The Songs of Strangers

William Elkins
Drew University

“How are we to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”— Psalm 137:4

A scripturally pragmatic approach to this psalm would inquire as to the conditions that make this question both an expression of suffering and the beginning of a reparative response to the suffering expressed in these verses. In the first case the answer is clear: the captors and tormentors of Israel required from them “mirth” and “one of the songs” of Zion. This request was pragmatically inconsistent with their present condition of exile: the songs of Zion are to be sung in Zion and in Jerusalem. Singing the “Lord’s Song” outside the land of promise would be like trying to play a harp without strings or sing a song without words. The conditions for joy and mirth are absent in the exile.

This same question, “How are we to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” is a textual background to David Ford’s essay on the scriptural pragmatics of the letter to the Ephesians. The problematics of the background, however, have been incorporated into the text itself by history and exegesis. We cannot read Ephesians in the later part of the twentieth century without a sense of shame, anger, or foreboding at how this letter has been, is, and may still be used to privilege Christians over Jews with all the “appalling consequences“ when Jews are written out of or eliminated from history. In this regard, the questions that begins Ford’s interpretation of Ephesians finds its significance: “Might the plain sense of Ephesians itself resist this danger. Are there materials for the correction of this tendency of the tradition?”

The answer to these questions is yes. I would argue, however, that in order to read Ephesians as an answer to the problem of Israel and the church (and others), it is important that we deepen the problematic addressed by Ephesians so that the response of Ephesians is read as correcting the misreadings that have created our problem. A full development of this suggestion would require more space than an abstract allows, but the following points may help to clarify the basics of this approach.

(1) The problem with interpreting Ephesians as a document that “gathers up all things” is that we have little idea of what it is to be “no longer strangers and sojourners but…fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” The result of a privileged sense of self-construction, or the functionalization of personal relations, is that we are all strangers to each other.

(2) The problem is not therefore a contrast between exiles in a foreign land, with some sense of the Lord’s songs, and the songs of a foreign land (a contrast between passions of the flesh and the good works for which we were created). The contrast is between exiles who have forgotten the songs of the Lord or who believe that the foreign songs they are singing are the songs of the Lord. In some way, as Luther might proclaim, our good works are the works of the Devil. This later observation might picture if not explain how we have read Ephesians as self-justifying and not as transformative of our self-justifications.

(3) Given this situation, and our propensity to read Ephesians as if we understood Ephesians as “our song of the Lord”, what resources does Ephesians offer to its own misreading and misuse?

(4) In this situation it is important to appropriate what Ford notes that the letter of Ephesians is both praise and prayer: “The text is saturated with praise and prayer.” He suggests that the “logic of praise,” the “logic of thanks,” and the “logic of blessing” can and will contribute to, if not constitute, the fullness of the Spirit of God.

(5) This, certainly, is almost a full answer to the problem of the question “how can we sing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land?” It is necessary to listen before we learn to sing. But what is an Ephesian-styled answer to the problem of the church having forgotten the Lord’s songs or having substituted the songs of exile to comfort her restless heart?

(6) An answer is that we are called to listen to the songs of others. This is how we might pragmatically interpret the call to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love…” (Eph 4:1-2). In the “unity of the Spirit” those songs of strangers are our songs because captivity is captive and, for Ephesians, Christ gave gifts to humankind. In this case our spiritual discipline will be to hear the truth in the praise of “each neighbor” and, from what we have heard, learn the truth spoken to us, the songs of the Lord, and thus learn to speak the truth again so that we may be one, as different as we are, in the fullness of the mystery of God. This may be a way of reading Ephesians as corrective of traditional readings and a way of opening up a reading of Ephesians in the tri-traditional context of the Society of Scriptural reasoning.

(7) Finally, on re-reading this abstract, it appears that it may simply confirm the power of Ford’s pragmatic interpretation of Ephesians. If so, then being part of the choir is, in some sense, as good as it ever gets. However, if this reading of how we have forgotten how to sing is in some ways accurate, then if we are to learn to praise we have to gather all those who remember the words, all those who remember the music, so that in time, called again by all the songs of the Lord, we may be given words that will renew our lives in this world.