The Making of a Reader: Part Five
A few weeks ago, my first Bible teacher died. He was the Rev. Douglas Cedarleaf. I was fortunate to be in his confirmation class at the time when students had to memorize and then recite in front of the whole congregation, without notes, large portions of scripture. I still take some pleasure in telling new confirmands the rigors they have missed. We had to learn "by heart," as we used to say, Psalm 23, Matthew 5, 6, and 7, I Corinthians 13, the Apostles Creed, and the answers to the questions in Luther’s shorter catechism. I did not like doing the exercises. Memorization is difficult for me. Yet, almost 40 years later whole paragraphs from that corpus remain familiar and accessible to my wandering mind. They are often a source of comfort and peace.
I confess that I do not recall anything of those confirmation lessons, except the lingering guilt flowing out of the grief we gave Pastor Cedarleaf. I think he had an easier time marching on the streets of Chicago in support of civil rights than he had trying to keep us in our seats. It was not his confirmation class that began my interest in Bible. It was his preaching!
Each Sunday was an event. We never knew what would happen. The whole atmosphere of the service depended on the text that he had been wrestling with up in his favorite office—in the tower at North Park Covenant Church. He read each text, on Sunday morning, as if the passage had been personally directed to him. Then he reached out with his considerable passion, matched only by his great muscled arms, and drew the congregation into his own inner combat. He might cry or laugh with delight; sometimes he burst out singing with joy, sometimes with lamentation. He left us without any safe distance, his intensity allowed no passive observance. Every corner of the great sanctuary was stirred by his enormous energies, empowered with an overwhelming belief that our very lives depended on these ancient words. This was most true when he preached from the prophets.
I want to honor my teacher by sharing something of the way he read these texts, especially the words of Amos. In l951, he wrote his own reinterpretation of the book. A few copies are still around. They were used in retreat formats at North Park College and in local congregations. Pietisten would like to make this work available to those who are interested.
Doug Cedarleaf did not read the prophets as a scholar who studied the poetics of the language and writing. Neither was he overly interested in the socio-political conditions of their lives. In other words, his sermons were not history lessons. He read each verse as directed personally to him, to his community, to his own time.
Here, for example, is how the book of Amos begins:
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam, son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake. ( Amos 1:1)
Here is Doug’s reinterpretation:
These are the words of Amos who grew up among the cowboys of Wyoming, concerning his visions which he saw regarding America in the days of Truman, the President of the United States and during the time when Byrnes headed the State Department, six months before the Bomb.
Cedarleaf is not arguing, like some evangelicals do, that the prophets are writing to a specific time in the future which can be detected by looking carefully for secret clues in the text. He did not regard the words of Amos as symbolic or allegorical like those who believed they were meant to signal the timing for the Second Coming of Jesus. This meant, of course, that the language needed to be "properly interpreted." For Doug Cedarleaf, the prophet addressed the moral conscience of each person, in each generation. When we read his reinterpretation, we experience an immediacy, a directness that forces a confrontation with the listener or reader. We cannot use poetics or historical analysis as a cover. We do not study "about" Amos. The words of the prophet come like a blast of wind across the centuries, fierce, relentless and undiminished. Read, for example, Amos 1:3 ff., and then compare it with this reinterpretation:
This is what God says, for three crimes of Japan, yes for four, I will not turn away her punishment; because she brutally attacked her peaceful neighbor and compassed the rape of Nanking. Therefore I will send a fire into the house of the Emperor and it shall devour the palaces of Hirohito.
For three crimes of Germany, yes for four, I will not turn away her punishment; because she attempted to incinerate a whole people and plowed up Rotterdam with her Stukas. Therefore, I will send a fire against the city of Berlin and it shall burn up the air raid shelters, and Hitler shall commit suicide in the Berchtesgaden, and the last of his generals shall perish, says the Lord.
We read his opening lines as if we were Israelites gathered at Bethel, the site of the exhortation of Amos. The folk who gathered at the place—named "Gate of God" by Jacob—came to bring sacrifice, but they were interrupted by a shouting shepherd, pointing his finger at the sins and atrocities of their neighbors: Moab, Gaza, Tyre, Edom and Ammon. It must have been strange and uncomfortable to hear, but bearable as long as the prophet was addressing others—them. Then, he suddenly shifts his focus and begins to cry out against Judah, the Southern Kingdom; their cousins. When he is finished, he looks into their own eyes, and unleashes his most stinging invective:
Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Judah, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have rejected the law of the Lord, and have not kept his statutes, but they have been led astray by the same lies after which their ancestors walked. So I will send a fire on Judah, and it shall devour the strongholds of Jerusalem.
For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. Father and son go into the same girl so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.
For three crimes of England, yes for four, I will not turn away the punishment she deserves because they rained thermite on the civilians in Berlin and imprisoned those who hungered for freedom in India. Therefore, I will send fire upon the houses of Parliament and London shall be obliterated and the Lords and Commoners shall be slain together, says the Lord.
