M is for Moses

My first recollection of anything connected to the Hebrew Bible is watching the film The Ten Commandments. This was the 1956 version of the film although I was watching it around twenty years after its release. The director, Cecil B. DeMille, made two films with this name. The first film was a silent one released in 1923. Despite some commonality these two films are actually rather different to each other. The first film presented a relatively short account of the Exodus story in which, as its title suggests, the Ten Commandments are central. The narrative in which Moses is central is a prelude to a longer story concerning two brothers. The two brothers choose different paths in life. One chooses to live a life consistent with the Ten Commandments. The other brother pursues a life in which he breaks every commandment. The outcome comes as little surprise—Danny’s disdain for the commandments means that his sins eventually catch up with him, after a life of decadence.

The 1956 version is often termed a remake but it is a very different film. The newer film is wholly concerned with the life of Moses. This story is covered at length with the film having an epic running of time of 3 hours and 40 minutes, if the original intermission is included. Much of the later parts of the film are a straightforward, even faithful account of the life of Moses. The opening hour of the film fills in a lot of ‘the blanks’. From a cinematic point of view this is quite understandable. Modern sensibilities expect a film to be about the main protagonist, and not the titular Ten Commandments. Readers of the life of Moses in Exodus realise, because of the gaps in the story, that this is more than a story about Moses. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, silence often surrounds the questions we want to ask. This is arguably driven by a deliberate literary device rather than any authorial lack of information. The additions to DeMille’s film, to be fair make for a number of intriguing plot developments. The biggest departure concerns Moses falling for Nefretiri, who as a princess is expected to marry the next Pharaoh. The film also portrays Moses as a General. He defeats the Ethiopian army and the country then agrees an alliance with Egypt.

How would Cecil B. DeMille feel I wonder if he knew that in his effort to bring a key element of the biblical canon to life he had made other elements of the story achieve canonical status? The childhood of Moses is again a key feature of DreamWorks’ 1998 Prince of Egypt. Moses’ military prowess is central to Ridley Scott’s 2014 Exodus: Gods and Kings. By 2014 something has changed with regard to the basic commitment to the story however. Cecil B. DeMille wanted to celebrate the Ten Commandments, not only as a story but as a tenet of faith. Scott and presumably his studio are keen to explain the miraculous in terms of implausible coincidence. All this said, all of these retellings are in a sense legitimated by the original—the narrative terseness of the Hebrew Bible invites retelling—retelling is central to the very purpose of this story:

“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” 

Exodus 12:24‒7

 

K is for King David

K is for King David

This post will take some lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s legendary song Hallelujah as its framework. The second verse of Hallelujah reflects on an infamous scene of adultery:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

The second verse of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

These verses, either coincidentally or intentionally, highlight a couple of highly distinctive features of the Hebrew Bible which Christian interpreters have often failed to handle appropriately. The first of these is the tendency to portray heroes of the faith with painful honesty. Despite David being someone after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) he is portrayed as someone who does terrible things. One of the most memorable is his lust for Bathsheba which causes him to immediately commit adultery with her (2 Samuel 11:2‒4). To make matters worse David successfully conspires to have Bathsheba’s husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11:15‒17). There is little interest in whitewashing the stories concerning the heroes of faith in the Hebrew Bible—although we will consider in a later post why this story is absent from the account of David’s reign in Chronicles. All of the key figures in the life of Israel fail spectacularly at various points.

David’s failure regarding Bathsheba has captured the imagination of artists over hundreds of years, see [1] for an examination of this in religious painting. Cohen is not alone in finding this episode worthy of consideration. The way he does this is reminiscent of a way of interpreting the Hebrew Bible known as midrash. One of the features of midrash, and there are many others, is looking for parallels between diverse biblical narratives. In the verse quoted above it appears that Cohen is drawing a parallel between Bathsheba’s impact on David and the impact of Delilah on Samson—she famously seduced him and cut his hair in events which lead to his death (Judges Chapter 16). Cohen’s midrash perhaps implies that it was lust for a woman which led to both David’s problems and to Samson’s.  The story of David’s life makes it clear that the conflict in his house was a result of God’s displeasure with his adultery and ‘murder’—poetically Bathsheba broke his throne, although the biblical narrative lays this firmly at David’s feet. That lust and sexual desire are the uniting thread between the stories of broken thrones and cut hair is echoed in the reference to sex later in the verse: ‘from your lips she drew the Hallelujah’.

