Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life

Did you write The Book of Love

And do you have faith in God above?

Do you believe in rock and roll

Can music save your mortal soul

And can you teach me how to dance, real slow?

 

Don McLean, “American Pie”

 

 

 

 

This book seems to set out to tell us where Bob Dylan is spiritually.   Pages and pages of words, more than a hundred footnotes, all with the aim of discovering whether Dylan is (still) a Christian or not.  Isn’t it ironic then, that the first sentence in the preface to the book is this one: “Bob Dylan will not be labelled.”

Maybe “ironic” is not the right word.  Maybe a better word is “paradoxical.”  We Christians know that one quite well.  Something seemingly contradictory, but finally not so; demanding closer scrutiny and holding within its apparent mystery some deeper truth that we might never have gotten to any other way.  For example, we are “in the world, but not of the world.”

Whether you call that sentence in its context ironic or paradoxical, anyone who knows anything about Dylan would have to say this about it: it is a huge understatement.  Dylan has spent his six decades in the public eye doing everything possible to stay out of every category that the world has tried to put him in.  The first and perhaps most famous of these escapes was in the mid-sixties when he traded in his Martin acoustic guitar for a Fender Stratocaster and blasted electric blues at the Monterey Pop Festival.  His purist-folkie fans could not believe it – that their idol had broken trust with them, broken all the rules and sided with the impure and juvenile rock and rollers.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

From then on it was one unpredictable turn after another.   Within one or two records after Monterey he was full-on country, paling around with Johnny Cash and using steel guitar in his new songs.

But the greatest shift of all, by almost anyone’s measure, was in the late 1970s, when Dylan confessed to a profound experience with Jesus Christ and professed his own, personal faith in Him as savior and Lord; as, indeed, the Son of God, the Messiah.

What a shock.  This iconoclast, this spokesman for the counterculture, had embraced Christ.  Many, perhaps most, of his fans saw this as treason.  Bob, they believed, stood for, well, everything they wanted him to stand for: free love, the tearing down of the “establishment,” the breaking free from all things religious.  How could this be?  He would never survive this, so they said.

In fact it became a minor and diverse industry to somehow divorce “our” Bob Dylan from his profession of faith in Christ and from the catalogue of songs he wrote, recorded and sang for the next few years.

In those songs he sounded like a gospel preacher; telling his audiences of the rich and famous and privileged and those who had bought in to the modern idea that all things were relative and that there was no such thing as absolute truth and that the self was the final arbiter, that these very ideas, precious to them, were “earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon.”  They could not hide in any identity or any circumstance:

You may be an ambassador to England or France

You might like to gamble, you might like to dance

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world

You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

(more later: work in progress)

Meditation on Psalm 123

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite, with a long string of pearls
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody . . .

Bob Dylan

 

In the Psalm that was our lesson yesterday morning the ancient poet assumes a posture of servitude to God:

To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.

 

In commenting on this Psalm, Eugene Peterson writes that the idea of servitude is anathema in today’s age: “Freedom is on everybody’s lips. Freedom is announced and celebrated.” But, he adds, “not many feel or act free. We are a nation of complainers and addicts . . .”

Peterson and Dylan are on the same page here.  We do not reject God in return for freedom or personal autonomy; we simply, in Peterson’s terms, “trade masters; we stay enslaved.”

 

This may be the greatest deception of the hour in which we live.  Our culture, top to bottom – including now the government – exalts the individual as the ultimate authority, the ultimate arbiter of truth and morality.  Thus, today, we hear about one man’s “truth” that may be different from the “truth” of someone else.  Thus, today it is seen as sheer bigotry and closed-mindedness to hold to any objective sense of right and wrong, any sense of morality.  Today, the truth is not what was revealed to Moses and Isaiah and not what is revealed in Jesus Christ; but, rather,  whatever occurs in the mind of each man and woman.  No one can judge; there are no real standards.  Any discrimination is wrong.

This philosophy, which now reigns practically unchecked, is perhaps the principal dynamic in the dissolution of the family and thus the community and nation and finally, and ironically, the individual.

Here is Dylan commenting:

Tell that [that there is absolute truth] to someone and you become their enemy. There does come a time, though, when you have to face facts and the truth is true whether you wanna believe it or not. It doesn’t need you to make it true . . . that lie about everybody having their own truth inside of them has done a lot of damage.

