Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Interfaith Dialogue, the Lutheran "Simuls" and Gender Justice

College Dustin.

What follows is a paper I recently wrote for a Scriptures of the World course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. I'd love to hear what you think!

God's peace,

With only three weeks to go before I graduate from seminary, I’ve been reflecting a great deal about the struggles, learnings and growth I’ve experienced here over the last four years. When I first arrived in Philadelphia, I had just experienced two years of immense anger at God following my mother’s death. Furthermore, my journey into early adulthood had left me dumbfounded about, if not at times openly hostile towards Christianity. Although I grew up in a Lutheran congregation, I had only gone under compulsion as a child and then primarily just to hang out with my friends as a teenager. I always figured I was deeply spiritual, but following a specific religion seemed like such an antiquated idea in progressive New England, and certainly not a good enough reason to wake up early on Sunday morning. Upon beginning undergraduate studies at the George Washington University and experiencing what I cannot help but view as the hateful positions of some American evangelicals (I somehow never knew that such beliefs existed before), I quickly came to a vague notion of liking the idea of Jesus while perceiving the Bible as supporting the exact opposite from his message of love and liberation. At the same time, I built on my past readings of the scriptures of other faiths, especially those of Buddhism and Sufi Islam, and thought they painted a portrait of the Divine much more in line with my views.

In response to these factors I identified my religious affiliation as “sort of Buddhist” through much of college and frequently meditated in private, but eventually began missing regular participation in a faith community. As graduation neared and my mother was in the last stages of her battle with lung cancer, I felt immensely supported by my old Lutheran networks back home. Around this time I also discovered that my own Lutheran tradition largely spoke out against the negative scriptural readings of some American evangelicals. Once I heard the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America had voted to allow the ordination of members of the LGBT community, I realized there could be a place for me in the Church and I began to actively participate in congregational life, leading youth groups and assisting in worship. I eventually felt called toward ordained ministry and found myself at seminary, where I learned a powerful set of hermeneutical tools for understanding the Bible. Throughout my seminary career and despite my “interfaith concentration” however, I was never exposed to a Lutheran theological grounding for incorporating those deeply cherished scriptural teachings of other faiths into my own Christian worldview. While I knew such teachings were important, I did not have the means to articulate how they related to my faith in Jesus Christ, and in turn felt that my understanding of the authority of the Christian scriptures was incomplete.

Luckily, in taking a "Scriptures of the World" course with Dr. J. Paul Rajashekar I had the opportunity to not only learn the contents of other scriptures (something I was already partially exposed to), but more importantly, to discern how and why I should read the Christian scriptures inter-scripturally, all the while grounded in my own Lutheran theological tradition. This year I also engaged in faith-based gender justice work as Communications Coordinator for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations. Throughout this work, and especially during my week in New York at the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women, I was reminded how the Christian scriptures are so often misappropriated by various actors (especially some American evangelicals), who wish to reverse the gains of women and girls in recent decades and in doing so export their ideas to believers around the world. Finally, I was blessed with the opportunity to read a Christian response to issues of gender justice that is deeply grounded in the liberating love of Christ, that of the Lutheran World Federation’s new Gender Justice Policy. Throughout the remainder of this paper I will discuss my newfound understanding of the authority of the Christian scriptures, their abuse in regard to the gender justice debate, and briefly cite the Lutheran World Federation’s recently published alternative.

Throughout its two-thousand year history the Church’s relationship with the beliefs and scriptures of other faiths has been marked with difficulty, but also diversity. In the biblical witness itself, especially in Paul’s mission to the Athenians, we first see the concept of a universal Logos working outside of Jewish/ Christian community (Acts 17:22-31). This notion of Divine revelation through human reason is also present in the writings of Justin Martyr, who due to what could be considered an early version of inter-scriptural reading with Greek philosophy, claimed that all who lived with the Logos were in fact Christians without knowing it.  Clement of Alexandria also held similar views, yet Cyprian, Tertullian (who was himself deemed a Montanist heretic near the end of his life) and the vehemently anti-Semitic John Chrysostom were all “Christian patriarchs” who denounced the people and scriptures of other faiths. Augustine of Hippo seemed to differ in opinion throughout his career, yet did specifically argue that the Logos worked through a variety of names and beliefs, at least before Christ’s incarnation:
… from the beginning of the human race, whosoever believed in Him, and in any way knew Him, and lived in a pious and just manner according to His precepts, was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived.
Furthermore, as indicated in his Confessions, Augustine was an active Manichean (and to a lesser degree a Neoplatonist) before converting to Christianity, and thus it would have been impossible for him not to read the Bible inter-scripturally with what he knew from the writings of his former traditions.

Following the Edict of Milan and the rise of Christendom in the fourth century, inter-scriptural reading largely disappeared throughout the Church, at least officially. For the vast majority of illiterate Christians and those on the periphery of the empire, spoken and visual depictions by missionaries may have allowed a sense of inter-scriptural reading, but this was increasingly absent from the academic realm. By the time of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, Western Europe had become a homoreligious society where marginalized Jews and the Muslim invaders outside Vienna were sometimes considered heretical Christians rather than people of distinctly separate faiths. It was within this homoreligious context that Martin Luther, out of both a pastoral concern that the scriptures be available to the masses and his need for a polemical tool against the abuses of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, developed the concept of the “solas,” thereby leading to our traditional Lutheran exclusivism:
The Lutheran tendency toward exclusivism, therefore, is derived from a doctrinal interpretation of biblical texts. The absoluteness of the Christian claim is thus articulated in terms of the “Lutheran solas:” solus Deus, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola scriptura, solo verbo, sola fide and so on. The doctrinal language of “God alone,” “Christ alone,” “grace alone,” “Scripture alone,” “Word alone” and “faith alone” are all intertwined, and reinforce claims of Lutheran exclusivism.
Operating within a homoreligious context, the Lutheran solas form a powerful argument, as they free the Christian scriptures to be read solely through the lens of Christ. Indeed, when engaged in public theology one can simply say, “As read through the lens of our shared faith in Christ, the Bible says __________, so we should do __________,” and thereby make a persuasive argument.

While theologically powerful, the Lutheran solas also form a circular argument, and thus in their exclusivism cannot provide a strong basis for public theology in our now multi-scriptural world. In recent decades some have attempted to remedy this problem by employing the traditional Lutheran concepts of ‘law and gospel’ and ‘the doctrine of the two kingdoms’ to their engagement with other faiths and texts. Essentially, this line of thought states that in natural law, God is at work in this world through all individuals, no matter their faith tradition. Working within this theological framework, which is essentially a rehashing of Justin Martyr’s old idea of “anonymous Christians,” those engaged in public theology rarely refer to their scriptures or their faith at all. Throughout my engagement with faith-based gender justice work over the past two years, first as an intern at the Lutheran Office for World Community and now as Communications Coordinator for Ecumenical Women at the United Nations, the typical modus operandi was to first privately study to the Bible as an organization, and then make a public statement in almost exclusively secular language. Although still usually quite persuasive, these statements lacked the full prophetic power of a true confession of faith, as they only appealed to minds rather than the hearts of decision makers.

In a twenty-first century world where homoreligiousity is less and less the norm on even the local level, the Lutheran solas alone can no longer provide us with a persuasive means to employ our scriptures in public theology. Indeed, as feminist, womanist and post-colonial theologians have taught us, the inherent universality of the Lutheran solas were always problematic. As Rosemary Radford Ruether states,
Feminism is a new challenge to Christian claims of universalism that poses different problems from those of interreligious relationships. Interreligious relationships speak of many different ways in which experience of the divine has been localized in human experience and the mutual recognition of these historico-cultural configurations by each other. Feminism speaks of new contexts where the divine needs to be localized. By and large, not only Judaism and Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, but even ancient tribal religions have not allowed the divine to be experienced in a way defined by women. Feminism looks back at the history of all religions as expressions of male-dominated cultures that have marginalized women to some extent, although some have been more radically and totally marginalized in some religious systems than in others.
The inherent universality of the Lutheran solas also precludes to possibility of a positive dialogue with an increasing number of nonreligious individuals as well. Furthermore, by instead solely employing a law and gospel understanding to our use of scriptures in public theology, we often end up neglecting to refer to our scriptures or faith at all. Although done with the intention of not offending non-Christians, this in the end is simply another way of dismissing the salvific power of Christ and or even simply the humanity of all individuals regardless of their specific faith tradition.