 

  1. David Lyle Jeffrey, ‘The Hebrew Bible in art and literature’, pp.426‒446 in The Cambridge Companion to The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Book Review: The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails

Mark Roques, The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails: Creative Ways of Talking about Christian Faith, Leeds: Thinking Faith 2017.

ISBN 978-0-9957572-0-2, 182pp., £8.99

Many books are available on Christian apologetics but very few focus on communicating faith. Mark Roques recognises this and encourages us to try something that we might just be able to do. His project is no intellectual programme to out-think militant atheism nor is it an unrealistically intensive evangelistic programme—this is human-centred and culture-centred storytelling. It focuses on the act of storytelling that people do every day, the need for narrative that Jesus shows to be the way that human beings communicate. Few people will ever be persuaded to undergo the paradigm shift to Christian faith on the basis of intellectual apologetics. The drip feed of new ways to look at reality that comes from storytelling, on the other hand, has a hope of penetrating the wall that modern Westerners build around themselves.

Mark Roques Book

This book not only promotes a great way forward in how we can share our faith it does it in a highly engaging fashion. Despite being a short book it has a solid underpinning intellectual depth and rigour. This necessary background is however put over as engagingly as the stories Roques encourages us to share. The core call of this book is to see the culture we live in as a resource, a common language for us to use in creative dialogue with others. In this way James Bond can become an ally as we talk about our faith and show others they too have a faith, albeit in things other than Jesus. Roques knows that Bond won’t work for everyone and to this end the variety of ideas to inform our storytelling is remarkable. Who would have thought that Ivan the Terrible, Glenn Hoddle, Anna Nicole Smith and the Duke of Edinburgh would be such vital assets to our endeavours in personal evangelism?

The Spy, the Rat and the Bed of Nails can be purchased here: http://thinkfaith.net/realitybites/spy-rat-nails

Psalm 149—Singing a New Song in 2017

Purple Rain: 2016

2016 was by any standards a remarkable year. On two days I awoke to the opposite outcome to that which I had expected in a national vote – I was personally disappointed on both counts. This time last year no one would have predicted all of the big events on the world stage of these past 12 months. It will, I am sure, go down as a historic year which set in motion events which will take decades to unfold. But 2016 was remarkable for other reasons. It seemed that everybody experienced a famous person that they liked, or admired, dying. The world of music alone lost Prince, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie and George Michael.

The most talented musicians leave a tangible cultural legacy. I find the role of music in culture fascinating. Have you ever wondered about the ubiquity of music? Why do we have song-after-song-after-song? Are there not enough songs by now? Is it really possible to do anything new with a song?

The cynic might say that the modern song writer is in it for the money. Whilst I cannot deny that there is a commercial dynamic to the music industry, there is something more. It is not cold hard cash that motivates budding musicians to work endlessly at anti-social hours for little or no money and limited recognition. I don’t think it is just a hope of future fame that can drive them. There is simply something creative about the human nature. Just as God created the Universe, as people in his image we are creative too. For some of us this means writing new songs and music and/or playing and performing music.

Psalm 149 makes much of singing a New Song. It is not alone in exulting us to sing a New Song. Psalms 33, 40, 96, 98 and 144 also refer to this idea. Isaiah 42 and Revelation 5 use it as a key motif too.

Hallelujah: Gathering to Sing

Singing together as God’s people is one of the essential activities that we engage in. There is something about singing with others. Of course not all of us enjoy it. Few of us choose to do it outside of Sunday worship and the football stadium. In football, and other team sports, singing together can be the very the worst of the tribalism that afflicts humankind—the singing of insults being a central dynamic. When we sing together in gathered worship this can be the very best of tribalism—the singing of praise being central. A football team are a self-serving and self-promoting tribe. To paraphrase Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944), “The Church is the only tribe that does not exist for itself, but for those who live outside of it”. [tribe is substituted for organisation.]

