Sunday 27 July 2014

Miley Cyrus & the Bible Scholars

                                               James Tissot 1836 – 1902

                        Michal Despises David

The dead do not praise the Lord,
    nor do any who go down into silence.
18 But we will bless the Lord
    from this time forth and for evermore
Psalm 115(113) 17-18

[NB I start with the scholars and work up to Miley, please be patient]

There is really no limit to the number of different tools we can use to analyse the Bible with. Paramahansa Yogananda, for example, in his Autobiography of a Yogi reads it from his perspective as telling us that Jesus and St Paul were advanced practitioners of Kriya Yoga. Muslims tend to see it as being the prelude to the Quran in the sense that the passages they agree with are inspired and the ones they disagree with are but human inventions. In the West though, since the 19th century the dominant analytical tool favoured by the intellectual classes is the historical-critical method. Essentially this looks at the texts in the context of the history of the societies that produced them. Using archaeological evidence and other artifacts from the same era it produces descriptions and hypotheses which explain the Bible in quite radically different ways from those of traditional Christianity which very often took the Scriptures at face value.

Knowledge is A Good Thing and facts are Good Things but the historical-critical method of the Bible scholars has its limitations. Firstly it is worth noticing the word I just used 'hypotheses.' Many scholars take the facts which they have to hand, weed out the ones they regard as irrelevant or doubtful, and weave around them a narrative which accounts for the facts they have chosen. This is reasonable enough and other scholars challenge these hypotheses posing alternative accounts instead. The problem here is that non-scholarly people, either perfectly ordinary human beings or journalists, can take one or other of these hypotheses as Gospel and assume it must be true because its based on science and science always beats religion. That is, they attribute to it a degree of certainty which the historian advancing it does not herself necessarily claim for it.

Secondly, academics make the prior assumption that all descriptions in Scripture which require Divine intervention or miracles must necessarily be either false or a radical misreading by the Bible authors of perfectly natural phenomena. God is excluded from the Scriptures as an active participant and reduced to the role of an idea which existed in the minds of the Bible characters. Again this is reasonable enough if you happen to be an atheist, agnostic or deist but those who think it plausible or more than plausible that there is a God and that He has intervened in human history will find this approach inadequate.

Christianity is not at war with truth. The historians have done valuable work in recovering data about the ancient world and enhancing our understanding of it. We have much to be grateful for in this, it enables us to understand the context of Scriptural events much more clearly than when we had only the Scriptures themselves to rely upon. We can accept the tools which they use and use them as well, some scholars in this field are also priests, monks or nuns, but this does not prevent us from using other tools as well, those tools provided for us by our faith and by two thousand years of reflection upon the Bible as a spiritual text and a record of God's revelation of Himself to humanity. Being a Christian does not deprive us of the works of scholarship but it enables us to give an extra dimension to them. In this context the historians are like people who cleverly and accurately analyse a photograph of Miley Cyrus. Everything they say about the picture may be true nonetheless they are doing something different from what those who report back on meeting with Miley do. Those who have had a personal encounter can talk about the sound of her voice, whether she is quick to laugh or not, what scent she was wearing and so on. A photograph is an inanimate object, Miley Cyrus is a living, breathing, dancing, singing person. And so it is with Christians and the Scriptures, they are not simply a record of stuff that happened long ago and far away, they are part of a living relationship here and now. The dead-record part of it is helpful so far as our minds go but not necessary to our hearts.

Which brings us to Psalm 115 (numbered as 113 in some Bibles) [NB don't worry I haven't finished with Miley yet] The historians inform us that at the time that this psalm was written the Jews had no notion of a general resurrection. Therefore the only people who could praise the Lord were those who happened to be alive so that this verse represents a straightforward bargain, 'if you want to be praised keep us alive.' The belief was that the dead descended to a dreary underworld, sheol, where they led a shadowy existence but took no thought for God or anything else. Whilst this may be an accurate description of the state of religion in the time of the Temple of Solomon it does not exhaust the possibilities to be found in our psalm.