Luckily, some are beginning to discover the possibility of robustly employing another traditional Lutheran theological concept to scriptural engage in public theology, that of “simul:”
The dialectic of the simul, what we understand as “simultaneously,” is a fundamental presupposition of almost all Lutheran doctrinal affirmations. Lutheran theology understands God’s revelation as simultaneously hidden and revealed; God’s activity occurs simultaneously through the work of the left hand and right hand; Christ is simultaneously human and divine; God’s saving activity occurs simultaneously through law and gospel; the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner; the sacrament of bread and wine is simultaneously the body and blood; the kingdom of God is simultaneously present here and now and not yet. This emphasis on the simuls in Lutheran theology opens up possibilities for a positive engagement with all people in our world. A proper understanding of the simuls, in fact, pushes us away from an exclusive stance in matters of faith and invites us into an inclusive engagement with people.
The Lutheran solas are still essential however, as they provide us with theological grounding. At that same time, when we allow the solas to exist in a dialectic with the theological paradox of the simuls, we can recognize God’s mysterious work through both law AND gospel in Christians and non-Christians alike.

In this way, we can open ourselves to the diverse peoples and scriptures of other faiths, and instead of theorizing about a “Christian theology of religions,” prioritize the praxis of actually engaging in dialogue. James L. Fredericks eloquently speaks to this point:
In the twenty-first century Christians need to find an alternative to the entire project of a theology of religions. Preoccupation with a comprehensive interpretation of the other religious paths is neither necessary nor advisable for Christians committed to developing new forms of social and religious solidarity with those who follow other religious paths. Instead of a theology that attempts to account comprehensively for the religious lives of those who follow the other paths, Christians should set for themselves a considerably more modest goal. This will entail a shift from theory to praxis… The problems attending theologies of religions make clear how dubious this project is. Instead of using theology as a theoretical basis for dialogue, I propose to let dialogue be the basis, or praxis, of doing theology. Doing theology in dialogue with the others is not an attempt to provide a foundation or rationale for dialogue. Rather, what is called for is a theology that arises through dialogue. This is not a theology about interreligious dialogue, or a theology that justifies dialogue, but rather Christian theology itself carried out in dialogue with those who follow other religious paths.
To put it in practical terms, instead of only referencing the Bible or only using secular terminology when engaging in public theology, we can instead from a place of non-anxiety in Christ state something like, “We are called to believe that we should __________ because of how we understand our scriptures through our faith in Christ. As a fellow human being, how does this teaching relate to the scriptures of your own faith or worldview? I know for sure you have something to teach me, so how can we learn from each other?”

Through our faith in Christ, we know in a general sense how God works: Our God is a god of immense love, who shows up in the most unexpected of ways in the most unexpected of places. By relying on the Lutheran solas, or even the dialectic of law and gospel alone, we further constrain our already limited possibility of understanding the immense power and love of God. Instead, we can simultaneous know that our faith in Christ grants our scriptures immense authority while at the same time living out the calling of our scriptures to see the face of God working through both law and gospel in all individuals, no matter their religious system or worldview. The point of faith is not to make us agree to dogma or a theological legalism, but rather to help us to live out the life our Creator intended and provide comfort when we fall short. As we live out such lives to the best of our limited human ability, acting in Christian hospitality towards people of other faiths and worldviews out of our love for God, we in turn embody the authority of our scriptures for all individuals. Through such actions we proclaim, “We’re okay with whatever theological beliefs you might have, and we want to learn from you. In calling us to live in such a way, the Bible definitely has something good to say.”

If we recognize the authority of our scriptures in Christ while simultaneously constructing ambivalent spaces of hybridity (to borrow a postcolonial term) within which we can dialogue with peoples of other religious and worldviews, what then can we say about how our scriptures are abused to perpetuate systems of patriarchy, particularly towards women and girls? At both the national and international levels, we repeatedly see our scriptures proof-texted to support all sorts of “traditional family values,” many which stand starkly against the cause of gender justice. Many Christian organizations lobby against providing comprehensive sex education and free access to contraceptives in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS. Others cite the Bible to refrain from ordaining women or speaking out against rape and other forms of sexual violence in their congregations. While strongly pro-choice myself, I am able to see how the scriptural witness could lead Christians to stand against universal access to abortion services. Yet at the same time, year after year at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), American evangelical groups along with conservative Muslim countries, the Holy See and others work to block language concerning women's access to a wide variety of life saving sexual and reproductive health services, all in the name of preventing abortions alone. Year after year, these same groups attempt to life up language regarding “traditional family values,” while neglecting to mention a large proportion of violence against women and girls occurs in the home. We must prophetically proclaim the sin of such behavior, yet at the same we must ask how do so many (often well meaning) Christians get such harmful ideas?

The Lutheran solas may provide us with insight on this question. As discussed above, at least in a homoreligious environment, the solas form an extremely powerful argument: “As read through the lens of our shared faith in Christ, the Bible says __________, so we should do __________.” Remember however, that the solas only work as an interconnected circle. Without “grace alone” and “Christ alone,” basing one’s thinking on “Scripture alone,” as those who abuse the scriptures to limit the rights of girls and women frequently do, inevitably leads one to some pretty harmful conclusions. Simply arguing “the Bible says __________, so we should do __________” in a multi-scriptural society while not particularly convincing is often quite harmful.

Especially since the late 1990s, such a message has unfortunately been presented by American evangelicals as the only Christian message concerning the rights of women and girls. Predominately secular individuals at the United Nations, often in a honest attempt to include the “Christian” perspective in international agreements, have in turn limited the progress of gender-justice, but at the same time probably figured Christianity as more a source of harm than good in the world (much as I initially did as college student). By prophetically promoting a more careful reading of the Christian scriptures that keeps in mind God’s liberating love in Christ, organizations like the Lutheran World Federation are now showing the international community there are multiple Christian messages regarding the rights of women and girls:
God desired to share human life fully in the flesh of a human being. God meets human beings in Jesus Christ, who shows who God is: a God who wants to liberate people out of slavery, free them from the bondage of a fallen world, empower the poor and oppressed and invite all to lead lives in freedom as children of God. This is the experience of the God “listening and coming down” to liberate the people who cry for help (Ex 2:24; 3:7). Jesus Christ called his followers into a new paradigm of God’s family, one in which the male-ruled biological family systems were transformed (Mk 3:35). The human body, in all of its realities, sufferings and joy is at the center of Christian revelation because of God’s incarnation through Jesus Christ. Thus, through incarnation God establishes a deeper relationship with human beings. The divine Word assumes a human body and inhabits us (Jn 1:14). Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ is a new, just community of sisters and brothers. This community, the church, is the body of Christ today (1 Cor 12:26–27).
Although we must still improve on reading our scriptures in conversation with those of other faiths, the work of groups like the LWF seems to be working! At CSW57 in 2013, strong language was adopted concerning the prevention of violence against women and girls. This past March at CSW58, those on the side of gender-justice succeeded in moving the international community towards including a robust stand-alone goal concerning girls and women in the post-2015 development agenda.

After four years of struggling to find a theological basis for including the wisdom of other faiths in my understanding of the Christian message, I thoroughly believe the traditional Lutheran concept of the simuls, when grounded in dialogue with the solas, provides a powerful way forward. To put it in less academic terms, through our faith in Christ, we know in a general sense how God works: Our God is a god of immense love, who shows up in the most unexpected of ways in the most unexpected of places. Indeed, by beginning to read our scriptures in dialogue with the scriptures of other religions and worldviews, we can learn more about ourselves while living out our call to practice Christian hospitality toward all God’s children. Christian hospitality is not the only reason to read the Bible inter-scripturally however. As others seek to influence decision makers on important issues like the rights of women and girls by abusing our scriptures, we are called to develop alternative Christian messages that will hold authority in an increasingly pluralistic, multi-scriptural world.