Singing together creates unity—we share the same beliefs and emotions; the same faith. The opening Hebrew word of Psalm 149 exemplifies this tribalism. Like the neighbouring Psalms it opens with the Hebrew Word hallelujah — or praise Yah—often translated as ‘Praise the Lord’. We belong to the tribe of Yahweh; the tribe of his son Jesus Christ.

Singing is partly about being together, being gathered, being the body of Christ. It is also education. In my church, and many others, there is scant opportunity to learn together in our time-poor lives. We do not have special classes; we do not have a second service. We learn primarily by singing and we learn from sermons. We probably never fully appreciate just how much we benefit from singing choruses and hymns. For most of us if we remember any words by heart that define our faith, it will be the songs we sing.

Education of course is not just about head knowledge—it is doing that teaches. Gathering and being together is itself a vital education. At the end of the day gathering is the gospel. Gathering is a foretaste of the age to come. The New Songs of the psalmist are a foretaste of the New Song spoken of in the Book of Revelation. New Song are songs of thankfulness. New Songs can be ‘old songs’ recovered and reclaimed afresh.

New Songs, in the Bible often seem to be connected with victory. For us the victory can sometimes simply be being a Christian after one more year in a world which throws the unexpected at us. Many of us have suffered closer, personal more tangible afflictions than Brexit, Trump or the death of our favourite celebrity.

Hallelujah.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.

We might use different instruments but this is fine. In fact we have to as the Hebrew words for musical instruments tend to be uncertain. It is not our musical culture, musicianship or instruments that count, it is gathering before the same creator God, Yah.

Under Pressure: Singing 24-7

Our Psalm is not just about singing together on a Sunday or other church gathering. Sometimes we have a view of church as a place of refuge, a place to escape the ‘nasty world’. Perhaps what I have said thus far seems to suggest this. There is a sense in which gathering together is about being refreshed and strengthened, and about learning too.

And yet this idea is potentially problematic if we become consumers or passengers looking passively to be fed during the short time of gathering. In a small church in particular, you are unlikely to find all the food you need to sustain you. In a larger church we might be fooled into thinking we have all the food and nourishment we need.

Despite the apparent passivity of our culture, the talk of tolerance, the solid democratic processes that govern our nation, we live in an environment which is toxic to our faith. As Christians we are under pressure. Pressure to conform, pressure to consume, pressure to go along with everybody else. I cannot even begin to guess the temptations which we might each face to conform to the world’s values. But a key to cultivating faith in the face of the pressure to conform is the practice of an everyday spirituality.

Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.
May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,

We can sing to God wherever we may be—not just church—everywhere, even bed. Although we should note that the ‘bed’ mentioned here is probably a reclining couch. The point is that worship is 24-7. It is the day-and-night meditation we read of elsewhere in The Psalms. It is the praying on all occasions we hear about from the Apostle Paul.

This can be a joy rather than a chore—a New Song not a new legalism. It is not as busy as it sounds—at its core it is about being single-minded. Being the same person whether in church, at home, at work or at play. New Songs sung ‘wherever we are’ could be the biggest thing we do in 2017.

Faith: Hopeful Singing

One of the remarkable things about The Psalms is that the psalmist can say anything to God. Yet, however confrontational these words the psalmist cries out from a stance of faith and trust. In any year, using these prayers and making them our own would seem to be a wise move. None of us know what 2017 will bring. What we do know is that The Psalms provide the words for every situation and for every emotion.

One of the challenges of The Psalms, however, is that they rarely do ‘what you want’—this is Scripture at its most surprising and untamed best. God has not given us a collection of nice pithy sayings. This is no catalogue of gift card niceties, nor the musings of a two-a-penny self-help Twitter guru or life coach.

By verse 7 we might think Psalm 149 has gone rather off the wall:

to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them—
this is the glory of all his faithful people.
Hallelujah.

Despite these verses jarring with our nice cuddly conceptions of God they are part of our faith and our trust in Yahweh and his Son Jesus Christ. They tell us that the massive wrongs of this world will be judged. They tell us that our God is Lord of history – whatever news reporters in the world’s war zones unintentionally intimate day-by-day and year-by-year.

