Ruth Through ‘CATS' Eyes
An experiment in using music as a new dimension to biblical interpretation.
Helen Leneman, an independent scholar and cantor, in a paper entitled ‘Music and Librettos as Midrash: a New Methodology’,1 develops the idea of music as midrash, with particular reference to the Book of Ruth, inviting scholars to address the sort of questions rarely addressed by biblical scholars and preachers but which have to be tackled when adapting a story for the stage, in order to penetrate other layers of the narrative and to see what further insights can be brought to the story and to the interpretation.
Her thesis is that music, being wordless and with access to a variety of musical techniques, can read between the lines, fill in the gaps, explore feelings and reactions, and create an inner world of the heart and mind, resulting in a retelling of the story in a different language and appealing to the emotions as well as the intellect.
She begins with a literary analysis of the biblical text, with the familiar emphasis on character and plot development, but quickly moves to musical techniques in which she includes the voice type or singer's range (to help define a character’s age and emotional content), vocal range (high notes indicating and eliciting excitement, a lower range inducing calm), the key (major keys are upbeat, shifts between major and minor keys evoke mood change) and tempo or rhythm (fast for positive, slow for reflective).
The hazards of such an approach are obvious and we have all experienced musical and theatrical adaptations (not to mention films) which bare little reality to the original story, but with a reasonable degree of caution, checks and balances, the method seemed to encourage further experiment. What might happen, for example, if you outlined the idea to a group of thoughtful ministers, biblical or theological students, or even a group of lay people in a Bible study group (lacking of course the professional skills that Leneman and her colleagues would take for granted), and let them loose on a biblical story? A few hours with a dozen CATS students seemed a useful opportunity to find out.
‘CATS' in Prague
For several years I did a short course in biblical hermeneutics for students preparing for the Certificate in Applied Theology (CAT, affectionately knows as CATS) at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, with the emphasis on preaching, Bible study and communication skills. Almost all came from Eastern European countries, some with high qualifications from their own countries (though not in religious studies), some as a stepping stone to a higher degree and some with limited educational background seeking simply to improve their preaching and teaching skills when they returned home. Having been cut off from the West for most if not all of their life this was a considerable barrier to negotiate.
As a supplement to traditional western hermeneutics over the last half century I decided to introduce them to Leneman’s work to see how they responded and the result proved interesting and profitable. Within the limited time available (and my limited experience with Leneman’s approach) I decided to stay with Ruth. It is brief and accessible, does not carry the doctrinal implications or theological baggage associated with many other biblical stories, and (most important) Leneman’s paper gives many clues as to what issues to look for. The fact that it was on the web also made it accessible to students looking for clarification. I tried it with two quite different groups.
On the first occasion most students found the idea overwhelming except for one Russian student with some experience of theatre who decided to draft a ballet on the story of Ruth and came up with some useful insights for group discussion as students not only wrestled with Leneman’s musical techniques but also added some of their own including choreography.
On the second occasion the response was wider and more positive. After one lecture students were invited to choose and reflect on one aspect of the story and to write 500-750 words. Several options were suggested. One was a simple character study, another was to tell the story as seen through the eyes of one of the characters rather than the narrator. They were encouraged to use their imagination to get to the heart of the story, to make it appealing and interesting to a non-biblical listener, to fill in some of the gaps and suggest others, and to avoid the over-active imagination which might distort the original or include elements incompatible with it.
In the circumstances it would have been unreasonable to expect much by way of response yet within two or three days almost everyone made a written contribution and subsequent evaluation suggested several ideas worth pursuing which once pulled together had the makings of a presentation to bring the story to life in a new way.
Ideas, questions and reflections2
The most original idea and obvious starting point for any presentation came from Marina, a Ukrainian student, who introduced a character not in the biblical narrative at all — a woman working in the cornfields before the arrival of Ruth who saw it all from the touchline.
Operas and plays often start with minor characters as a way in to the heart of the story. So our reconstructed narrative3 began with an unknown character (we will call her Leah4) making friends with Ruth, a new arrival, from another country, and the two of them building a relationship. In operatic terms they have different voices which work well together and we envisaged music reflecting the joy of a developing relationship. Before long, however, the mood changes calling for a different kind of music as harmony gives place to discord. So what had gone wrong?
This opened the door for a contribution from Ivanka from Bulgaria, a country with some experience of immigrant workers, who focused on the difficulties for a foreigner finding work and having to conceal their identity until one day it leaks out when relationships can change very suddenly. Other questions (now with increasing contemporary relevance) began to raise their head. Did Leah feel demoted? Was Ruth not quite the person Leah thought she was? Were foreigners being given special privileges? Or has Leah got an early whiff of a different kind of relationship developing with the boss? All possibilities for further development according to the locale and the anticipated audience.