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Community Gardens, Love Feasts & Chicken Coops: Organizing Around Food Justice

Hey friends! So I'm still in the midst of posting working from my recently completed final semester at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. The following paper was written for an interfaith class with rabbinical students on the concept of Food Justice. It primarily concerns faith-based community organizing as a means to solve local issues of hunger and food sovereignty. Especially as this is an important issue in the Upstate NY Synod of the ELCA (the ELCA is the big national church body I belong to) where I'll hopefully be called to serve soon, it's something that is extremely important to me. Have you had success organizing around food justice in your faith community? I'd love to hear about it!

God's peace,

Food is a big deal! Let me flesh that statement out a little bit… whether we recognize it as such or not, food is a really, really big deal in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike. Food is a big deal, and in fact, it’s a centrally organizing element of human life. When we gather with friends, with long-missed loved ones, or even to discuss business transactions, we usually gather around food. Dinners together are an important way many folks share stories or live out being a family. Whether it be over the prayerful ritual of shabbat meals or participating in the gift of the Eucharist every Sunday, food is a central organizing element of both the Jewish and Christian faiths as well. Food is central to how we live. Food is central to how we love. Food is central to how we experience the Divine. Food is a really big deal!

At the same time, we all too often harm ourselves, our neighbors and our planet by not comprehending the immense scope of the food system in all its intricacies and treating food with the reverent care it deserves. This happens in our faith communities, even when we think we’re fully engaged with issues of food and hunger quite intentionally. Using my own life as an example, I’ve been of course eating my entire life, and since moving away to college I’ve tried with varying degrees of success to eat organic, local and (a bit) lower on the food chain. I’ve also been involved with social justice work regarding hunger since at least my senior year of high school, during which I organized an educational luncheon regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s World Hunger Appeal as an Eagle Scout project. Not longer after, as a Lutheran summer camp counselor I was critiqued for being “too political” after encouraging my middle school aged campers to urge their congressional representatives to fully fund the Millennium Challenge Account. Finally, since beginning seminary four years ago I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about how the liturgical act of the Eucharist informs my Christian faith. At least on a deeper, emotional, and spiritual level, however, I never really considered all these things as particularly related.

While I suppose in an intellectual sense I understood the connection between the role of food in my personal life, my public life and my faith life, it was not really until participating in an interfaith Food Justice course this semester that I truly began experiencing that connection. Quite specifically, it was our engagement with Jewish theological understandings of food that moved me toward this point. Many of the Christians I know are pretty good at thinking theologically about feeding hungry people, caring for creation and celebrating the Eucharist, but on the level of personal piety and understanding one’s sacred connection to God and neighbor through food, perhaps due to the influence of kashrut practices on everyday life, it seems like we have much to learn from our Jewish sisters and brothers. This fact first struck me when reading about the Jewish theological justification for giving a blessing before enjoying a meal:
Our Rabbis have taught: It is forbidden for a man to enjoy anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessing, he commits sacrilege. What is his remedy? He should consult a wise man. But what will the wise man do for him? He has already committed the offense! Raba said: What this means is that he should consult a wise man beforehand, so that he would teach him blessings, so that he should not commit sacrilege (me’ilah).
All of creation is God’s, we are only recipients of its bounty as a Divine gift (Psalm 24:1). We should therefore acknowledges God’s creation, and thus our human reliance upon Her many blessings, in order to not commit me’ilah, or to in other words to steal from God.

The Jewish notion of our personal reliance upon God for the bounty of creation isn’t necessarily different from a traditional Christian understanding of food, but it does seem to hold a place of greater emphasis. For example, I found it immensely profound that while learning about various food justice issues this semester, our conversations were always grounded in discussing our own experiences with food over the previous week, something that rarely happens in other seminary courses. Celebrating shabbat over a beautifully prayerful and ritualized (yet actual!) meal in the home is also indicative of a greater Jewish emphasis on the sacredness and power of food, especially when shared in community. It is important to note that early Christians shared this emphasis, as ancient forms of the Eucharist were likely celebrated over an actual meal often referred to as an “agape love feast.” Saint Paul points to both this practice and the reasons for its eventual demise in 1 Corinthians 11:
Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!… So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 33).
Although the Eucharist was often celebrated as (or alongside) the actual meal of a “agape love feast” in the first few centuries of Christian history, this practice was increasingly condemned as leading to over-indulgence, and in some cases, to the neglect of poor Christians who couldn't afford the copious amounts of food and wine involved.

In his Confessions, Saint Augustine discusses how his mother used to bring food and wine to celebrations of the Eucharist until her efforts were condemned by Saint Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan:
It had been my mother’s custom in Africa to take meal-cakes and bread and wine to the shrines of the saints on their memorial days, but the door-keeper would not allow her to do this in Milan. When she learned that the bishop had forbidden it, she accepted his ruling with such pious submission that I was surprised to see how willingly she condemned her own practice rather than dispute his command… she willingly ceased this custom when she found that this great preacher, this holy bishop, had forbidden such ceremonies event to those who performed them with sobriety, both for freer that to some they might be occasions for drunkenness and also because they bore so close a resemblance to the superstitious rites which the pagans held in honor of their dead. Instead of her basket full of the fruits of the earth she learned to bring to the shrines of the martyrs a heart full of prayers far purer than any of these gifts. In this way she was able to give what she could to the poor and the Communion of the Lord’s Body was celebrated at the shrines of the saints…
By separating an actual meal from the liturgical act of the Meal, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church Fathers were indeed freeing up additional resources to assist folks living in poverty, as well as protecting their flocks from gluttony. Given that particular context, discouraging the ancient Christian practice of the “agape love feast” was at least logical, and perhaps even wise for a time. Taking a cue from our Jewish sisters and brothers and given our current historical context however, in a time when hundreds of millions of people live without regular access to safe and nutritious food, and those who do have access often eat overly processed, bleached, preservative drenched crap called food because of a lack of choice or inability to pay for more expense alternatives, one must wonder if not actually sharing a meal when we celebrate the Meal still makes any liturgical sense.

Perhaps due the lack of holistic and personal engagement with food in many Christian congregations, it was in fact through a conversation with some of my ardently secular friends that I truly started thinking specifically about the process of organizing for food justice. While planning out our Easter dinner up in New Hampshire earlier this semester, we began lamenting the place of utter desolation that is America’s conventional food system. I also brought up the ineffective ways many faith communities combat food insecurity, and eventually it occurred to us that in both regards, we’re living in atypical times. Realizing this led us to ask some silly but provocative questions… How did so many responsible adults in the Greatest Generation start thinking, “Wow, real whole grain bread is just not a good idea, let’s eat bleached Wonderbread instead!” or “Nope… we’re too modern and actual fruit juice will just no longer do… let’s raise our kids on a steady diet of Kool-Aid and Mountain Dew!” A few decades later, despite “rediscovering” poverty in America during the 1960s, how did so many well meaning Christians decide to start donating to food banks in an effort to combat hunger while continuing to vote for politicians who openly worked to eliminate successful food assistance programs? My friends and I weren’t sure whether we should laugh or cry. We also couldn’t help but ask some followup questions: “How did we become so detached from what we put in our bodies to nourish ourselves and our families?” and “How did we become so detached from the folks in our local communities and around the world who don’t know where their next meal will come from?” In the end, when our questions didn’t lead to any satisfying answers, we found ourselves getting pretty angry, but a good type of angry, a type of angry that freed us to begin envisioning alternatives.