 

We are not the masters of our own fate.    That’s just who we are; it’s just how we are made.  We’re gonna have to serve somebody.

It may be the devil and it may be the Lord

But we’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Boaz of Bethlehem: Attorney at Law

Image result for boaz at the city gate

 

If we read the book of Ruth like we would read any well-written story, we must pay attention to the facts that the writer puts in.

 

Ruth’s story, as we’ve said here before, is a real story; it’s not made up.   It is an account of actual events that happened to real people.  But the writer of the story had decisions to make.  There was no videotape of these events and even if there was, it would be literally months long.

This writer had to decide what would go in to the telling and what would be left out.  An example of what’s left out in this case is the circumstances of the deaths of the three men in Ruth’s family.  Her father-in-law, her husband, and her only brother-in-law all die in Moab.  That, undoubtedly, was pretty dramatic stuff and would have helped to introduce us to the characters and make us more sympathetic to them.  And yet we get not the first detail about any of that.  The three men died.  That’s all the book tells us.

This writer, like any writer, had an editorial or authorial purpose.  There is a point to the story, or maybe several points,  and the story – the details that are included in the story – are there to advance that purpose.  This writer, like any other, leaves out much, summarizes some, and then in places gives us fine detail.

When we get that fine detail, we must ask ourselves why it is there.  Why did the writer choose to bring the camera in so close?  How does this detail forward the authorial purpose?  How does it advance the story?

The story of Ruth is efficiently written.  There are no long asides describing atmosphere or emotion; no florid descriptions of landscapes or people.  But it is during the legal proceeding near the end of the book that the writer gives us fine detail – seemingly more detail than was necessary to move the story from point A to point B.

The writer tells us exactly – word for word – how Boaz presents his case to the other near-kinsman – the man who had first right of refusal for the purchase of the land of Ruth’s late father-in-law and, accordingly, under the customs of that day, a corresponding right to marry Ruth.

Boaz first tells the near-kinsman of his right to purchase the land without mentioning Ruth.  And the man immediately bites on the offer.  Of course he’d like to add the land to his holdings.  It’s kind of a windfall for him.  It is only then that Boaz explains that his purchase of that land will bring with it the duty to marry Ruth and have children with her.  The kinsman then runs like a scared rabbit.

But why did Boaz present his case in this order and why did the writer of the story think that order of presentation so important that it merited such a detailed retelling in this tight, little book?

At first blush, Boaz’s ordering of his case seems counter intuitive; self-defeating.  It is clear from the story that Boaz was taken with Ruth and ecstatic at the prospect that she might become his wife.  Why then did he pitch the easy part first?

I think it a great mistake to consider Boaz as anything other than wise and strategic.  He is described as a man of wealth and influence.  He did not get there by accident or by making silly decisions.  At every turn in the story, his actions are generous but careful.  Thus, the way he orders his case here is not random and not foolish; he has a plan.

I think Boaz was just the sort of man who was intimately familiar not only with the law, but with the community in which he lived.   That is to say, not only was Boaz fully informed as to what the legal realities – both procedural and substantive – were for all concerned when he discovered Ruth beside him on the threshing-room floor, we must assume that Boaz knew his opponent in the proceeding.  He certainly seems to have known just where that man would be as he arranged for the hearing to take place.

What I see in Boaz’s presentation of the case – in his ordering of his proof – is a kind of reverse psychology.  If Boaz would have presented the case in the other order, telling the man first of Ruth and the ensuing obligations, the kinsman might have smelled a rat – or smelled blood.  That is, the kinsman may have thought to himself Boaz is presenting this in a negative way.  He’s trying to talk me out of this.  He must have his own interest.  He must really want this.  I’d better hang tight here and see what is really behind this.  I may be able to drive a harder bargain if Boaz is really that interested.

But Boaz makes it appear that he is actually trying to get the other man to bite.  Telling him the good stuff first.  Now it may appear to the cynic that Boaz is actually trying to avoid the responsibility that would fall to him if the other kinsman refuses.  This makes the kinsman give away his right without a second thought.  Pretty slick.