At this point, enter Boaz. Several students chose Boaz for their character study, describing him variously as wealthy, strong, determined, honourable, ‘Lord of his land’, always anxious to do what was right and unconcerned about what others might think of him. He issues orders, rewards hard work, has high moral standards and does not treat his staff as inferior. Then in comes Fransciska from Hungary with a contribution close to the more familiar interpretation: Boaz is one who recognises Gentiles as well as Jews, but he is not a happy man, possibly because he cannot find a wife. In operatic terms he is approaching middle age, neither a young tenor flirting with the girls nor an elderly bass in control of the whole situation — a baritone perhaps, ‘past his youth but not finished’, as Branko (from Serbia) put it.
Next, Naomi. Most students did not see Naomi as the controlling mother-in-law (as often presented) but rather as the quiet confidant of a young woman with whom she shared her grief and on whom she depended.
Closer examination of the text suggested that one of the problems of the biblical story is that everything seems to happen so quickly. Should we perhaps allow for a slightly more extended timescale, with a fairly quiescent Naomi in the background, Ruth quietly getting herself a job, talking enthusiastically at home in an evening of her new-found friend Leah, and with a natural reluctance to share her anxiety when things turn less pleasant? What did they talk about? And what were their feelings?
To move the story on we supposed that one day Ruth and Naomi unexpectedly meet Leah in the market-place.5 Ruth introduces her friend and in the course of the encounter Leah’s increasing hostility boils over to the point where she confronts the pair of them and challenges Ruth with a few deliberately pointed questions. Who do you think you are? Where have you come from? What are you doing here? Why don’t you go back? At which point Naomi’s quiet and measured response is, ‘All right, let me tell you,’ as the curtain comes down on Scene One.
By now we had carefully taken Ruth out of the past into the present and sown the seeds for relating the story to a contemporary situation. Ruth is a stranger in a foreign land, struggling to make ends meet, and confronted with a mixture of friendship, suspicion and hostility. Why?
Scene Two then provides the scene for an enactment of Naomi’s story. We go back in time to the famine in the land, but without losing touch with the world we live in today. Famines are common in all lands and at all times, and not only famines of food. There are famines of education, work, health resources and the economy, to go no further. Time did not permit us to explore each of these in turn but any one of them could have been taken up and made the focus for the story, still with one eye on the locale and the anticipated audience. Instead we stuck closely to the broader, underlying issue, not so much famine as disaster. Any disaster.
We looked more closely at Elimelech and the two sons who get short shrift in the biblical story but who can help us to appreciate life before the tragedy. They are a reminder that Naomi and her people had not always been as they are now. Before the famine life was fine. These people were happy and comfortable. Music, singing and dancing could readily convey that other world and so enable the viewer to feel the difference between then and now and the extent of the disaster.
Then comes the day the sky fell in. The stock markets crashed, the pension funds went bust, the economy collapsed (or whatever), and it was nobody’s fault. Overnight they were destitute. Emigration was the only way to survive and this family was one of few with the character, experience and resources to do something about it, get up and go, and start somewhere else.
Slowly unfolds the story of ‘a problem family’, seen in a new light as never before. Perhaps even Leah’s mood is softening as Naomi’s story unfolds and the music might give expression to the change and affect the mood of the audience.
Scene Three then takes us to Moab. Life here at first is hard and improvement is slow, but in time Elimelech and Naomi settle and the boys find brides. The music of joy and harmony returns, if somewhat muted and only for a time, when the second disaster strikes. Three deaths, apparently in quick succession, change the lives of three women. Parents who have moved house to be near their family suddenly find the family is on the move again. Friends who have moved in retirement to be near each other suddenly lose their friends due to bereavement or further movement. Depending now on the way the story develops, still bearing in mind the locale and the anticipated audience, the audience may gradually begin to feel that Ruth’s story is their story.
Time therefore to explore Naomi and the relationship between three women and no men. A Korean student, Minjoon, saw Naomi as a woman who may be alone but with the capacity to be the loner. She will be a burden to nobody. She must return. Ruth and Orpah must stay where they are.
But what of Ruth and Orpah? How do they sing when the family discussions reach a climax? Separately or together? Together in harmony or together in conflict? Perhaps they reflect two dfferent approaches to immigrants when life gets tough. And how do they relate to Naomi and Naomi to them? Jealousies? Liaisons? Most students seemed to see Orpah as a quite secondary character, possibly because that is how the biblical narrative presents her. The story is Ruth and Naomi. But though there was general agreement that it would have been unreasonable to expect Ruth and Orpah to go with Naomi a Hungarian student, Gizella, explained Ruth’s determination as simply that of an essentially uncomplicated and caring character — the sort of person who always wants to help and always puts the needs of others before her own. Either way, the underlying issue here is loyalty to family and friends versus loyalty to self. Time to explore the motivations, and to put words and music to reflect the tensions, culminating in the battle between Ruth determined to go and Naomi determined to stop her, as Act One comes to a close with Ruth’s famous speech (1: 16-17) and the two of them walk off together.