As I discovered this past Easter, now that we’re almost eighty years into the era of industrialized food and almost thirty-five years after Reagan’s first inauguration, an initial step in empowering faith communities to deconstruct and rebuild the utter desolation that is our “conventional food system” is to simply remind folks it hasn’t always been this way. In Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne points out that taken in the wider context of human history, our so called “conventional food system” is by no means conventional:
If food has a Middle Ages—a period when a dark curtain descended over its history—it certainly has to be the post-World War II era in the United States. It was the beginning of mankind’s descent into industrialized food production practices that emulated the same assembly-line technology that Henry Ford applied to the automobile. In the case of grain production for bread, the industrial model meant that a couple of varieties of wheat seeds were developed for the attributes that were so treasured in Wonder Bread. During the course of establishing this extremely limited range of wheat varieties, hundreds of other traditional varieties that had been bred for their ability to adapt to local conditions soon disappeared from use… Developments like these did produce a cheap loaf of bread. And unlike the aryl disciples of an alternative way—such as college hippies gnawing at unyielding crusts—most Americans were content with the perceived benefits that technology brought them.
Largely due to the immense pressures of growing up during the Great Depression only to face the horrors of the World War II, the Greatest Generation thoroughly embraced the security, convenience and cheap availability of bland, nutrient deficient food, to the point in fact that most of their Baby Boomer children and subsequent generations of Americans seemingly knew no alternative. The positive news in Winne’s statement however is that in denoting industrialized food as a “Middle Age,” he sees an alternative, healthier and more people-conscious food system taking shape.

Similarly, as David Beckmann profoundly notes in Exodus from Hunger, the current lack of political will to significantly lower rates of poverty and food insecurity in the United States is a relatively recent phenomenon:
The United States used to be a powerful poverty-reduction machine… During the New Deal and the Second World War, government policies and organized labor combined to create a broad middle class. During that period the rich got poorer, while workers got considerably richer… President Johnson’s Great Society programs have been much maligned. President Reagan later quipped that “we declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” But, in fact, the Great Society programs played an important role in reducing poverty in the 1960s and early 1970s… Nixon’s expansion of the national nutrition programs, for example, eliminated the kind of malnutrition we now associate with poor countries…Between 1959 and 1980 the proportion of elderly people in poverty dropped from 35 percent to 16 percent, almost entirely due to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Perhaps charismatic politicians like Ronald Reagan successfully redefined the traditional American value of “freedom from want” to “freedom from taxes,” or maybe Watergate and Vietnam simply decreased American faith in government. Whatever the reason for our current lack of can-do spirit to solve food insecurity as a systematic problem in our country (and to properly support our sisters and brothers in similar work around the world), helping folks to remember it hasn’t always been this way, and thereby creating space in which they can get angry, ask important questions and envision a better alternative is an important initial step in organizing to address the utter desolation that is our current conventional food system.

Christian liberation theology (and I imagine Jewish liberation theology as well), provides us with guidance on the next steps of organizing for food justice, namely in its emphasis on Christ’s preferential option for the poor and the power of personal narrative. As Gustavo Gutierrez, whom many would consider the founder of liberation theology, states in his seminal work A Theology of Liberation:
… the process of liberation requires the active participation of the oppressed; this certainly is one of the most important themes running through the writings of the Latin American Church. Based on the evidence of the usually frustrated aspirations of the popular classes to participate in decisions which affect all of society, the realization emerges that it is the poor who must be the protagonists of their own liberation.
Based upon his belief in Christ’s preferential option for the poor, Gutierrez locates Christ’s revelation in history primarily in the lives and stories of those suffering under oppression, which in our context would mean those suffering from food insecurity and other injustices brought about by our conventional food system.

A major role of the Church no matter the context however is to preach the good news of God’s liberating love in Christ to all individuals, and especially those living under oppression, so that they may both recognize their situation and God’s work in their lives to change it:
What the faith says about itself will demonstrate its relationship to the goal of the people who are struggling for the emancipation of others and of themselves. Indeed, an awareness of the need for self-liberation is essential to a correct understanding of the liberation process. It is not a matter of “struggling for others,” which suggests paternalism and reformist objectives, but rather of becoming aware of oneself as not completely fulfilled and as living in an alienated society.
Christ’s liberation in history is thereby manifest both externally and internally through the lives of individual believers and indeed all those in oppressed communities. Furthermore, while emancipating a community from an oppressive situation like our conventional food system is an external manifestation of liberation in Christ, the liberating self-agency that comes from the knowledge of Christ’s work in one’s life is an equally (if not more) important.
In the typically more secular language of community organizing, Saul Alinsky, whom many would consider the founder of modern community organizing in America, summarizes this point quite eloquently:
If people are organized with a dream of the future ahead of them, the actual planning that takes place in organizing and the hopes and the fears for the future give them just as much inner satisfaction as does their actual achievement… After all, the real democratic program is a democratically minded people - a healthy, active, participating, interested, self-confident people who, through their participation and interest, become informed, educated, and above all develop faith in themselves, their fellow men, and the future.
While the first step in organizing for food justice is to help communities remember our food system wasn’t always one of utter desolation, and thus that a better food system is possible, the second step is creating spaces where folks can share their stories and ask questions about how and why food insecurity exists in their local context. If we hold to Christ’s preferential option for the poor, and thus believe it is only the food insecure themselves who can achieve their own liberation, we must also recognize that the personal narratives of people living in food insecurity possess immense power. In creating spaces for folks facing food insecurity and related injustices to share their stories and begin identifying small changes that could greatly better their situation, communities can begin carefully cultivating allies to make those initial changes, which over time can build towards ever greater success and community empowerment.

Creating safe spaces for people living in food insecurity to share their stories on an equal footing with those privileged to have regular access to food is powerful way of moving all sorts of folks in our communities to begin connecting the role of food in different aspects of their lives. When a wealthy business executive picks up a pizza on her way home from work in order to put dinner on the table for her hungry family, does she recognize her intimate connection to the chain restaurant workers organizing for a living wage who made her pizza? Her young son offers a beautiful grace that evening, in which he prays for a healthy planet of great abundance for all God’s children. As the business executive lays down to sleep that night, she feels guilty about relying on takeout and prays for a way to work fewer hours in order to cook more nutritious meals with her husband (an activity she loves). How do the prayers of her and her son connect to those of the restaurant workers praying for a living wage? A few months later, inspired by a conversation she had over coffee hour at her local congregation, perhaps she joins the board of a local food bank. Does she use her business skills to simply address the immediate needs of hungry people in a patriarchal manner, or does she move the organization to begin advocating against the systematic injustices that create food insecurity?

When we create safe spaces for people like the business executive to engage in honest conversation with people living in food insecurity, and hence to reflect on their own stories regarding food, a relationship of mutual learning and accompaniment can begin to develop. Furthermore, the conversation that takes place in such spaces reminds us we’re all dependent on the bounty of God’s creation for our sustenance, and thus food can act as a great equalizer, cutting across all notions of class, social status or privilege. In a practical manner then, what would creating such spaces look like? First of all, accompanied by the folks we wish to help, we should prayerful examine and reform the traditional food bank model for engaging in food justice as faith communities. In Closing the Food Gap, Mark Winne cites a powerful quote from Janet Poppendieck that speaks to this point:
What I have found in seven years of studying the growth and institutionalization of the emergency food system is that emergency food has become very useful indeed… The United States Department of Agriculture uses it to reduce the accumulation of… agricultural surpluses. Business uses it to dispose of… unwanted product, to … avoid dump fees, … and to accrue tax savings… Churches use it to express their concern for the least of their brethren… Environmentalists use it to reduce the solid waste stream… A wide array of groups, organizations and institutions benefit from the halo effect of “feeding the hungry.” If we didn’t have hunger, we’d have to invent it.
Are we truly running our food banks with the input and interests of our customers in mind? Are we providing additional services and training that can help folks no longer need to rely on our food banks? Are we advocating against the societal injustices that get in the way of folks feeding themselves, no matter how much training they posses? Are we actually engaging with the people that visit our food banks and hearing their stories, or is the food bank just something that happens on a week day that only the pastor and a few other volunteers from the congregation know anything about? Are we connecting the meals we provide our customers to the Meal, the Eucharist we gather around every Sunday? Food banks do have their place, but we must prayerfully ask whether they are actually combating food insecurity, or merely perpetuating it.

