The Bible as Security Blanket, Blindfold, or Weapon

For the Love of God, The Bible as an Open Book, in paperback, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker (Rutgers University Press, 2009).

Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s latest book of essays will make provocative reading for liberals who want to say “Yes, We Can” to taking back the Bible as it seeks to pry a few more fingers from the iron grip conservatives have had on its meaning in the American cultural imagination.

This Bible is not, Ostriker wants us to see, the sole property of those who deny the links between “spirituality and sex, skepticism and joy, Us and Them.” As a woman and a Jew, a poet and literary critic, Ostriker refuses to turn her back on the Bible; ‘this is mine, too’ is the persistent whisper between the lines. The Hebrew Bible in particular is, for Ostriker, like a river that has shaped the channels of thought and feeling in her mind. But like a river, that force is flowing—dynamic—and quite capable of changing its course over time.

Simple phrases like “the love of God” and “an open book” come to mean many things in this collection. Ostriker first tests the meanings of ‘openness’ in her exploration of the boundless vineyards of the Song of Songs, a more familiar name for the Song of Solomon. These phrases mean the Shulamite maiden’s opening of her body and soul to her beloved, her fingers dripping “with sweet-smelling myrrh” as they turn “the handles of the lock.” And they mean the slow dissolution of the very boundaries of self in the lovers’ back-and-forth play, like a roe upon the hills.

And, for the love of God, Ostriker asks us to take seriously the implications opened by the layering of meaning within this interlude of sensuality. The female speaker of the Song lets us know from the start, with the slide of pronouns referring to her lover, that we need to think on several levels. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” she insists, “for thy love is better than wine.” And this, of course, raises the question countless commentators have pondered: is fleshly love, in this context, an allegory for the union of the human and the divine? And is there another possibility?

Ostriker urges us to entertain—and I mean get out your best china and kill the fatted calf—the possibility that experiencing such love is itself participating in union with God. And what, then, would that require of the faithful on an average Friday night across the land?

This blending of erotic and divine love may surprise some readers in what is still called the puritanical culture of America. But such possibilities actually reverberate off the legacy of the faith of at least a few of America’s founding fathers. The letters of John Winthrop himself, as the cheeky Sarah Vowell (of National Public Radio fame) has recently observed, was not above “writing soft-core mash notes” to the Lord inspired by this same book of the Bible [see: “The Wordy Shipmates: The Problem With Popularization”].

For Ostriker, however, the openness of the Bible flows not only out of rare moments of sensual ecstasy. She sees an opening of meaning in the mist-shrouded nihilism of Ecclesiastes where “desire fails,” the “silver cord snaps,” and we return to dust. She sees the suffering of so many—from Jonah to Job—as invitations for readers to ask hard questions. And these questions interrogate the nature of God and our own hopes of justice. Why do good people suffer? Are the fleeting moments of all-embracing love scattered in the awesome whirlwind that hides the face of God? Can we love this God?

Just as often, Ostriker’s questions require us to shine a light into the misty nooks of our own souls. Jonah’s anger at God’s forgiveness of the erring people of Nineveh, for example, spurs her to confront her own desire for righteousness. The willingness of Jonah’s descent raises other issues. His surrender to the belly of a sailing ship (and later of the whale) nails many of us. Who hasn’t sought oblivion when strange voices call and storms rage?

The context Ostriker draws upon for these readings range from literary classics to pop culture—from Bob Alter to Bob Marley—and from biblical criticism and feminist theology to Midrash. But make no mistake, these are personal essays. She’s letting us in on where she is now in the conversation/quarrel/love song she’s been writing to God through nine volumes of poetry and four decades of literary commentary.

And the ultimate purpose is to ignite further conversations/quarrels/love songs in the minds of readers of this revered and relevant book. The hope she raises deserves our attention: that we, and future generations, might create greater uses for the texts we hold sacred than as a “security blanket, blindfold, or weapon.”