It will be easy to criticize this opinion of mine, I know.  Some will say I have built a real house of cards based on very little evidence.  But I cannot get away from the notion that the writer of this book meant to tell us something important by including the details of Boaz’s practice here in this proceeding.  And I am sure that Boaz went into that courtroom with an overwhelming desire to take Ruth for himself.  (That may not have been totally selfish.  The guy with whom he was dealing might have been a real loser.  Boaz might have known that Ruth would have been miserable in that other man’s household.)

Others may say that I have dwelt on minutiae and missed the whole point of the book.  The book, they will say, is a parable of Christ’s love for us – His sacrifice, His providence, and His grace.  Who cares then about the details of Boaz’s practice?

I respond with this – the details of Boaz’s practice only deepen and enrich the Christian parable.  That is, we, like Ruth, may finally realize that we’re in a mess and that we must humble ourselves, as Ruth did, and rely on the grace of another for salvation.

But it is also true that we may recognize our desperate situation without appreciating fully how complicated it is.  Thus, when God acts to pull us out, He moves in ways strange to us, knowing, as He does, the complexities and dangers that we may have been oblivious to.

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

Then Naomi her mother in law said unto her, My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?
And now is not Boaz of our kindred, with whose maidens thou wast? Behold, he winnoweth barley to night in the threshingfloor.
Wash thyself therefore, and anoint thee, and put thy raiment upon thee, and get thee down to the floor: but make not thyself known unto the man, until he shall have done eating and drinking.
And it shall be, when he lieth down, that thou shalt mark the place where he shall lie, and thou shalt go in, and uncover his feet, and lay thee down; and he will tell thee what thou shalt do.
And she said unto her, All that thou sayest unto me I will do.

Image result for ruth and boaz

 

Boaz of Bethlehem:  Attorney at Law

 

 

 

By its own terms, the Book of Ruth is historical.

 

The story of Ruth is about a few common people who lived in Israel during the period of the Judges, more than a thousand years before Christ.  They were common people, but not just any common people, for, as the writer tells us, they had the uncommon destiny of becoming the great-grandparents of King David and, accordingly, ancestors of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So the story of Ruth, by its own terms, is history; and account of real events that happened to real people.  But it reads like fiction – like the very best fiction.  That is to say that it is neither polemic nor explicitly didactic.  Rather, it is presented as a story that unfolds, scene by scene with a plot and character development.  We feel for the characters; we don’t see what’s coming; and we revel in the happy ending.

One of the most poignant of the scenes in this story takes place on the floor of Boaz’s threshing room.  You’ll recall that Boaz was a farmer, but not a “dirt farmer.”  He wasn’t eking out a living on a few acres with a few hogs and cows.  He was, as the King James so eloquently puts it, “a mighty man of wealth.”   I compare him to a couple of Jane Austen heroes – Messrs. Darcy and Knightly – both of whom were men of “wealth and influence” and gentlemen farmers.

Early in the story, Ruth, who is without status or income, humbles herself to take on the heavy, sweaty, labor of gleaning in Boaz’s field.  Gleaning was a task reserved for the poorest of the poor, as a kind of social welfare system, and the work was long and hard and the expectations meager.

But our heroine has the good fortune to catch Boaz’s eye on the first day in the field.  Boaz’s interest in Ruth is obvious from the very start and he soon makes his approbation known in his instructions to his own workers.  Ruth is to be unmolested in his field, and she is to be immediately given easier work and greater reward.

Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law.  Her affection for Ruth is genuine and she, being a native Israelite, is familiar with the laws and customs that affect her destiny.  Thus, when the time is ripe – and Naomi is the one who knows when that time is – she sends Ruth down to Boaz’s threshing room to, ahem, as the King James so politely puts it, seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee.

All that is true, to be sure, for if Ruth accomplishes what Naomi had in mind, then she will have rest, in the sense of security, and things will, indeed, be well with her.  But what Naomi has in mind is – dare I say the word – a kind of seduction.  What Naomi wishes for Ruth is that Boaz will marry her.  How great would that be:  Going from a penniless gleaner in the dusty field to the wife of a man of wealth and consequence?  Pretty good catch, Boaz was.