Another way we can create spaces for the food insecure and secure alike to engage with each other is through recovering the ancient Christian practice of the “agape love feast” discussed above. This doesn’t mean simply turning our liturgies into the careless, drunken feasts rightly criticized by Saint Paul and Saint Augustine however. Rather, in prayerful consideration of the Church Fathers’ criticisms of the practice and accompanied in conversation with those facing food insecurity in our communities, we can carefully reconstruct the Eucharist as the “agape love feast” it was meant to be, a time of communion with God and all our neighbors, no matter their social station. Community gardens can also create space for the sharing of personal narratives, but as Mark Winne states repeatedly, when engaged in the ministry of organizing a community garden, its important to remember “The most important word in community garden is not garden.” These sort of ministries will not change the desolation of our conventional food system overnight, or even in the longterm on their own, but if they’re creating community where stories and learnings can be shared in relationships of mutuality, they can have a beneficial effect. Finally, I know it won’t be a major contribution, but one little thing I’m dearly hoping to do on my first call is to build a chicken coop behind the parsonage, if local zoning regulations allow. While I want fresh eggs to eat myself and share with parishioners and neighbors, and thus contribute towards creating an alternative food system in at least a small way, my main reason for setting up a coop will be to spark conversation about food justice in the small city context I will likely be called to serve. Chickens are a great and extremely easy way to get people talking, are a lot of fun, and even can provide some great fertilizer for the congregation’s community garden!

The finally step in organizing for food justice in faith communities of course is to well, make it happen. In helping folks remember that our conventional food system was not always one of utter desolation, we can open eyes to other possibilities. By creating spaces for those living in food insecurity to tell their stories, important relationships can develop and folks can begin to feel the link between their own eating practices, their public lives, and their faith. Yet without engaging in the work of actually advocating a for healthier, more accessible and sustainable food system, all the community gardens, agape love feasts and chicken coops won’t mean much beyond serving as simple feel good activities. By identifying small, easily solvable problems in our local communities to tackle first, we can begin to build a foundation for greater successes and often avoid the political controversy that federal-level advocacy usually entails.

Finally, when engaging in advocacy work, we should always remember Christ’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, advocacy on behalf of folks living in food insecurity, instead of advocacy with folks living in food insecurity, is both extremely patriarchal and usually ineffective. I’ll never forget an experience I had last year in this regard. On the “Day on the Hill” portion of Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, I visited Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to talk about issues related to food and hunger along with a number of other EAD participants. We were kindly received, listened to, and offered a Chobani for our efforts (Senator Gillibrand likes to emphasize the work of Upstate NY dairy farmers) before smiling for a picture with the legislative aide who met with us. A few days later I returned to Senator Gillibrand’s office, this time to talk about comprehensive immigration reform. The main difference however was that an amazing woman and member of the congregation where I served in New York City, who herself immigrated to America as a political refugee, joined our group and did most of the talking. After relaying her story, the legislative aide who met with us broke down, cried, and hugged the woman from my congregation. She said she’d personally see to it that the senator would hear about our visit. Personal narratives, especially of those who faced the oppression one is advocating against, hold immense power.

Once again, food is a big deal! Whether we recognize it as such or not, food is a really, really big deal in the lives of believers and nonbelievers alike! Despite its place as a central organizing element of human life, we all too often neglect to give food the reverent care it deserves, even in our faith communities. As people of faith however we can organize to end food insecurity in America and around the world, and furthermore to reform a conventional food system that has resulted in utter desolation. Organizing around food justice can be broken down into three steps and one over-arching value. We can begin by helping folks remember our food system was not always this broken and to thereby recognize something better is possible. We can then begin creating spaces where folks living in food insecurity can feel comfortable sharing their stories and where allies can begin connecting those stories to their own lives. Finally, we can simply identify an easily solvable problem and act in order to begin building up an ever greater body of success. Throughout this work however, we must always be acting in accompaniment with those directly facing food insecurity or related injustices. Advocating with rather than for such individuals, we can live out the calling of Micah 6:8, a calling common to both Judaism and Christianity, to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. 

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Drunk with Love: Reading the Song of Songs with Beyoncé

Hey friends- so wow, it's been a while since I've been able to post much here... the second half of my last semester of seminary was pretty nuts, with a whole lot of writing and other assignments to finish, which took up most of my time. Now that I'm graduated from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and I have a little bit of time on my hands before beginning my first call to ordained ministry in a parish, I figured I'd take some time to not only catch up on the ol' blog, but in fact to give it a bit of a facelift as well. So, what do you think about the new layout? I tried to go for a bit more of a professional, streamlined look.

At any rate, while there was a whole lot of writing over the last few weeks (about 80 pages in assignments), most of the assignments were a whole lot of fun, so I'll be posting them up over the next week or so. What follows though is probably my favorite paper I wrote throughout seminary, a sort-of exegetical take on Song of Songs 5:1, with my favorite international sensation Beyoncé as a conversation partner. I'd love to hear what you think!

Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.
- Song of Songs 5:1 (NRSV)

I read the Song of Songs probably twenty times this past week, in a vain attempt to figure out what to write for this paper. Maybe it’s due to the overwhelming sense of excitement and gratitude I’m feeling as graduation approaches, but wow, no matter how many times I went through it, I just couldn’t come up with anything substantial to say! I wanted to dig deep, I wanted to come up with something profound that might rise above the centuries long debate over whether the Song is an allegory for God’s relationship with humanity or whether it’s simply about two ordinary folks deeply in love with each other. I almost thought about shifting my paper topic to another book of the Bible, but the Song kept calling me back… In a time when so few folks are regularly active in organized faith communities, at least in the American context where I’m called to pastor, the Song proves a uniquely powerful tool for self understanding, dialogue with folks of other faith traditions (or lack thereof) and thus, a level of mutual understanding.

Indeed, for us folks living in a pluralistic world, the Song is perhaps the most accessible book in the Bible… in a literal sense few individuals (outside some Pentecostal settings) see God hanging out here on Earth, regularly witness miraculous healings, or hear a Divine echoing down from heaven. Quite similarly, God’s presence is never explicitly mentioned in the Song. If it wasn’t for the Song’s placement in the wider Jewish and Christian canons, there would be little reason to consider it part of a scriptural genre at all. On the other hand, since the Song is in the Bible, it must have something to say about the Divine, right? Why would it be there otherwise? In this way, the Song of Songs floats above our culture’s false dichotomy of sacred and secular, towards a more holistic understanding of God’s work in the world, an understanding accessible to believers and non-believers alike.

In its ability to move past the false dichotomy of sacred and secular, the Song of Songs proves a uniquely powerful tool for ministry in a pluralistic world. While I understood this point, and it thus seemed important to explore the Song further, I simply couldn’t come up with much else besides identifying it as a really pretty song about romantic love that uses garden imagery to create some decidedly erotic undertones. Up pretty late and frustrated with my lack of progress last night, I decided to start googling terms like “top love songs of all time,” thinking it might be interesting to compare the Song’s image of love to that of contemporary music. I stumbled through songs from a diverse group of popular artists, everything from the Righteous Brothers to Foreigner, The Beatles to Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder to the Dave Matthews Band, but nothing felt like it quite reflected what was going on in the Song of Songs. I eventually decided to read through the Song one more time before going to bed, and finally part of a verse stuck out at me: “eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.”

Drunk with love! Now anyone that’s hip to what’s going on in Top 40 radio right now would recognize a similar phrase! Ever since she dropped a surprise album in late 2013, Beyoncé has been “blowing up the charts” as they say with a number of hit jams, with the song “Drunk in Love” being her most popular. Given Beyoncé’s standing in American society, I assumed “Drunk in Love” would be a perfect dialogue partner for the Song of Songs. Billboard named her the top selling artist of the decade, and at least from my perspective, not since JFK and Jackie has a couple been so held up as an “all-American family” like Beyoncé, her husband Jay-Z and their young daughter Blue Ivy. Furthermore, her performance at the 2013 Superbowl holds the record for being the most tweeted event in history! Perhaps it’s my bias as a millennial and a proud member of the “BeyHive” (as fans frequently call themselves), but right or wrong, what Beyoncé has to say about love, on one level, likely reflects current popular thinking on the subject.

