reality -- and the illogic of the literalist rationale against gay unions, gay love, gay families.

"Scripture cannot be used in isolation as the norm for Christian life and the source of knowledge for the exercise of moral judgement," reads the Draft. "The Lutheran tradition, then, is open to human knowledge insofar as it encourages the good of the neighbor, protects against harm, and does not make false claims about God." The Draft of course says a lot more about sexuality in general and same-sex relationships in particular. I'll pause for now at advocacy for open study of the Song of Songs in this and other contexts.


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