The psalms are traditionally ascribed to King David. He is a very interesting figure, arguably the Miley Cyrus of his day given his propensity to dance half naked at important ceremonies (2 Samuel 6:14.) Like Miley he provoked severe criticism, in this case from his wife, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” (2 Samuel 6:20) To which David replied "I will make merry before the Lord. I will make myself yet more contemptible than this, and I will be abased in your eyes. But by the female servants of whom you have spoken, by them I shall be held in honour.” And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death. (2 Samuel 6:21-23)  

Now, the scholars in telling us about the absence of an ancient Jewish belief in resurrection in relation to our verse in Psalm 115 take as a given that we have a shared understanding of what it means to 'bless the Lord.' But do we? David's understanding of it led him to his near naked dance in front of the Ark of the Covenant and his promise to Michal to do more of the same. The reference to her childlessness gives us the contrast between the life and liveliness of blessing the Lord on the one hand and her dead womb from which no fruit can come on the other. That is, David has found in his personal experience a metaphor which he subsequently worked into his poetry. Poets do not always mean what they appear to mean when they use words and academic historians are not always well qualified to analyse poetry. Incidentally, you might think that it was a mean thing to curse Michal with childlessness just because of this but the Bible doesn't say that that is what happened.

Another contrast between singing and dancing as a form of praise and death as silence is to be found in the figure of Miriam the sister of Aaron and Moses.  Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:20-21) This is in the immediate aftermath of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds) closing in on the pursuing chariots of Pharaoh after it had opened to allow the Israelites to pass through. There is, perhaps, something gruesome to the modern mind in the sight of women dancing and making merry over so much death and destruction, once cannot imagine Miley doing it for example. However the rejoicing is about life, not death. The army had the objective of annihilating the Israelites, without Divine intervention Miriam and the women around her would have died possibly after being raped. They are celebrating being alive and they are praising their Saviour. At first sight this is a straightforwardly neat fit with psalm 115 as the scholars interpret it but one explanation does not necessarily exclude another. Here it is worth noting that the author of Exodus reminds us that Miriam is a prophetess which invites us to consider her words and actions with more attention. Is there a prophetic dimension to her actions here? From the perspective of the sister of Aaron the priest and Moses the prophet and Lawgiver Miriam is well aware that the value of Israel does not consist of their bare lives as weighed against the lives of any other group of humans. Their extra-value springs from their covenant with the One God, they are the custodians of His revelation, they have a role to play being His ambassadors to the world. Only those within Israel are alive to God all those outside of Israel are dead to Him. Hence her song of triumph is not simply about the survival of her tribe it is also about the survival of the People of God, as long as there is such a People they will live and praise Him and as long as there are those outside this People they will be dead and tongueless before Him.

Christianity has another proposition to make which Bible scholars cannot go along with [NB I'm going to do some Jesus stuff here but more Miley coming up later] It is that the Old Testament should be read by looking through the lens of the New Testament. That is to say, that within the OT we can see in shadowy forms or prototypes the seeds of the revelation which came to full fruition in Jesus. The understanding which we can bring to this or that passage, such as our psalm verse, is based on what we now know and we are not restricted to interpreting it in the light of the beliefs that were held when it was written. Because, Christians would argue, the Bible as a whole was inspired by the Holy Spirit each part of the OT can be thought of as being multilayered. This means that it is possible for us to accept that David really did think that only those alive in the world could praise God and still argue that the Spirit intended us to understand it in a different sense to the way its author understood it.

An alternative explanation would have two parts. So far as the psalm relates to the pre-Gospel times it is strictly accurate. Those who died in the time before Jesus went into a sort of sheol-like limbo. They continued to exist but in a shadowy kind fashion, awaiting the time when Jesus through His Passion, Death and Resurrection would open the gates of heaven and lead the souls of the Just into the Kingdom of God. As things are now our verse acquires a new depth of meaning. Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead" (Luke 9:60) Clearly this means that there are certain ways of being living which do not equate to being alive. “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. (Matthew 22:11-12) The psalm links death to silence, here we have someone who is silent before the king. The Christian notion here is that those who refuse the wedding garment offered them have no place at the wedding banquet. They are dead to it although living and they are silent although capable of speech. By contrast, those who accept both the invitation to the wedding and the free gift of a wedding garment are alive and more than alive and they have hearts as well as tongues which both speak and sing.