These latter verses also make sense of the trajectory initiated in Psalm 2. That God will judge is not actually odd, it is a necessary perspective—how else can we claim that our God is a just God? Like the Psalmist we can look to God to deal with injustice. This is a major part of our hope. For the psalmist it is worth not only believing but making a song and dance about.

A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord

Liel Leibovitz, A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, Dingwall: Sandstone Press, 2014.

Liel Leiovitz, assistant professor of Communications at New York University, argues that his book on Leonard Cohen is not a biography. In a similar vein this post is not a book review. Whatever else Leibovitz’s book is, it is certainly a sympathetic account of Cohen. Throughout reading it, the reader is continually reassured that the author has a concern and warmth for his subject. In the preface we read that:

“You feel the same hum at a Cohen concert that you do in a church or a synagogue, a feeling that emanates from the realization that the words and the tunes you’re about to hear represent the best efforts we humans can make to capture the mysteries that surround us, and that by listening and closing your eyes and singing along, you, too can somehow transcend.”

We soon learn that Cohen is not a simple traditional religious type, however, given the fact that rock and roll, and orgasms, make up, along with theology, the three core themes of his canon. After the brief Prelude, the rather lengthier Preface portrays Cohen as the the only person with a sense of perspective and wisdom in a massive Festival (the first Isle of Wight one) gone seriously bad. The account has all the marks of a Legend, yet like all the best legends it has that ring of truth that gives you confidence that Cohen is in a somewhat special league of popular musicians, or indeed human beings.

The story of Cohen’s Jewish upbringing is warmly described, perhaps working especially well given our narrator is also a Jew. A Gentile would have found difficulty in expressing some of the captivating perspective given here:

“It’s a terrific cosmic joke, but it makes for great theology, too. Exiled for millennia, scattered across all corners of the world, the Jews have survived as a nation, outliving so many of antiquity’s proudest peoples, because they had the strange question to ponder: Why us? And what now?”

Cohen’s Jewishness is the key reason what I was drawn to this book. I wanted to find out more about a singer/songwriter whose lyrics exuded the Psalms of Israel, which are a passion of mine. I am still convinced that, Hallelujah, Cohen’s truly iconic song, is a profound meditative reflection on the Biblical Psalter. Surely this is a Holy and yet broken Hallelujah; the words of ‘men’ become the word of God in this treasured collection. Like Cohen’s work they are both poems and songs. Whether my reasons make sense, or not, I have certainly a greater knowledge of, and I hope insight into, Cohen. The reader like myself, who knew little of Cohen, will not be surprised to find out he was a poet long before he was a songwriter. Those like me who have enjoyed the echoes of the soul of the Psalms will find support for their experience in Leibovitz’s claim that duende (a Spanish term for ‘deep song’, similar to the concept of blues) is a key force behind his poetry and songs. For those that know the Psalms this is of course the thread of Lament, or Complaint, so prevalent there.

Throughout the book there are some cameos from major figures of popular culture from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two stand out in particular. When Bob Dylan enters the story you can’t help but feel for Cohen who discovers that Dylan write’s his songs in minutes, whilst Cohen trims and refines over years. When Phil Spector crosses Cohen’s path to work on an album, the reader is moved again. Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ was always going to being incoherent with Cohen’s minimalism. Why did on one realise this at the outset?

At one point I felt that the episodic nature of Leibovitz’s account yields a picture of Cohen as a intellectual Forrest Gump. For it is not only the big players like Dylan and Spector who arrive on stage, but big world events too. Cohen was the only Westerner in Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs debacle who could claim he was just there on a prolonged holiday. Some twelve years later he spent months touring for the Israeli armed forces engaged in the Yom Kippur War.

When the reader reaches the final chapter, A Secret Chord, they are surprised that Cohen’s most infamous song was written as recently as 1984. This song is so many things, not least it is perhaps the most explicit vehicle for the quest for redemption that, Leibovitz suggests, underpins Cohen’s ongoing critique of Jewish and Gentile culture through poetry, novel and song.

I am grateful to Leibovitz for this book, and I commend it to anyone with a passing interest in Cohen as well as those already familiar with this unique artist. On the 23rd September 2014, 2 days after his 80th birthday, he will release his 13th album. Lucky for us.