brief reflections on books I haven’t read in a while

“Sometimes what is most mystifying, however, is not difficult at all — it is only challenging to our commonest expectations.” Marcia Falk

Since its inclusion in Jewish and Christian scriptural canons, scholars, religious leaders, and laity alike have delighted in and puzzled over the Song of Songs. Over time, its unsubtle erotic metaphors rattle puritanical assumptions about scripture and prompt myriad and diverse attempts to justify the intersection of divine inspiration and overt sexuality — attempts like framing it as an allegory for the love of God and humanity, as a fragmented dramatic script, as a cycle of wedding songs or the liturgy of an ancient fertility cult. When the Song has been approached as poetry, translators forsook the aesthetic pleasure that comes with poetic expression for literal translation. Marcia Falk recounts this history of the Song’s interpretation and broader problems in literary and scriptural criticism, especially assumptions around gender, to justify her desire to deliver “a modern English translation of the Song that incorporates the insights of new scholarship and analysis yet reads like genuine poetry.”

Last summer, I reflected on the Song’s impact on me personally — as a young, gay man its bold sexuality leapt at me from the page; as an educator, it served as a provocative tool to get students to consider the link between sexuality and the sacred; and one of the poems from the Song featured prominently in my wedding, and very soon (I hope) the Hebrew phrase that Falk translated as

Stamp me in your heart,
Upon your limbs,
Sear my emblem deep
Into your skin.

will, well, be stamped and seared into my forearm. But, returning not just to the poems but also to Falk’s approach to interpreting and reconstructing them, I’m more aware of the Song’s potential as a starting point for reimagining the relationship between religion and culture. Falk demonstrates its great literary legacy and artistic and cultural import and opens it up for a new generation of scholars and artists. Her translation is informed by the evolution of religious practice, but Falk’s translation also invites mutual influence between text and practice. In this light, the Song opens a door for a new interaction, a new dialogue about the nature of art, the nature of spiritual practice, and how culture and religion can inform and nurture — without harassing, degrading, or attempting to convert — each other.

Falk’s appreciation of the text as poetry — as a full-sensory aesthetic, embodied, emotional, and intellectual experience — serves two practical functions. First, it keeps the text alive. Scriptural interpreters too often attempt to bring scripture to life only by reconstructing its origins or initial audience. Sure, it’s a justifiable academic exercise, but it’s equivalent to building a museum of ancient artifacts. It preserves a starting point and gives us a place to show the kids “where it all started,” but it fails to answer the more important question, Why? Why did the Song, or any other example of sacred scripture, survive? Why was it so highly prized that it inspired people to elevate it, to authorize it, to be guided by it, to assign it divine origin or inspiration? Fixating on the text’s original audience also deprioritizes and deauthorizes each individual’s encounter with it, but Falk’s intent for the Song to read “like genuine poetry” is really an invitation for her contemporaries to encounter the text. The Song survived its original audience and many that followed because of successive encounters with the text — with each generation, the text continued to meet people where they were, and people’s experiences enabled them to see and hear it in relevant and meaningful ways. Those encounters, often without sufficient language to explain, answer the question of why the text survives and thrives.

Second, to approach the Song as poetry invites our full sensory engagement. It’s a reminder that, like art, encountering scripture and religious practice in general isn’t a cerebral exercise — it’s embodied, emotionally, physically, and intellectually engaging, and holistic. For far too long, we’ve accepted the theological and philosophical derogation of physical, sensual experience as, at best, untrustworthy and, at worst, demonic. It’s a complicated history — too complicated to recount here — but suffice it to say, Western theology has an uncomfortable relationship with all-things sexual. Falk’s approach to a piece of the scriptural canon first as poetry challenges theologians to broaden their scopes and drop their assumptions. For a few thousand years, Jews and Christians have retained and returned to the text. Maybe they needed to see the text as a script or as an allegory to navigate their own lived experiences, and now the intersection of our lived experiences with scientific and technological insights delivers an invitation to look beyond categorical boundaries, to blur the lines between what we might think of as sacred and profane. This doesn’t mean that the text is this or that, that it is essentially limited to the definitions interpreters have projected onto it. Instead, it’s a welcome reminder that we can appreciate how the text functions for discrete groups without giving it an eternal label. In this, Falk’s translation of the Song gently introduces the possibility of coexisting (and even, to our limited vision, contradicting) multiple truths.

In some ways, Falk’s analysis liberates the text from its historical prison of allegorical and patriarchal assumptions, but its freedom depends on ongoing commitment to keep it liberated from those chains. Her demonstration of the possibility that some of the Song was authored by a woman or women was pretty radical in the scriptural academy, challenging centuries of cultural construction and scholarship that reinforced the belief that nothing of import, of beauty, of significance could come from or through a woman. This history, Falk writes, is “a striking example of how the text can be distorted by culturally biased reading.” In this light, her work serves as a warning about the clutches of ancient and deeply inscribed prejudices and an invitation for each individual encountering the text to examine, challenge, transform, or root out the biases and assumptions that distort our engagement with it.

When I first encountered it, the most important takeaway I gleaned from Falk’s study of the Song was about translation itself. Translation isn’t definitive — it’s iterative. It’s hubris on the part of translators to assume that theirs is the final and authoritative version, but the fault of a single translation’s survival and influence (not unlike, as Chimananda Adichie so powerfully demonstrated, that of a “single story”) rests with later generations who prioritized one person’s or group’s encounter over their own. Each generation, it seems, needs a Falk to mend the bridge that connects the world of the ancients and our evolving sensibilities, not to impose old and surpassed notions (though the risk of regressive nostalgia is high) but to keep open the invitation to encounter the text as if for the first time.

Now, I have a deeper understanding of the power of translation and the ways powerful people use it to maintain power. Attachment to particular translations doesn’t just hold us back from encountering the text — it actively pits us against each other. There was never a single utterance that was understood universally, simultaneously, and identically. Even the original audiences of the Song, the people who first heard its poems sung or recited, encountered it uniquely — no one heard the exact same thing, because they heard it through the filters of their experiences, of their lives. A project for us in the postmodern world, it seems, is to get comfortable with complexity, with multiplicity; if our collective tip toeing into the DEI conversation in recent decades is any indication, it’s going to be a long road. However, if we remember that the encounters of the Song were diverse and complex from the start, that there was no “paradise lost” or original meaning that we need to recover, maybe we can turn our energies toward listening to each other, toward looking to each other to build the future instead of clinging to the ancient past.



Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator |

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