Furthermore, Beyoncé’s latest album is a “visual album” with each song accompanied by a pre-recorded music video. With all this in mind, “Drunk in Love” seemed like it might be a perfect dialogue partner with the strikingly vivid portraits painted by the Song of Songs. Upon careful analysis of the lyrics and accompanying music video however, although its definitely about getting lost in nuptial sexuality, “Drunk in Love” still didn’t feel quite right. The Spirit moves in mysterious ways however, and after deciding to click the YouTube link to another song from Beyoncé’s visual album, “XO,” I found exactly what I was looking for. In “XO,” Beyoncé joyfully dances and plays with friends and strangers, drunk with nuptial love while awash in the strange, neon garden of Coney Island. There’s longing and even a tinge of sadness amidst the joy however… love between mortal beings, no matter how bright, cannot last forever. Beyoncé sings to an unnamed beloved (we can assume that’s Jay-Z) to take her quickly, “before they turn the lights out.” After watching “XO,” I finally got it. In seeing what being “drunk with love” looks like in the post-industrial, digitally networked world I live in I could begin to understand how the concept of being “drunk with love” is so important to the world portrayed in the Song of Songs. In fact, coming from my particular context, being “drunk with love” provides a key exegetical lens for understanding what the Song says about living a life of love with a committed, longterm beloved partner AND living a life of love with God.

Giving its elusive, almost mystical nature, debate over the Song’s “true” meaning has existed since nearly the time of Christ, if not earlier. While Rabbi Aquiba’s argued for the Song’s canonicity based on illustration of God’s love for Israel, Church Fathers like Cyril and Ambrose used the Song of Songs in baptismal liturgies, perhaps borrowing from Saint Paul’s use of the nuptial image to characterize the mystery of Christian initiation in Ephesians 5:25 and II Corinthians 11:2. Origen however took Paul’s typological approach to the mystery of Christian initiation quite further in his commentary, moving toward an allegorical interpretation that considered Christ’s love for the Church as THE meaning of the Song. To put it in a hopefully more intelligible way, while Paul and the early baptismal liturgies would use the Song’s image of a nuptial bond as the type of thing that came closest to characterizing Christ’s love for the Church, Origen and especially later theologians’ allegorical approach considered the Christ/ Church or the Christ/Christian relationship the primary meaning of the text, buried beneath the less important plain meaning of two folks in love. Modern allegorical commentators tend to follow a similar vein, basing their assumptions about the “true” meaning of the Song by “anthologizing” similar words from other Biblical witnesses who describe God’s relationship with Israel/ the Church through the nuptial image.

As Ricœur points out, allegorical interpretations have their problems, especially since other biblical witnesses use the nuptial image quite differently from its use in the Song of Songs. Throughout the Prophets the nuptial image is typically one of the unfaithful wife or of God’s overwhelming love for Israel, neither of which reflect the deep sense of loving mutuality in the Song. Furthermore, as many of the early allegorical interpretations were written by ascetics, they typically needed to empty the Song’s erotic images of any human to human meaning in order to describe mystical love or union with Christ. Unfortunately, the Reformation’s focus on the plain meaning of the text and the Enlightenment’s search for universal truth resulted in equally unsatisfying interpretations. Modern techniques like historical criticism did indeed result in essential work, especially in identifying the author of the Song as likely female, but in other instances deconstructed the text to the point of near meaninglessness for those outside strict academic circles. Such readings have also frequently gotten bogged down in the need to agitate against conservative Christianity’s legalistic claims regarding human sexuality.

I still hold these subversive readings as important, however. The sinfully patriarchal legalism applied by conservative Christian to human sexuality, whether it be in regard to LGBT issues, sex before marriage, or a host of other matters, has gotten in the way of many believers hearing the gospel in recent decades; I myself almost left the Church for such reasons. That said, by relying solely on interpretations that stand above and in judgement of the text, it’s easy to miss how the world painted by the Song of Songs can profoundly shape one’s life of faith. Throughout this semester I’ve been blessed to experience the deep ways the scriptural world helps form our identity by standing in dialogue with the world we experience. Especially as the forces of sexual legalism continue losing ground throughout many regions of our country (Arkansas’ ban on marriage equality was struck down just yesterday in fact), I believe developing an alternative reading from within the Song that avoids the universalistic claims of past allegorical approaches is an important task. Reading the Song of Songs through an internal lens of being “drunk with love” in this way takes precedence over the external readings of recent decades, while not necessarily negating the important contributions of such work.

Speaking about his understanding of the Scriptures through faith, Karl Barth proclaims the following in The Word of God and the Word of Man:
…we may rest assured that in the Bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments, the theme is, so to speak, the religion of God and never once the religion of the Jews, or Christians, or heathen; that in this respect, as in others, the Bible lifts us out of the old atmosphere of man to the open portals of a new world, the world of God.
In this quote at least, Barth is absolutely correct—the world of our Scriptures is the world of God, a world that through faith shapes how we understand the world of our everyday experience. At the same time however, the world of the Bible, God’s world, tells us it can be understood through the world of our everyday experience. Perhaps the most profound example of this is Paul’s preaching to the Athenians in Acts 17:
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:22-27).
Paul proclaimed to the Athenians that they already possessed an understanding (albeit incomplete) about the world of God through the “unknown god” of their experience. We search for God, reaching for Her in faith through the world of our experience, and in turn apply this experience to the world of the Bible. Hence, a dialectic is created: the Bible interprets and indeed forms the world of our experience, but our experience interprets the world of the Bible in return.
Given this understanding, if we experience our world through the eyes of faith, how could we not understand the Song’s image of nuptial love between two human beings as also saying something about the love of God? If a person of faith has ever experienced mutual, long-term, deeply trusting, committed and at times ecstatic love for another human being, how could she or he not know something of the love God through such a relationship? The world of the Bible teaches us that while made imperfect in sin, we are still created in the image of God: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). How then could the nuptial love of our beloved not be understood as an imperfect image of God’s love? Coming at it from the opposite direction, Christ calls us to love each other in much the same way we’re called to love God:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22: 36 - 40).
Christ teaches us the first of the greatest commandments, to love God with heart, soul and mind, is like the other, to love our fellow humans as ourselves.

I’ll summarize quite simply: in loving our beloved, we love God. In loving God, we cannot help but love our beloved. In being loved by our beloved, we know something of God’s love. These experiences of love are inherently knit together, by love, actually. Are there other ways to know God’s love outside of nuptial love for another human being? Absolutely! Word and sacrament are a couple great examples. Similarly, are there other ways to love God outside of nuptial love for another human being? Absolutely! There are a whole lot of folks to love in other ways out there. Yet in the world of the Bible, a world through which we understand the world of our experience in faith, to know the nuptial love of a beloved is to inherently know something of the love of God. The Song of Songs certainly has something to say then about the love of God, but it’s not buried beneath the text as some sort of esoteric message. The plain sense meaning of the Song is a woman’s nuptial love for her beloved, and the nuptial love she equally experiences in kind. Yet in the world of the Bible, an experience of God’s love is implicitly part of experiencing the nuptial love of two human beings. By placing ourselves in the plain sense world of the Song and hence knowing something of this woman’s experience of nuptial love, we cannot help but know something about God’s love.

Interestingly enough, after a significantly more detailed analysis than my own, Ricœur arrives at quite a similar conclusion:
At last intersection between the poem and myth is also intriguing. One may challenge the theological character of these two texts where God is not named or referred to. To this we can reply that it is the myth of creation as a whole that names God. Did we not refer above to the verse that says that “Yhwh God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone…’”? This divine approbation authorizes us to say that love is innocent before God. But, someone may say, can God be the witness of a declaration for which he is not the intended audience? Perhaps we should answer, in an exploratory vein, that the origin has no need of being distinguished, named, or referred to insofar as it inhabits the creature? Man loves, beginning from God. If so, when rereading in light of Genesis, the Song of Songs becomes a religious text insofar as we can hear in it the word of a silent, unnamed God, who is not discerned owing to the force of attestation of a love caught up in itself.
Humanity loves, beginning from God. Ricœur’s findings have profound meaning for anyone living out a life of faith, to be sure. His work certainly furthered my understanding of the text. At the same time however, his overall method, or at least his rhetorical style, misses an important aspect of the Song of Songs, especially when one reads the text through the lens of being “drunk with love.”