It is probably fair to say that Naomi’s scheme was in every respect a legitimate one.  The story makes it very clear that there would have been nothing wrong with Boaz marrying Ruth and that, in fact, he might have had something of a legal obligation to do so.  And nobody would be hurt.  Boaz has not hidden his affection for Ruth, and there is no evidence in the story that she would displace others in marrying him.

So it was a legitimate scheme, but it was a scheme!  The text itself tells us that Naomi told Ruth to bathe herself and put on her finest perfume and raiment.   How quaint.  Might we say that this was the tenth-century BC version of what twentieth-century AD songwriters have expressed in these lines:

Put on your red dress baby . . .

And:

Wearin’ her pearls and her diamond rings

Got bracelets on her fingers now and everything

Oh, my, my, she looks so fine

Wearin’ her perfume, Chanel number five

 

Naomi is also careful to tell Ruth not to let herself be seen Boaz until he has had his fill of drink.

One is tempted here to another comparison to a Jane Austen novel.  One thinks of Mrs. Bennet and her efforts to get her own daughters married off to rich men.  You see, it is clear from our story – as was clear in Pride and Prejudice – the mother’s (or mother-in-law’s) personal interest is tied up with the interest of the younger girl in getting a rich husband.  In both cases, the older woman will enjoy the security of the rich man’s estate and avoid the miserable prospect of a penurious old age.

All is fair in love and war, and if we read the story to say that Naomi intended that Ruth would seduce Boaz there and then on the threshing-room floor (this conclusion does not call for any stretch of the imagination, really), well then, we might say, so be it.  Boaz was a grown man; he loved Ruth; and their marriage would have, as Mr. Collins wrongly supposed about his own proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, “suited everyone.”

And it is just here that we get to the point of today’s lesson.  Although Boaz obviously welcomed the prospect of marriage to Ruth, he had a cooler head than Naomi or anyone else might have imagined.  Thus, when Boaz is awakened to find the dolled-up girl of his dreams beside him in bed, he does not do “what comes naturally.”   Not only is Boaz awake, he is aware of all of the interests that might be affected by his actions and he curbs himself and immediately embarks on a course to make everything come out right.  Sounds rather Darcy-esque, don’t you think?

We may start our analysis of Boaz here by saying that Boaz had exercised the virtue of temperance.  He had taken a drink or two that evening, but he obviously was not drunk.  Lot was drunk before he had sex with his daughters and Jacob was so drunk on his wedding night that he didn’t realize he was sleeping with big sis Leah and not his beloved Rachel.

But Boaz is not overcome with drink; he keeps his head in the middle of these most seductive circumstances.  He is wise enough to know what everyone is up to.  He knows Naomi; knows her interest in this economic matrix, and he knows how the legal landscape lies, too.   You see, the one bit of wealth that Ruth retained an interest in was a plot of land that had belonged to her late father-in-law, Elimelech.   Boaz knew that and he also knew that there was another relative of his who had first dibs on that plot of land.  But with the land came Ruth.

Boaz wanted to marry Ruth, but if he had acted there on the spot it would have been, as they say in the movies, “complicated.”    The man with the prior claim on Elimelech’s land would have been given an out.  He might have argued – probably successfully – that by virtue of what had happened on the threshing-room floor, Ruth was married to Boaz, but nonetheless, by operation of law, he would have retained the right of first refusal for the plot of land.  Thus, the other kinsman might have bought the property, thereby separating the ancestral estate from Ruth and Naomi.  Although Boaz was a wealthy man, he knew such a separation would not be in Ruth’s best interest.  So, with cooled heels and a cool head, he took the matter to court.

I am a lawyer.  I spent a near forty-year career trying criminal cases, mostly in federal court.  And I have to say that when I read the account of Boaz’s practice and procedure here I smile with admiration and approval.  We don’t know everything Boaz knew at the time.  We don’t know anything about this other kinsman who had the right of first refusal on the land purchase.   For all we know, he may have been a real snake.  But we can be sure that Boaz knew, for he played the other party like a violin.  The writer is very careful to detail just how things went down in that legal proceeding.  Boaz gave the good side of the story first – hey, buddy, here’s a nice piece of real estate that you have the right to add to your portfolio . . .