While I was thinking about this blog I went for a walk and found myself wandering through the very large cemetery here in Exeter in the South West of England. It was a sunny day and I walked slowly past old barely legible gravestones from the century before last and recent memorials to those who have died in the last few years. My mind turned, as it often does, to my parents who are also numbered among the dead. It occurred to me then that there is yet another way to understand this psalm. Whenever I recall my parents, pretty much a daily event, I never fail to feel grateful that I knew them and loved them and was loved by them. They continue, in a sense, to be present to me as a blessing, a praise, to that source of life from which they came and to which they have returned. Only the beloved can live in this way. Those who go down into silence are those whose memories have no resonance of praise and thanksgiving. Those whom we forget or recall only with hatred are truly dead but the loved live for as long as we do which is, for us, forever. And it applies not only to parents of course. It may be that 70 or 80 years from now there will be no one living who recalls seeing a picture of Miley Cyrus but she will still live on in the faithful heart of a teenager of today who saw her, met her, encountered her, heard the sound of her laughter and the song of her voice. Death cannot eclipse a life in which love is present.

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  1. Firstly, this is very lovely, especially about your parents, who sound very great.

    Secondly, there's a point that you only half bring out, especially in the light of your last blog, about respectability. So much of the wimmin'n'gays argument (at least in the Anglican church, which I know more about) ranges people who completely equate their social respectability with their faith and who (we know from Linda Woodhead's recent research) are also very likely to be politically Conservative - more so than the general public. But of course there are plenty of times and places where faith is unrespectable, and often far more interesting and engaging for being so. The other people you could've mentioned besides Miley Cyrus are the 18th century Quakers who used to go through the streets 'naked, for a sign' - very similar to David. (I admit to owning this: - some rather ironical naked Quakers, made decent only by being in silhouette.)

    1. Firstly, thank you.

      Secondly, as I frequently point out why you do what you do is often as important as what you do. Being 'respectable' is no bad thing provided that it proceeds primarily from good impulses. When it is the consequence merely of the desire to be seen as acceptable to a particular group, typically those with power and influence, then it is harmful both to the person concerned and, as a source of scandal, to those looking at them who can discern their hypocrisy.

      Conversely 'non-respectable ways of living when they proceed primarily from a desire to serve or to express love (I am thinking of people like Dorothy Day) are perfectly in line with the Gospel. Likewise when they proceed from a desire to shock, or to get in with a particular sub-culture then they are to be deplored not because of the lifestyle choices necessarily but because of the reasons behind them.

      There is a sort of undefinable region where people behave in ways which are, from a Christian POV, not morally licit but whose initial impulse is a misdirected good nature. The classical approach is to condemn and demand repentance but hearing oneself condemned is as likely to provoke a renewed commitment as it is to provoke a change of course. My purpose here is to explore other approaches.

    2. Hmm, so where does this leave David? Presumably there are all sorts of socially respectable ways for David to praise God (including jumping about the place with slightly more clothes on) and tick all the necessary boxes of both society and what he owes to the divine. But it seems, from what I can make out from this passage, that it's exactly seeing respectability as something to hang on to that he has to unlearn. (That, or alternatively, as a secularist biblical scholar has no doubt somewhere pointed out, he just wants his twerking to bring all the slavegirls to the yard, because he fancies them more than his wife.)

    3. I think Charismatic or Pentacostalist Christians would have no trouble in interpreting his actions as being the overpowering effects of the Spirit. There are some indications from the texts that there was a distinctive group of Israelites who behaved in this sort of way (1 Samuel 19:24) like the Dervishes of the Sufi tales. Presumably this was a lifestyle choice that was incompatible with settled life and marriage but David's joy at the entry of the Ark overflowed the boundaries of conventional religiosity. The fact that he still wore an ephod though is significant since that was a priestly garment so his actions combined in some measure the roles of priest, prophet and king. A combination that no human could easily master for more than the odd moment of time until his descendant Jesus entered the world.

    4. Ah, that does fit, doesn't it. (I see that no-one really knows what an ephod looks like, except perhaps an ancient precursor to the upper half of lederhosen. I am also smiling as I think of the wild weekend the Pentecostalist upstairs was telling me about, but this is hardly the stuff for discussion forums, but I suspect she'd hit it off with King David...)

  2. PS. Yikes!

  3. nice is wonderful to read your post..thanks