By Kathy Staudt
At the beginning of this year’s long “green season” — probably almost as long as the season after Pentecost can be with Easter so early– I embarked on the Center for Biblical Studies’ “Bible in a Year” program; (more about this here) You read 3 chapters from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and one chapter of the New Testament every day. At this point I have finished through Ezra and Nehemiah and just moving into Esther and the Wisdom books, and I am just starting 2 Corinthians. I may take a break when Advent comes and move to the daily readings through the church year, picking up where I left off the Sunday after Trinity in 2014. I find myself inclined to do this because of what I have learned, especIally now that I have read through most of the main story of Israel’s relationship with God from Creation.
What I’ve learned, more deeply though I thought I knew it, is how compelling the story of Israel’s relationship with God is, and how human and distressing and appalling in places. We are seeing God often through the lens of tribal patriarchal cultures and sometimes there is violence and even genocide done in the name of God and it seems to be approved. And there is this thread which can be dangerous if taken too far – but it’s there in Scripture: The “deuteronomist” story line that explains the exile into Babylon by showing how Israel keeps turning away from the Covenant with God — how God keeps calling God’s people back, and they keep messing up and they try again. “Again and again you called us to return” we say in our Eucharistic prayer — and that IS the rhythm of the big story of Scripture, even when there are terrible moments. It is the rhythm of God’s relationship with humanity, and this is a God that for some mysterious reason WANTS to be in relationship with God’s people — “you will be my people and I will be your God” — the temple is cast down and rebuilt with rejoicing, the people know who they are and they keep forgetting. I’ve read in theologians as diverse as Verna Dozier and Hans Urs von Balthasar about this dramatic shape of the story but it has really been fascinating to “dwell” in it through this practice and I want to continue. I of course read it all primarily through the lens of my training as a literary scholar and reader of stories — following the threads of the big story more than the often objectionable cultural pieces of it (most annoyingly for me the dominant voice of tribal patriarchy) in the way the stories are told. But the story of exile and return, falling away and being called back, burns through it all and I am now hearing the Scriptures read at worship with fresh ears, knowing that much more about the context and the tradtition. So I find I am reading each part of the story of Scripture in light of the “whole story” in which I have been immersed.
Meanwhile, my young adults Bible study group this fall has been reading the “Song of Songs,” whose refrain is “My beloved is mine, and I am his” – or “I am for my Beloved and my Beloved is for me.”. A rabbi we had visiting as our guest the other night confirmed what I’ve been reading in commentaries, the Rabbinic understanding of this book as a Holy Book, the “Song of Songs” as in the “book of books”. For the Rabbis it is an allegory about the faithfulness of God and the hope of a truly intimate and mutual relationship between God and God’s people that is established at Sinai. Steeped in her own tradition, the rabbi radiated a joy in being people who have been given the Law as a way of living faithfully with God. It was beautiful to see. I had known about the Christian mystical readings of the Song of Songs as an allegory of Christ and the church, or of the mystical marriage between the. Soul and God, but I am really finding powerful the rabbinic understanding of the story of Israel being about the possibility of real, loving relationship between a human community and their God. And the poetry is powerful.
I am open to this insight partly because a favorite artst and poet of mine, David Jones, has also written that ‘in the end there is only one tale to tell: ego amor mihi et ego illi (my Beloved is mine and I am his)./”. I see more than ever how this is the story of Scripture as a whole, including the New Testament narrative of “the gospel of Jesus Christ” , which we’ll soon enter again from the beginning in the church year to come. I’m looking forward to pondering all these stories again, in light of the “whole story.”
So in short, I have been (in the words of the collect) “Reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting” the story of Scripture. I commend this practice to all: It has been a rich, often challenging, but ultimately deep and and fruitful practice for me, and I look forward to pursuing it in fresh ways as we begin this new cycle of the Christian story, in this new church year.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph. She works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area and is the author of two books of poetry: “Annunciations, Poems out of Scripture” and “Waving Back:Poems of mothering life”, as well as a scholarly study of the modern artist and poet David Jones.