For three crimes of America, yes for four, I will not turn away her punishment; because they have cheated the righteous with starvation wages and oppressed the needy to buy a yacht. They covet the dirt on the poor man’s face and make life hard for him who is meek. Your men and women break their marriage vows and thus profane my holy name. They come to my house in clean white shirts whose cotton was picked by underfed labor and they drink the cup whose juice breaks forth from the hands of hundreds of homeless immigrants. Yet I destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of cedars, and who was as strong as oaks; I destroyed his fruit above and his roots beneath. Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up some of your children to be prophets and some of your youths to be nazarites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel? But you made the nazarite drink wine, and commanded the prophets saying, "You shall not prophesy." (2.9 ff)
Yet I destroyed the Iriquois before you whose body was straight as a jack pine and sturdy as an oak. His roots were torn from this hunting grounds and the fruit of his labor was blighted. Also I brought you out of the many countries of Europe and led you westward for a hundred-and-fifty years to possess the land of the Indians. And I raised up of your sons for my servants and your young men for ministers. Is not that true, of ye children of Washington? But you surrounded the servants with ads for Calvert and told the ministers to "stick to the Gospel." Look here, I will bear down on you like a Sherman tank on a softened stubble field. The dashman is going to lose his fleetness. The drive of the fullback shall do him no good.
Cedarleaf makes a daring interpretation. Can we think of God giving the European settlers the land belonging to the native peoples in the same manner as Amos declares happened in the land of Canaan on behalf of Israel? The conquering of Canaan with its theological justification of the displacement of the tribes who lived there is among the most troubling of historical convictions. We often talk as if God had provided the "new world" as a refuge, a place of freedom for the oppressed and poor of Europe. But we do not think of our own wars of ethnic cleansing. Cedarleaf makes us face this question without the sentimentality that wraps itself around the singing of "America the Beautiful." Like the Northern Tribes listening to Amos, we do not want to hear about these things. We do not want to bring this question to public discussion in either church or legislature.
Scholarship has its own methods of avoiding the directness of the prophets words. Most commentaries would have us read these diatribes with the reflective passivity of scholarship which assumes that a "real" shepherd could not have been so eloquent; or which uses source criticism to slice the text up into so many textual traditions that only a few Hebrew letters remain to read out of the entire scroll. Something deep within each of us tries any measure to bleed off the dangerous forces that surge through the prophets outrage, to do anything to avoid the direct personal assault upon our lives. Abraham Heschel, in his masterpiece, The Prophets, confesses:
Our eyes are witness to the callousness and cruelty of man, but our heart tries to obliterate the memories, to calm the nerves, and to silence our conscience. The Prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. (Vol. l, p. 5)
Cedarleaf taught his congregation to read Amos as if they were standing at Bethel on that day when the shepherd from Tekoa first spoke these blistering words of God. We do not read Amos as much as we discover that Amos is reading us. He addresses us; our presence in a land not our own and our continued degradation and oppression of its noble indigenous people. Amos cares little for our creeds, our pious talk. He wants to know how we treat the stranger, the poor, the orphan, because this is at the heart of what God wants of the human community. What would Amos say about Casinos on reservation land, or the violation of basic fishing treaty rights so that the white resorts could catch their limits in Northern lakes?
The words of Amos must not be read only as a social critique of the wealthy social classes of the Northern Tribes during the reign of Jeroboam II. They set the course for an ethical foundation of the religious life, the resounding theme of the prophetic movement from that moment at Bethel to this day.
Listen again to Amos in 5:21 ff:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being, of your fatted animals, I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
I hate and despise your Sunday morning worship. I am not enthused about your "special services." Though you pledge a tenth of your income, I do not want it. I will pay no attention to your self denial envelopes. Tell the choir to go home, and close up the consoles of your organs. Let justice come down like Niagara, and righteousness flow like the Mississippi.
I have been teaching that we must read Biblical texts in a manner that engages our lives. This is the aim of Biblical writing. In this regard, the artfulness of the text is important, because it is in the skillful telling of stories that the work of engaging the human imagination is accomplished. This is especially true of Biblical narrative which compels us into our deeper humanity through the complex interactions of family relationships in various times of the social and political life of a people. However, this narrative rarely addresses us directly. We have to step into the drama, interpret gestures, react to behavior, or listen carefully to the dialogue. When we do this, we find that something of our own lives have been exposed. We know ourselves more fully.
The art of the prophet is extraordinary. The poetic and linguistic skill of Amos is superb, the lyrical songs of Second Isaiah are unequaled. However, prophetic speech is by its nature a much more direct communication than Biblical narrative. We do not have to discover ourselves in the text. The prophet confronts us directly without sentiment or ambiguity. Our first job as readers is to remove the obstacles we place between us and the word, so that the soaring grandeur of the prophetic voice fills us with the profound urgency to listen and respond. The earthquake is coming. To whom much has been given, much will be asked.
Doug Cedarleaf taught many to read these texts with a kind of vivid, harrowing excitement. As we do, we feel the divine pulse begin to quicken with us. Our lives are aroused, the dust is blown away, and we enter the world differently, with greater awareness and resolve to act with justice and mercy. May his memory be blessed! May his work continue to bear fruit in our lives!