As we continue through Lent, finishing Ecclesiastes and moving into Song of Songs, it occurs to me I didn’t know how short Ecclesiastes is. I think at this time of year, in this season, I could easily be content with studying Ecclesiastes the whole month of March or throughout the rest of Lent. Chapter 11 is good life advice that I’ve learned in a hard way – taking risks because life is short. From there we begin Song of Songs – which at first glance may seem jarringly asynchronous with Lent. But it is always a good time to read a text with fresh eyes to consider what new insight may spring forth from it.
Daily Bible readings and readings from The Cup of Our Life:
March 4 – Ecclesiastes 10; Week 3, Day 5
March 5 – Ecclesiastes 11; Week 3, Day 6
March 6 – Ecclesiastes 12; Week 3, Day 7
March 7 – Song of Songs 1; Week 4, Day 1
March 8 – Song of Songs 2; Week 4, Day 2
March 9 – Song of Songs 3; Week 4, Day 3
March 10 – Song of Songs 4; Week 4, Day 4
“The Bible is really a very dirty book – just filthy! There’s a lot of sex and violence in it,” said my Sunday school teacher and friend’s mother. My adolescent self may have looked skeptical. “No, seriously! Read it – it’s all in there!” I had read the Bible, and it always seemed like a confusing mix of strange people doing strange things in strange places. But certainly not sexually! But at the same time, I was intrigued. “Where?” I wondered. “Take Song of Songs, for instance,” she encouraged.
I read Song of Songs, and even though my Good News Bible had pictures, I didn’t notice anything particularly salacious about it. Sure, there was something about “breasts like gazelles,” but that type of imagery seemed obscure and miles away from the less subtle bodice-ripping romance novels I often read at the time from my local library. And so I took my Sunday School teacher’s words with a grain of salt, now believing that the Bible could even make sex strange and confusing, while also basically believing that the only thing the Bible really had to say about sex was, “Don’t do it ’til you’re safely married.”
It took me a great many years to realize that my Sunday School teacher was right – in the sense that Bible really does run the gamut of human experiences. With that in mind, reading the Bible as a simple morality rulebook (or not reading it because I saw it as that) was incredibly misguided. It was even longer before I could understand more helpful ways of reading the Bible, that letting each book and character speak as a witness from its own time could help myself and others have a more fruitful walk with Jesus. In freeing ourselves to read the Bible without an agenda, without trying to force it to be things it was never meant to be, we give it the freedom to be a living book of vibrant witness of God’s people throughout time and space, not a livid book that always expects more from us than we are able to give.
It is with those thoughts in mind that I read Song of Songs, and pay attention to what other great minds have to say about it. The venerable Renita Weems offers plenty of important observations in the New Interpreter’s Bible, pointing out that “Song of Songs stands out in sharp contrast to the rest of the biblical books in two other ways. First, nowhere in its eight chapters is God mentioned. The book of Esther is the only work that shares this distinction. … A decidedly secular tone permeates Song of Songs; not only is God’s name not mentioned in the book, but also no allusions are made to any of Israel’s sacred religious traditions, be they covenant traditions (the Davidic or Sinai covenants) or God’s saving acts in Israel’s history (e.g., deliverance at the sea).” She also comments on its Black woman-centered voice and tone: “where more than fifty-six verses are ascribed to a female speaker (compared to the man’s thirty-six), the experiences, thoughts, imagination, emotions, and words of this anonymous black-skinned woman are central to the book’s unfolding. Moreover, the protagonist is not merely verbal; unlike many of the women in the Bible, she is assertive, uninhibited, and unabashed about her sexual desires.”
Weeks 3 and 4 of The Cup of Our Life focus respectively on “The Chipped Cup” and “The Broken Cup,” considering the ways in which our imperfect and sometimes broken lives offer us opportunities to explore our relationship with God. How can our mistakes, failures, and the pain that results from them lead us to transformation?
We begin reading a new book about faith-based community organizing: Building a People of Power by Robert Linthicum. In its introduction he shares a word about how he lets Scripture “read” us as he understands it in the book of Mark:
In essence, during that interim, the nation [of Israel] had become divided into two positions. The zealots and revolutionaries (which included some of Israel’s leaders) were calling for continued all-out revolt against Rome until the Empire would be pushed permanently out of Israel and the Jews could win their independence. The majority of Israel’s leadership (the high priest, the priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes), all of whom had fared well by cooperating with Rome, was calling upon the nation to surrender and to sue for peace.
What would the church do? On which side would they fasten? The gospel of Mark is written to counsel Christians to look back and see what Jesus did when faced with these two alternatives in his time. What he did was to insist upon a third way – not to become revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of Rome or join with Israel’s aristocratic elite in cooperating with Rome. Rather, the church should, like Jesus, proclaim and work for the kingdom of God by seeking to peacefully (but astutely) re-form society on the Jubilee principles of fortune, where wealth is equitably distributed, poverty is eliminated, all politics are just, and all are reconciled to each other because they are reconciled with God. (p. xv)
This third way of which Linthicum speaks is similar, I think, to the third way of nonviolent direct action as understood by FBCO, seeking neither revolution and overthrow of, nor lockstep compliance with, our current governments and institutions. Instead, FBCO asks us to build healthier models of shared power so that as God’s people we can come together and use our power in Godly ways for the common good. How do you seek out “third ways” to bring about community and societal change?
Check the Think! Pray! Act! calendar for ideas and things to do.
Check out the Find Your FBCO Map to find your local faith-based community organizing affiliate and connect with the people who are working to live out their dreams of a more just world!
What’s going on in your living of the Gospel? Let us know in the comments, in our e-mail discussion group, or on social media.
Linthicum, Robert C. Building a People of Power: Equipping Churches to Transform Their Communities. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015.
Rupp, Joyce. The Cup of Our Life: A Guide to Spiritual Growth. Revised edition. Notre Dame, Ind: Ave Maria Press, 2012.
Weems, Renita. “Song of Songs: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” Pages 947–1020 in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. III of. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015.