The kinsman bites on that offer, but then comes the catch: there are strings attached.  You see, if you buy the land, you have to take Ruth along with it.  That means marriage and children and the diminution of your present estate that will pass to your present family.  This would not play well at the dinner table at home, so the kinsman passes on the land and Boaz, accordingly, gets exactly what he wants: what is rightly Ruth’s will stay with her and all will, as they say “live happily ever after.”

But if Boaz would have done the deed there on the threshing-room floor, he would have had, as we say in the business, “Brady material,” as he began the legal proceeding at the city gates.  That is, he would have been in the possession of information damaging to his own case that he would have been under an ethical duty to disclose to the other party.

If he had already been married to Ruth – and we are to assume that if Boaz had taken advantage of the situation that had been served up to him the night before, that would have consummated a legal marriage – Boaz would have been under a duty to disclose to the other party that the land could be his without the obligation of taking Ruth on, since Ruth would have been, as they say, already spoken for.

What is so beautiful about this from a lawyer’s point of view is that it is completely clean.  Boaz doesn’t hide anything that the other party has a right to know.  Sure, if that other guy had known that Boaz was sweet on Ruth he might have driven a harder bargain.  Might even have extorted the land away from Boaz by offering to let Ruth go and marry him.

But on the day of the proceeding, there was no legal relationship between Ruth and Boaz.  Thus, there was no legally-established fact to be disclosed.  What foresight!

Thus, Boaz is a man not only of temperance, wealth and consequence, he is a man of prudence!

What Comes Before Wealth and Honor?

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1f/Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2.jpg/350px-Jean-Fran%C3%A7ois_Millet_-_Gleaners_-_Google_Art_Project_2.jpg

The Gleaners, by Jean-François Millet, 1857

If I had to name the writer I believe to be the very best at putting things clearly, it would be CS Lewis.

 

In one letter he wrote that one of the things a writer should do is make sure that what he has written cannot be taken to mean something other than what he intended to say.  Seems like an obvious bit of advice, but it is easier said than done.  Lewis does it, though.  You may disagree with what he is saying, but you won’t mistake it; you’ll know what he intended.  It may be provocative and it may be unpopular, but it is never vague.

 

And yet, and yet. . . when he tries to describe one of the great virtues, he seems to doubt that he is quite up to the task.  The virtue I am talking about is humility.  Lewis treats the subject perhaps most thoroughly in his most famous work, Mere Christianity, and he deals with it in that Chapter entitled The Great Sin.

The great sin, of course, is pride, which Lewis emphasizes is “the essential vice, the utmost evil”:

Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.

And:

. . . pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Given the ruinous power of pride and its pervasiveness (Lewis says that it is the one vice of which no one in the world is free) we’d have to say that humility is an accordingly important virtue.  If it is pride that leads to every other vice, we might fairly say that it is the virtue of humility that leads to – or allows one to see and consider – every other virtue.

And yet. .  . and yet . . . when Lewis discusses humility in the chapter, he spends most of his time telling us what it is not.  Time well spent, in my view, because we do have this erroneous idea that prevails that humility is the same thing as modesty.  Often the “modesty” we see exhibited day to day is false modesty, another dress put on to make the wearer appear virtuous.

 

The Bible contains many different kinds of writing.

Some of it, perhaps those parts with which we are most familiar, are direct pronouncements: “Blessed are the meek,” says our Lord Jesus Christ, “for they shall inherit the earth.”  And then: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son. . . .”

But the Book of Ruth is not that kind of writing.  This book reads more like a short story.  By its own terms, it is historical – it is a story about real events that happened to real people.  But it is, nonetheless, a story.  It is the work of a writer who planned it and put in what he or she wanted and, likewise, left out what she didn’t.    It has a plot and characters and it unfolds to a climactic and happy ending.  Although it has much to tell us about God, it is not what you would call a tract.  It’s not in your face about faith or salvation.  It’s a story, and one that anyone could enjoy, no matter how they feel about religion or the faith of the Bible.

We Christians should not feel uncomfortable with this literary form; it was a favorite vehicle of our Lord, who time after time told stories to make his points about the character of God and the nature of His kingdom.

What other chapters in the Bible may tell us through straight-out pronouncements, the Book of Ruth shows us through human drama.  And one thing it quite poignantly and accurately portrays is the virtue of humility.

