Thursday, August 7, 2014

Elijah without Exegesis

I learned the story of Elijah before I ever studied it from a Bible.

This is not because I grew up unchurched and never opened a Bible.  Indeed, I was very regular in worship and went to Sunday School every week, although I really don't remember ever getting to the prophets.  (I feel like our Old Testament study sort of stalled out over Solomon.)  I may have heard the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb in worship, but, if I did, it didn't make an impression on me.

I learned the story of Elijah in public school, when my high school choir sang Mendelssohn's oratorio, "Elijah."

My high school choir's tradition was to learn an oratorio every winter.  When I was in tenth grade, we sang great excerpts of Hayden's "The Creation."  (I used to love to walk into my English class right after lunch, turn on the light, and sing, "AND THERE WAS LIGHT!")  My junior year, we sang the "Messiah."  My senior year, we learned The Elijah.

We did not learn the whole oratorio, but we learned and performed a pretty impressive chunk of it, enough to get the gist of the story, enough to perform for our winter concert.  We also joined area high school for a mass performance later in the spring.

There we were, thousands of high school students, singing about the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al, wicked King Ahab and his even more wicked wife, Jezebel.  It boggles my mind even to think back on it.

What a way to learn the Bible, going over and over difficult musical interludes, listening to soloists practice soliloquies, going into section rehearsals.  I still remember that the first Chorus begins with the word, "Help Lord!  Wilt thou quite destroy us?", and that our choir director warned us to make sure we pronounced the 'p' on Help.  I remember that a wonderful baritone from our school sang Elijah's part (although we had professionals for the mass choir).  Elijah's solo, "It is enough" was so heart-rending.  The song "He watching over Israel" was one of my favorite pieces.

But the action between Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al was the highlight of the piece for me.  We played the prophets of Ba'al, with our increasingly frantic prayers, while Elijah taunted us between our outbursts.  The choir director let us in on the secret meaning of some of Elijah's Ba'al insulting taunts. The piece where Elijah meets God on Mount Horeb was also dramatic, the music matching the words in tension, the voices sounding like wind and chaos and -- eventually -- peace.

I went out and bought the three-album set of the whole oratorio.  Eventually I even bought my own copy of the music and looked up Bible references in my Bible concordance (I found out that they aren't all from 1st Kings; not even all from the Old Testament).

I know, it was geeky way to learn a Bible story.  I mean, how many teenagers that you know are interested in singing huge sections of scripture to tunes written in the 19th Century?

We did.  I didn't learn about Elijah first from a Bible story.  I didn't learn about Elijah first from a sermon.  I learned about Elijah without anyone telling me what it meant, or what it was supposed to mean, or where it fit in the great narrative of the Bible.  I didn't think about what it might mean that the Lord was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.

It was a good story, and I was in it.  We were inside the story.  We were playing the people of Israel, and the prophets of Ba'al, the bad guys and the good guys, the saints and the sinners, the doubters and the believers.  We were inside the story, not understanding it, just singing it.

But the thing is, later on, I got curious.  It made me want to study, even.

I know.  It's a geeky way to learn a Bible story.  But still, it makes me think:  being curious is more important, in some ways, than understanding.  And being inside the story, however you might manage it:  is the beginning of wisdom.

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