If you grew up with Rudyard Kipling – even only his Jungle Books – then you will know what it is to have that pulse of his tumpty-ump rhythms in your veins. Perhaps the hair rose on your neck when you read of the meeting of Kamal and the Colonel’s son (“Kamal has gripped him by the hand and set him upon his feet /“No talk shall be of dogs,” said he, “when wolf and grey wolf meet.”) or you ran with Mowgli, fire in your hands, to scorch the hide of Shere Khan. Maybe, like my daughter, you went dancing through swamps with Taffy (the ‘Small-person-without-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked’) or triumphed with the Elephant’s Child, or fell asleep “in the arms of the slow-swinging seas..” with the White Seal.
It probably wasn’t until much later that you discovered his critics; the literary writers and dissectors who brought to your notice Kipling’s flagrant imperialism, his casual racism, his perspective of male privilege. Remember the disappointment? Yet still you loved those stories, those chants, the powerful pull of the language. You found or read excuses for him, defenses against his detractors: a product of his time, to be taken for what he was, no worse than many other DWM whom we now look back on from our greatly-enlightened perspective… and his best lines still ring, drumming like racing horses or padding panthers, in our heads, those of us who grew up with him.
The other night at bedtime, I found myself , vexed, quoting this line from Kipling’s famous ‘Jungle Law’ to my stalling and distracted daughter:
“Now these are the Laws of the Jungle, and many and mighty are they;
But the head and the hoof of the Law and the haunch and the hump is — Obey!”
In an attempt to make myself heard and understood, I wandered into a pedantic monologue on the importance of obedience, how even the animals needed to follow the lines laid out for them, and how order was thus established. I disregarded the glazed eyes and the fidgeting, bent on getting my point across, and of course, completely failed to connect with her. I am sorry to say that that I wound up losing my thread, my patience, and my temper, in that order, and basically barked at her to ‘go to bed now’! I may have added a couple of sharp comments about the state of her room as well.
Sobered, the Kitkat vanished into her room, the door left ajar, the lights turned out. I sat down at my computer with a huff part annoyance, part resignation – unhappy with her, unhappy with myself, at how I’d handled the whole situation. After all, the biblical command is that children obey their parents, right? I wanted her obedience, and I wasn’t getting it.
Let me pause my story here – I promise, there’s a better ending – and change the topic. Sort of.
Of late I have begun to think very deeply about the church’s use of the adjective ‘biblical’. It has been used and abused in multiple places and with multiple meanings that make it almost meaningless by now.
‘Biblical’ has been used to justify slavery, patriarchy, genocide, racism, and inequality. It has also been used to exemplify wisdom, life coaching, self-fulfilment, peace, and equality. It precedes and defines such loaded phrases as ‘biblical womanhood’, ‘biblical lifestyle’, and, heaven help us, ‘biblical theology’.
In a way, the word ‘biblical’ has had its day as an adjective. It still has a rough and stirring beauty, an Old Testament power and passion, but laden with flaws that come from its time, its historical surroundings, the accretions that have little to do with the actual Bible and more to do with our eisigesis. Many Christian writers have used ‘biblical’ like a club to compel obedience…rather like Rudyard Kipling’s Laws, memorized and chanted religiously, where hierarchy is preached in stirring rhythms and the rules of a past time are held up for use today. I think of another couplet from the Jungle Law:
NOW this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die.
We see our mother wolves in the Pack of the church snapped at and snarled into submission in just this Jungle way. We see the cubs who seek a different way to follow made outcast altogether, exiled from the den. Even the elders, should they offer a different voice from the Akelas of the Pack, are not safe from being savaged (I think of the lack of grace offered one of my old and dear professors, who dared to write recently on postmodern sexuality and its evolving values…), perhaps lamed or hamstrung. The word “Biblical” has become little more than a set of fangs driven by the Jungle Law.
As a result, the Bible itself – its spiritual guidance, its living, relevant, powerful word, the light it shines – is becoming confused with the indefinite fog of ‘Biblical’. The Word of God is messed about and muddied up with that same Old Law… the same patriarchal and political patterns that Kipling perpetuated, the dogmatic, dour, driven desires of the silver-back law-makers and law-enforcers, providing their savage ‘protection’. People who claim to be of the Book – fellow Christians, mind you, and the young of our tribe raised in its ways – are struggling more and more with this jungle spirit; in the same way that we still love Kipling’s language, and his ability to stir our blood, but abhor his imperialism, we can find it difficult to leap to the defence of our Book.
For myself – and all of this is only my own rambling wonderment and observation – myself, I should like to set aside that hard-done-by old adjective, ‘biblical’, and begin to use another in its stead.
The word at the core of the Bible, the heart of Christ’s message, the best of all possible news : gospel.
Can we not move from the desperate, Sadducean protection of temple authority, into the fulfilment of the good news and the great commandment of love? Why should I try to prune myself into the narrow and sociologically dictated definition of ‘biblical womanhood’ when I can be a richly flowering woman of the gospel, instead? Why settle for a ‘biblical life’ when we are called to gospel life?
Remember the story I started at the beginning of this page? There’s a bit more. I sat back at my computer, yesterday evening, just beginning to move from my snit into my guilt, wondering how I could’ve handled that better, how to get her to take ownership of the bedtime routines…
There was a muted rustling, and the Kitkat’s bedroom door scraped open a little further.
In a precipitation of long legs and apologetic kisses, she was in my lap, snuggling up and whispering that she loved me, that she couldn’t go to bed without telling me so, that she was sorry about not listening, that I was loved.
The lecture was forgotten, the sharpness released; she was secure enough in her devotion to me and sure enough of my affection for her to be able to just throw herself into my arms. And my arms were there.
Love had trumped legalism; forgiveness and the grace of Benedict’s reminder that we all must, each of us, always be ready to ‘begin again’, gave us a quiet moment there and allowed us to move into a genuine communing of spirit. She, ready to hear and understand me – I, listening and seeing her point of view – coming to a satisfactory compromise of ideas.
I tucked her in, properly. And I sang her – longlegged ten-year-old that she is, waltzing between premature wisdom and infantile rebellion – her favorite bedtime song, the one she asks for when she wants to feel safe and snuggled and loved. I sang her Kipling’s most loving piece of poetry, ‘The White Seal’s Lullaby’.
Oh! hush thee, my baby,
The night is behind us,
And black are the waters
That sparkled so green.
The moon, o’er the combers,
Looks downward to find us
At rest in the hollows
That rustle between.
Where billow meets billow,
Then soft be thy pillow;
Ah, weary wee flipperling,
Curl at thy ease!
The storm shall not wake thee,
Nor shark overtake thee,
Asleep in the arms
Of the slow-swinging seas.