Most folks would point immediately to Ruth’s decision to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, out of Ruth’s homeland and into Israel where she would be a sojourner and alien, without standing or means.  That’s humility – Ruth does not put her own interests first.  From a selfish point of view, Ruth’s prospects would have been immeasurably better if she would have taken Naomi’s first advice and returned to Moab and her mother and father and to a real possibility of another marriage and the establishment of another home.

I’ve got no argument with that, but my attention is drawn elsewhere in the story and particularly to Ruth’s decision to go a’gleaning.   It’s her idea.  Nobody suggests it to her and there are good reasons why they wouldn’t have.  Gleaning is hard work.  It’s done in the heat of the late summer when the crops are being harvested and it consisted of picking up those pieces of the crop that no one else wanted.  It’s hard, sweaty work and it is done with only the prospect of meager, subsistence-type reward.  Moreover, it involved a certain amount of risk to Ruth.

This may be just a ”guy –thing” and something that many may criticize me for, but I think Ruth was something of a looker.  And I think that fact is important to the story.

What is my evidence in support of that?

  1. Boaz’s immediate interest in Ruth when he first sees her in his field. Yes, of course, the story tells us plainly that Boaz was impressed with Ruth’s character.  He knows of Ruth’s selfless act of devotion to Naomi and to Israel’s God, but Boaz’s immediate attention to Ruth is before he knows who she is.  Tell me,  he says, who is this new girl in my field.  Maybe these are just the words of a good steward of the land who wants to know who is active on his property, but the man in me says “no.”  I think the writer is telling us – without saying it directly – that Boaz found something attractive about Ruth at first sight.
  2. Boaz’s statement to Ruth when she presents herself to him as a potential marriage partner. As Eugene Peterson translates it, Boaz tells Ruth:

. . . you could have had your pick of any of the young men around.

  1. And there is simply no disguising Boaz’s ecstasy when Ruth makes her proposal of marriage to him. If this were simply a matter of Boaz doing the duty that the customs of the day imposed on him I don’t think we would see the enthusiastic speech and the careful and immediate execution of a plan to make the marriage happen.

I may not be a Hebrew and I may not know much about the customs and sensibilities of the people who lived in Israel a thousand years before Christ.  But I am a guy and this evidence speaks pretty clearly to me.  In getting Ruth as a wife, Boaz thinks he has won the lottery (and he has) and maybe that is because he’s so impressed with her character (he is and he is right to be) but there is something in his tone of voice and in his immediacy of decision and response that tells me that there is something else at work here.  Something elemental, fundamental.

Why do I think that’s so important?  Well, think of it this way: what if this story were made into a movie and we see Ruth the young woman marching into the hot field to labor all day; would we see the story differently if the actor cast to play Ruth was Jennifer Lawrence than if it were Rosie O’Donnell?

And before you go accusing me of the worst chauvinism, let me explain that if Ruth is who I think she was, her decisions are all the more heroic, all the more emblematic of the virtue of humility.  Because, you see, someone like the Jennifer Lawrence Ruth has so much more at stake.  As she decides in favor of Naomi and further decides to place herself in the field of the most grueling and least rewarding labor, she is giving up real alternatives.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis tells us not to imagine that:

if you meet a really humble person he will be what most people call”humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.  Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.

That’s what I see in Ruth – an particularly in her decision to go a’gleaning.  She was faced with duties and not-very-promising opportunities.  But she took what she had.  She did what she could, even though many in her position would have considered that beneath them.

 

Oh boy.  What happens to the truly humble?  Let’s go back to some of those parts of the Bible that are straightforward declarations.  Here is one about humility that is attributed to King Solomon:

Proverbs 22:4

By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches, and honour, and life.

Oh, yeah.  The Book of Ruth shows us exactly that!  Ruth humbles herself to the lowest station of life and receives wealth – pressed down, overflowing, shaken together, so great that she can “scarce receive it.” And she receives honor – a new status in her marriage to Boaz – a man of wisdom and consequence!  And life!  In Ruth’s case, a life that goes on and on through her children and posterity who include King David and our Lord Jesus Christ!

Jane Austen and The Book of Ruth

 

 

Hey, summer comes along and you switch gears and – in accordance with much protestant tradition – head for the Old Testament to slow things down a bit for the vacation season.  I’ve gone straight for the Book of Ruth.  I am perhaps more of a literary type than lots of Baptist Sunday School teachers.  I am a sucker for Jane Austen and I always keep one of her novels on my nightstand to dip into as I fade off into sleep mode.