To understand what I mean by such criticism, we must examine the experience of being “drunk with love,” both within the world of the Song of Songs and in the world of our human experience. While I by no means am arguing Beyoncé’s song “XO” and its accompanying music video are equivalent to the Song of Songs in any way (I figured it was pertinent to make that clear), “XO” did help me see what being “drunk with love” looks like in the world of my experience. Beyoncé is immensely joyful, drunk with love amidst the sea of humanity at Coney Island. There’s a light-hearted element to this joy—near the end of the video she’s dancing atop a skeeball game in an old-fashioned arcade, teaching folks somewhat silly moves akin to what usually accompanies the Village People’s “YMCA.” While light-hearted and perhaps even silly, there’s a profound element here as well. Only a few moments later she’s shown signing the “XO” dance in front of a massive audience, taking a bold stand for love. When “drunk with love,” all sorts of regular human distinctions disappear, seemingly conflicting emotions flow seamlessly together only to break apart again in new types of knowledge that move beyond the limits of human verbal expression.

I know I’m overly reliant on the visual story-telling of my globally networked world, and perhaps my constant visual connection to humanity through YouTube, Hulu and Netflix has dulled my ability to see the deep sense of being “drunk with love” in the Song of Songs, but wow, it’s still certainly there! The following words of the lovers as translated by Marcia Falk provide a profound example (with the male lover’s voice in italics):
The sound of my lovercoming from the hillsquickly, like a deerupon the mountains
Now at my windows,walking by the walls,here at the latticeshe calls—
Come with me,my love,come away
For the long wet months are past,the rains have fed the earthand left it bright with blossoms
Birds wing in the low sky,dove and songbird singingin the open air above
Earth nourishing tree and vinegreen fig and tender grape,green and tender fragrance
Come with me,my love,come away
The woman’s deep sense of urgency crashes into the joy and abandon of new spring in the voice of her beloved. The line between beloved and the wider creation blurs together in the man’s mind.
A few verses later in 2:15 we hear, “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards for our vineyards are in blossom.” Is this the chorus speaking, “the daughter’s of Jerusalem,” critiquing the lovers for some sort of unsanctioned love? Perhaps! Could this be the voice of the lovers as they recklessly run through the vineyards of Jerusalem awash in moonlight? Perhaps! Could this be the lovers worrying about getting caught in an act of unsanctioned love but recklessly running through the vineyards of Jerusalem awash in moonlight anyway? Perhaps! The fact of the matter is that the text is not clear about who is speaking, and unless we assume its author or compiler made a mistake or wanted to provide future readers with some secret type of meaning, it seems pertinent to admit that the text simply doesn’t need to make a distinction. When “drunk with love,” lines blur, even at times between “self” and “other,”  while seemingly conflicting thoughts, emotions and experiences crash together, only to reemerge anew.

Being “drunk with love” also indicates a type of love that defies traditional lines of categorization. Grammatically speaking, the word ‘love’ in Song of Songs 5:1 is translated from dod, a rarely used root properly meaning “to boil.” Yet in the same verse the male character calls his beloved both achot or “sister” and kalla, a word usually translated as “bride,” but based off a primitive root that indicates a sense of completion, destruction or consummation. The Song of Song’s sense of a nuptial couple being drunk with a love that is beyond categorization reflects the world of our experience, doesn’t it? All this business about drinking wine with milk and eating honeycomb with honey in the earlier portion of Song 5:1 is sometimes read as an act (or dreamt about act) of oral sex. If one has engaged in that sort of thing with a committed, longterm, beloved partner, could one read Song 5:1 as a description of oral sex? Sure, although the use of garden imagery creates enough mental space to also read it otherwise. Could that same person read it only as a description of oral sex? Absolutely not! When “drunk with love,” different senses of love and acts of love and memories of love mix and meld, embracing each other beyond classification. In the midst of sex with one’s beloved, at least sometimes, memories from many years of friendship, or the beauty and the struggle of building a life and family together flood into one’s mind. Or perhaps the dog wakes up and starts barking outside one’s bedroom door. Is the nuptial couple’s moment of sexual passion over? Maybe, but a sense of desire remains, the beloved embrace other, look into each other’s eyes, shrug it off, and going on loving anyway (and probably fight over who has to get up to let the dog out).

The idea of being “drunk with love” might sound like all sunshine and roses, but it’s not, as Beyoncé’s “XO” helped me explore. “Drunk with love” isn’t the love of Disney or the “happily ever after” situation portrayed in many conservative Christian appeals about God leading one into a blissful marriage with a perfectly special someone. To be “drunk with love” also means to contend with great struggle, fear and loss. Hearing Beyoncé sing the lyrics “oh, baby, take me, before they turn the lights out, before our time has run out,” I couldn’t help but think of what my parents must have experienced as a couple when my mother was dying of lung cancer at a young age. To be “drunk with love,” no matter at what age or in what state of health sometimes means looking into the eyes of your beloved and saying, “I don’t ever want you to die,” yet all the while knowing your time with your beloved, at least in this life, is fleeting. In this way there is an unmistakable sense of urgency to being “drunk with love,” as reflected throughout the Song of Songs, but most poignantly in its final verse: “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle, or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!” (Song 8:14).

There is another sense of death in being “drunk with love” as well: at least at times, one dies within one’s beloved. As the Song puts it, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song 6:3). Remember as well, what the man calls his beloved in Song 5: kalla, while translated as “bride,” its primitive root indicates completion, destruction and consummation. Beyoncé references this quite simply: “You kill me boy, XO.” Sometimes to die within one’s beloved is a joyous experience. Life feels like it has more meaning when “drunk with love,” and when one feels weak, one can lean on the strength of the beloved. One learns and grows in such a relationship, becoming a better person through the experience. Yet at other times, to die within one’s beloved hurts or is downright scary. What if the relationship doesn’t work out after years of commitment? What if one’s beloved feels called to move across the country, many hours away from one’s friends, family and career? As a less drastic and more everyday example, what parts of one’s identity (or at least the full expression thereof) are lost in negotiating the nuptial relationship? I cherish the seven Bob Dylan posters I have hanging up in my room for instance, having started the practice in high school of collecting one at each of his concerts I’ve attended. When I marry my beloved and share a bedroom, she’s already told me we’ll be switching to more “mature” decor, and furthermore that I have no say in the matter. This isn’t the end of the world of course, but it is less than ideal. As I look forward to gazing up at a picture of Great Aunt Blahdeblah and a bunch of flowery chachkas through hopefully many years of nuptial love, a little bit of me dies inside, but just a little bit :).

As both the world of our experience and the world of the Song affirms, no matter how deeply one is “drunk with love,” at times one’s beloved will feel distant. On a simple level, you might be half a world away from your beloved for professional reasons, and she or he can’t understand the darn internet isn’t quite up to American standards. More significant problems can exist in the nuptial relationship however, no matter how much a couple may be “drunk with love.” Perhaps you’re in close proximity physically, but worlds apart on an important life decision. The drunkenness of nuptial love may even feel like it’s dried up, sometimes for months or years even, only to be rekindled by an unexpected event. The world of the Song shows us that despite a nuptial couple being “drunk with love,” distance can creep in, and often frustratingly so: “Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer” (Song 3:1).