In Act Two we are back in the cornfields. Information is still scant. One might imagine what they talked about on the journey and when they got back but the big question is how long was it before the events with Boaz. In the nature of our story some place needs to be found for Leah as the relationship with Boaz unfolds. Fully to appreciate what is happening events between Ruth and Boaz need to develop slowly and with appropriate music, beginning perhaps with an occasional song followed by a warmer song leading up to a meaningful duet and maybe coming to a climax in dance.
Several questions need answers. For example, how much did Naomi know of what was going on between them? There were two views of this, both of which merit further exploration. Valetina, from Spain, saw Naomi as a schemer and a plotter, whereas Gizella saw her simply as an older woman giving advice to a younger one at each step of the journey. A third possibility, that Naomi’s enthusiasm for reclaiming the property symbolises her desire to see fair play, would resonate today with many people and groups in society who feel they have a reasonable claim which is not being recognised.
Galina, from the Ukraine, wondered how much time passed and what happened before Boaz asked the foreman who this new girl was, and that led us to think more carefully about how it all might have happened. We circumvented the uncertainties about ‘covering the feet’ and any hint of an aggressive young woman, backed by a behind-the-scenes scheming mother-in-law, invading the privacy of her boss’s bedroom and giving him a nasty shock when he suddenly wakes up and realises whom he has been associating with.
But we did see Ruth sending out signals and Boaz responding without either of them realising the implications of their developing relationship until Boaz suddenly finds himself in difficulties when he realises who she is, the nature of the relationship with Naomi and therefore indirectly with himself. Suddenly they all wake up in a world of unintended consequences.
Aware that in these circumstances there can be no question of marriage because someone else had a prior claim, and being (as Branko put it) ‘an honourable man’, Boaz delicately clears the way and they go ahead.
Finally any presentation needed an Act Three but only as a denouement because it clearly calls for a time lapse of considerable proportions.
Though some scholars question whether it had any polemical purpose the popular view6 tended to see Ruth as a political tract set in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah protesting against their opposition to mixed marriages by reminding them that David had Moabite blood in his veins and seeing the events of chapter 4 as a reflection of the earlier practice of Levirate marriage.
Today we preferred to see it as having a similar but slightly different message, namely, that salvation comes not through any one race or tribe but through the races learning to relate to each other as the stone that the builders rejected becomes the head of the corner.
In this case Ruth is a story which reflects the changed attitude to the Moabites from that popularly found in the Torah7 and Ruth, the centre of it all, becomes a symbol of the recognition of the hand of God in other races and possibly where we might least expect to find it.
Perhaps, therefore, early in the telling, we needed to identify Ruth and the Moabites more sharply in today’s world. Ruth might be black or a slave, with Boaz emerging as a white man busy with his work and his wealth but not too aware of what is going on around him or what his staff are up to. In that case Naomi might emerge as a saviour figure who brings them together, with their child and progeny paving the way for the saviour of the world, also ’the stone that the builders rejected . . .’ (Ephesians 2:20) in which case we might end with a happy story and a joyous dance, even a celebration with the Magnificat, in which all can share.
Of course we did not set out to produce an opera and had no intention of doing so. Much of what came through was varied, diffuse, in some cases a bit ragged and would need a lot more work on it to make a story, but that was not the purpose of the exercise. What we were doing was testing a different way of reading a Bible story and using a different medium to explore alternative interpretations from the norm. We also wanted to see whether, with careful checks and balances and a modicum of professional input, it was something that a Bible study could profitably tackle.
Was the exercise worthwhile and what did it achieve? In the nature of the case, and with the limited time available, it was inevitable that the facilitator played a larger role than was ideal. Much of the pulling out and the tying up had to come ‘from the front’ but given more time much of what he put in (and probably much more) could have been achieved with more time for preparatory work and interaction. Bearing that in mind the experiment left four impressions and three side effects.
1 It gave more than a hint of
(a) what students can achieve when given unusual tasks and the freedom to use their imagination, and
(b) the potential for penetrating new insights in scripture and their relevance for today once we unlock the imagination of lay people not familiar with, or wholly committed to, traditional hermeneutics, always provided there is at least one member of the group with some theological and biblical awareness to channel ideas and check excesses.
2 What can be achieved by way of new discoveries and ideas once we try a different ‘midrash’, be it music or literature.
3 The value of imaginative and creative group discussion as a means of Bible study and as a useful tool for preachers and writers.
4 The inestimable value of adding ‘music as midrash’ to the usual kit of hermeneutical tools, involving those with musical skills and other artistic gifts and making greater use of their experience.
The side-effects included:
1 Students enabled and encouraged to discover the art of asking questions of the text, with confidence to remove layers in order to get at the heart of the story.
2 Insight into the way a character like Ruth can speak to today’s human life and experience and help readers to make connections.
3 The discovery of several unexpected connections between Ruth’s world and ours such as
immigrants and migrant workers
suspicion of new arrivals
the values of honour and integrity
the strength of personal relationships
the value of the lesser-known tribes and the least noticed people, groups and movements.