You would think that after the first few ( twenty?) times through a Jane Austen novel the reading would be all relaxation and pleasure.  You know – all the real meat of the story already long understood and digested.  No surprises left.

But that’s not my experience.   To steal a phrase from John Sebastian, “the more I see, the more I see there is to see.” In just the last few evenings I’ve been reading middle chapters in Emma.  Chapters where Emma is infatuated with Frank Churchill and is weighing his every word and action as she considers whether she’s in love with him or not.  About this same time, Emma is working to bring poor old Harriet Smith back to her right mind after her ill-fated romantic attachment to the perfidious Mr. Elton.

Austen gives the reader all kinds of clues as she goes along about what’s really going on in Frank Churchill’s mind as he dallies with Emma; clues I missed in the first (and second and on and on) readings.  This book is psychologically dense and sophisticated.

But it is also shot through with standards.  You know – those things that nobody seems to agree about today and that the righteous marchers are now claiming are the remnants of patriarchal oppression, etc.

Here is what Emma finally tells her little friend Harriet to encourage her to stop moping and pining for the lost Mr. Elton who has gone his way and married another (monied) woman:

I have not said, exert yourself Harriet for my sake; think less, talk less of Mr. Elton for my sake; because for your own sake rather, I would wish it to be done, for the sake of what is more important than my comfort, a habit of self-command in you, a consideration of what is your duty, an attention to propriety, an endeavor to avoid the suspicions of others, to save your health and credit, and restore your tranquility.

Oh, yeah.  All of that stuff.  Who can doubt the importance of any of it?  And is this not what the rising generation ought to learn?  A bit of an aside here, but how much of the world’s problems are due in the final analysis to a failure to mature sexually?  I am out of school here, I know, but it sure looks to me like a lot of this terrorist business is fomented among men who, you know, can’t make it work with a woman.  This guy Q’tub or whatever his name was – the guy who was the philosophical inspiration for Bin Laden, et al – his life story (as told in the great book, The Looming Tower) shows that the turning point in his life , the beginning of his radicalization, was when he was rejected by the young woman who was his childhood infatuation.  In popular American culture, we would think of Teen Angel, the black-jacketed, duck-tailed youngster who rebels (motorcycle and all) because “Betty Lou done me wrong. . . .”

Teen Angel ends up with an arrest record or dies one midnight in a railroad crossing accident.  But in the case of the Islamists, all that frustration and rage fits rather squarely into their religion and the result is something like this:  If I have failed to get what I wanted and if I am unhappy, it can’t be my fault.  It must be the world!  It must be that the prevailing system gives women too much freedom – freedom to tempt and to reject men, for example.  Better start blowing stuff up until we can put them all under burkas, where they belong, so we can be pure and happy as men.

Okay, that’s off of my chest.  Now back to Jane Austen.  Look at how Emma considers the action of Frank Churchill in deciding to travel some thirty miles round trip to get his haircut.  Doesn’t really sound like something anyone should get their noses out of joint about, even though thirty miles (by horseback at that time) was much more of an extravagance then than it is now.  But look at the complexity and subtlety of Emma’s analysis:

It [the journey for the haircut] did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday.  Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent to how his conduct might appear in general . . . .

In the story, of course, the trip for a haircut was really a cover for Frank’s trip to London to buy a piano for his secret love, Jane Fairfax.  So, his real motives were more complex than Emma knew or could judge.   But that takes nothing away from the validity and perspicuity of Emma’s initial reactions based on what she then believed.

Given such sensibilities, such standards, who among us can stand?   Who could please and satisfy such a woman?  Well, someone who is educated, maybe.  Someone who has learned (been taught) a thing or two about selfishness and the fall of man.  Someone who has read Jane Austen, even.

And all of that points to just those things that the righteous marchers now tell us are the problem.  The education that Frank Churchill – and every man – ought to have is right there in the books and culture that it is now vogue to reject.  The Bible.  The church.  The classics.  In the extended and natural family.  And nowhere else.

And, speaking of the Bible, back to the Book of Ruth in the next post – coming soon.

About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?