In contrast to the deep mutuality of love indicated throughout most of the Song, the woman’s beloved withdraws a second time, this time with seemingly devastating consequences:
I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love (Song 5:6-8)
Little else in the Song seems to indicate a neglectful aspect to the male character, but reading from a context when violence against women is one of the most pervasive problems in our society, its proves difficult not to stand in judgement of the text here. The woman may be dreaming in this passage, we can’t be sure, but if we stay within the world of the text itself, there are other possibilities? If this passage were not included in the wider text, on one level, the Song’s image of nuptial love wouldn’t ring true to the world we live in, as there would be no real societal cost… the Song would just end up being a much prettier version of Disney. We give up a lot when we engage in nuptial relationships. Having a family often lowers one’s standard of living, climbing the career ladder is sometimes put on hold—coming from an American context, the United States is sinfully one of only a handful of countries without nationally mandated paid parental leave from work (included both maternal and paternal leave). I immensely dislike the Song’s use of a violent act against the woman as an image, I can’t help but stand in judgement of the text on this one, yet at the same time, from within the imperfect world of the Bible, it serves to make a point—being “drunk with love” often comes with immense societal costs.

As the Song of Songs, the world of our experience and even Beyoncé all indicate, despite the many movements from deep, joyful presence to wrenching distance from one’s beloved and back again, being “drunk with love” is still typically worth it. Amidst this love, emotions, memories and even identities crash together only to explode apart again, making something brilliantly new. There isn’t much else in the capacity of human experience that’s as painful as being “drunk with love,” but there isn’t much else that's as joyful either. Furthermore, there isn’t much else that’s harder to describe, at least in an academic or analytical sort of way. Being “drunk with love” is simply beyond classification, and getting back to Ricœur’s otherwise brilliant analysis, that’s where his problem lies. It’s probably where the weakness of this paper lies too, although I’ve tried to strike the least academic tone and approach possible. The experience of being “drunk with love,” and thus the ancient Song that so perfectly describes it, simply go beyond the realm academic understanding. No degree or ordination, no number of books or knowledge of biblical history can fully advance one’s appreciation for both its profound wisdom and tempestuous power.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Song then is how it acts as a great equalizing force in the world of the Bible. As I mentioned earlier, the Song of Song floats above divisions of sacred and secular, towards a more holistic understanding of God’s work in the world, an understanding equally accessible to Bible scholars and first time readers, to believers and non-believers alike. Deeply experiencing the world of the Song only requires one thing: to love. In this way, as a person of faith I can approach the most vehement of atheists and say, “Ya know that feeling you got looking into your spouse’s eyes on your wedding day? Ya know that feeling you got in the hospital waiting room when the doctor came in and announced you had a newborn baby girl? Ya know that feeling you got when you made love, couldn’t hold your beloved tighter and couldn’t help but cry? That feeling is pretty much like how I experience the love of my God.” Now that atheist might not agree with the source of your experience, and that’s okay, but by golly, he will know what you mean.

When one does read the Song of Songs through the eyes of faith, one cannot help but know something of God’s “drunken love” for humanity as well. Despite his decidedly allegorical approach, one of my favorite theologians Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this point quite eloquently:
Once the bridegroom has addressed her spouse, the Song offers the bride’s companions the mystery of the Gospel saying: “Eat, my companions, and drink, be inebriated, my brethren” [Song 5:1]. To the person familiar with the Gospel’s mystic words, there is no difference between this sentence and the words applied to the disciples’ mystic initiation: in both cases it says “Eat and drink” [Mt 26:26-27]. The bride’s exhortation to her friends seems to have more weight than those in the Gospel. If anyone carefully examines both texts, he will find the Song’s words to be in agreement with the Gospel, for the word addressed to the companions is brought to fruition in the Gospel. All inebriation makes the mind overcome with wine go into ecstasy. Therefore, what the Song enjoins as then and always, this food and drink contains a constant change and ecstasy from a worse to a better condition.
When carefully read through the eyes of Christian faith, how could the words “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love” not work on us, making us know of God’s outpouring of immeasurable love? As promised, Christ shows up again and again and again for us in the Eucharist, in His invitation to eat and drink as we pray His prayer that we may taste and see the love of God. And we do, and in that food and drink, as Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully puts it, we come to know “a constant change and ecstasy from a worse to a better condition.”

Now to be fair, despite helping come up with the Nicene Creed and all, ol’ Saint Gregory didn’t get things quite right all the time—he goes on to talk about the Song teaching us to stay away from the “passions of the body” and the like. When we put our world of experience in dialogue with the world of the Bible in faith however, we know that while the “passions of the body” are often destructive, that isn’t always the case. Christ tell us in Matthew 22 that the love of our beloved is like, albeit in an imperfect sense, the love of God. Although we’re a wholly broken creation, Genesis 1:27 proclaims that we’re still created in our God’s image. How then could we not know something of God’s love for us, however imperfect, through the trusting, longterm, committed and at times sexually expressed nuptial love of our beloved? Furthermore, as the world of the Bible works to form our life of faith, we can also move past all the tired, legalistic and overly simplistic arguments (sometimes on both sides) regarding issues like sex before marriage. Is a sexual relationship still most fully expressed within the security and public affirmation of marriage? For all sorts of reasons, both practical and spiritual, and when legally and/ or ecclesiastically possible, absolutely! Is marriage the only deciding factor for a person of faith regarding sex? The image of a committed, mutual, and partnered nuptial love within the Song of Songs provides a significantly more nuanced approach to such an important question.

There are of course plenty of other lessons we can learn about the love of God from the Song of Songs, many significantly more important than how we should lead our sex lives. First of all, while God seriously loves humanity, and indeed all of Her creation, that love need not always be expressed in a serious way! Have you ever been to a zoo? God created the anteater, and the baboon and even the blobfish! Seriously… google the blobfish right now! As God acts and creates and dances in Her mighty and constant works of love, She clearly has a sense of humor at times. Much like Beyoncé signing the “XO” in front of thousands of her fans or the two beloved’s romp through the vineyards however, God’s many acts of love are always profound. God’s love furthermore, isn’t easily defined or categorized. All this business one hears preached from the pulpit so often about God loving us in only the “agape” sense is mere poppycock. As the Song of Songs teaches us (and the Incarnation does too, by the way), God deeply desires and yearns for Her children, reflecting the Greek “eros” sense of love as well. The man refers to his beloved in Song as achot, and in this way the “philia” or familial sense of love is also present. God does indeed promise to walk with us, and in fact to carry us through the many struggles of life, and isn’t there the notion of a loving sister or brother present in such a relationship? Similarly to the experience of being “drunk with love” in the Song of Songs, the love of God is wholly beyond classification.

Finally, the Song of Songs also lets us know what a life of loving God entails… and on one level, it’s not all good news. Loving God comes with great struggle. We sacrifice of ourselves, we sing God’s praises, we hear Her Word and partake in Her Meal, we try throw ourselves into God’s loving arms in moments of great despair and joy alike, but at times, just like the woman in the Song, we still may not feel God’s presence. At other times we might know God loves us, but just like the woman in the Song, God doesn’t seem anywhere to be found. And much like the man’s experience of his beloved’s locked garden (and let’s ignore the obvious sexual allusion of that passage for the time being), we might know God loves us, we might even know exactly where to find Her, but still, we just can’t seem to find our way in. Loving God comes with great cost, it always does, as we die to ourselves each and every day in the waters of baptism. We get hurt, we get lost, we get bruised and broken living a life of love, and we’re not always good at it either. Loving God is never easy, but as we know through a faithful reading of the Song of Songs, sometimes, especially in those very moments when we’re “drunk with love,” romping through the vineyards (or dancing on skeeball machines at Coney Island), loving God is incredibly joyful, and meaningful and beautiful and profound and lighthearted and passionate and frankly, the best damn feeling in the world. XO.

Works Cited

Beyoncé. “XO.” YouTube. (accessed May 9, 2014).

Lacocque, André and Paul Ricœur. Thinking biblically: exegetical and hermeneutical studies. 
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Leahey, Andrew. “Beyoncé - Biography.” Billboard.
beyonce/biography (accessed May 9, 2014).

Nyssa, Gregory of. Commentary on the Song of Songs. trans. Casimir McCambley. Brookline, 
MA: Hellenic College Press, 1987.

Strong’s Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary of the Old Testament. Public domain, in Accordance 

Bible Software, version 8.4, CD-ROM. OakTree Software, 2009.

Dustin is a recent graduate from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and approved candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, Dustin spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with an amazing woman named Jessie and pretending to know how to sing.