Bible, It’s Cold Outside

Bible, It’s Cold Outside December 20, 2018

I’ve followed the recent discussions about the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with interest. But it took me a while to realize that they provide a close analogy to discussions about the Bible and its interpretation.

Here are some of the key claims that various people have been making in relation to the song:

  • The original text, the sheet music, has the male character labeled “wolf” and the woman “mouse,” leading some to describe the song as “predatory.” (This is true in the original and oldest manuscripts but not more recent editions, bringing something like textual criticism into the picture. Others have brought authorial intent into the picture).
  • The song, in our time and to our ears, sounds like it involves sexual misconduct.
  • The song, interpreted in its context, is not about slipping a drug into a woman’s drink or failing to seek her consent.
  • The song, sung in our era with its concern for equality and consent, would need to sound very different.
  • The song is about the excuses that women used to have to offer in an era when they were judged even more harshly than they are in our time for exercise of sexual freedom.
  • (Some think that’s still a reason not to play the song, others think that makes the song practically feminist within the context of the era in which it was written.)
  • Some claim not to understand what the fuss is about.
  • Some have called for the song to be banned.
  • Some, seeing all of the above, have engaged in satire that some may mistake for factual reporting – such as when The Hard Times reports that the real reason liberals don’t like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is because it proves global warming is a hoax.

Can you see the parallels to the Bible, and the way some seek to interpret it so as to eliminate slavery and sexism, while others dismiss it because of such contents? Isn’t there a parallel to the way some insist that the Bible was progressive for its time, and others hear it as offensively patriarchal and backwards within the context of our time?

Religious people and academics, journalists and skeptics, all sorts of people who fall into one of those categories or more than one simultaneously, can all find ourselves either struggling to be both fair to something ancient and sensitive to contemporary concerns, or conversely, can find ourselves neglecting important considerations ancient and/or modern, past and/or present, that deserve our consideration as we think about a text and its impact.

If there is a takeaway message from comparing the two, I think it is this: it is not enough either to say “in its time it would have meant this” or “here is what people today hear.” Being a sensitive interpreter means holding the two in tension, and not letting go of either even when people insist that it is necessary to pick one to the exclusion of the other.

Of course, that doesn’t answer one crucial question: how much air time if any does an old Christmas song, or a biblical text, deserve in our time, if it is offered as it is, without explanation or commentary? Personally, I think the latter is crucial. Offer a song or an ancient text as though it can stand on its own terms for today’s readers/hearers, and you are setting it up to be misunderstood and distorted in a variety of ways.

But far fewer people want a song, or a text, accompanied by a lecture or commentary.

And that, I think, is the real problem. It is indeed “cold outside” in our present-day context when it comes to the kinds of things that academics are often concerned with: nuance, precision, contextualization, hermeneutics, avoidance of false dichotomies, and so on.

What are your thoughts on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – whether on its own considered as a song, or in comparison with the Bible?

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  • John MacDonald

    There is nothing new about men trying to initiate casual sex, even though we have a false chaste view about the past (contrast with the musical movie “Chicago”). And the song quite clearly isn’t about a woman being drugged. Another old song about a woman struggling with whether to succumb to a man’s casual sexual advances is “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirrelles. It describes a young woman who is facing a night of passion but has doubts whether promises spoken in the dark will turn into the next morning’s regrets. A comparable old song is “Angel of the Morning” composed in 1966 by Chip Taylor.

  • TinnyWhistler

    I can’t be bothered to force myself to like a song that sounds rapey to me. It’s just not that important. Also, death of the author and all that.

  • One thing that came to mind is the issue of slavery texts in the Bible. On the one hand, it would be weird to judge Paul to be socially accommodating of slavery as practiced in the first century Roman Empire. On the other hand, it would be equally weird to assume that slavery must be “ok” because of his accommodation and bring that forward into our present circumstances.

    It seems to me that evangelicalism in general has navigated these waters. Paul’s texts in this vein are reflective of his world and would be very out of place in a letter to a church, today. I’m not sure why we can’t be this rigorous when considering all texts.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    In the movie, the song is sung 2 times, the 2nd flips the genders.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MFJ7ie_yGU

  • LuckyTN

    I have no problems with the song. I believe this much ado about nothing. Seduction has been around since humans stood up on two legs and started talking.

  • John MacDonald

    Speaking of Biblical Hermeneutics (Theory of Interpretation), I just found out that my blog post on Postmodernism and Biblical Hermeneutics made the October Biblical Studies Carnival. No one told me, lol. See: https://pursuingveritas.com/2018/11/01/october-2018-biblical-studies-carnival/ . This brings up the issue of names and naming. As a Canadian, my entire life I’ve been teased for having the same name as Canada’s first Prime Minister. Never the less, people usually spell my last name incorrectly. They are apparently influenced by the fact that the famous restaurant is spelled without the “A,” McDONALDS, while my name is spelled with the “A,” MacDONALD. So, my name is spelled incorrectly on the October Biblical Studies Carnival page, lol.

  • Martha Bienert

    I’ve always been of two minds about that song ever since I was old enough to understand, really, what the dialogue of the song is about. (I’m 65, so I must say that the song sounded “sexist” to me before I had a word for that.) When I was older still, the song evoked those kinds of emotions when you are totally overworked and everyone just wants something from you (her family wants her to conform to social norms, her romantic interest wants perhaps more than he’s willing to take responsibility for–in my memory typical of both family and friends/intimate partners, and she would like to have warmth, security, comfort, and, well, a home where she could stop doing what people want in order to play out her own life–to be really loved). On the other hand, I’ve always thought the melody and the voices singing together were beautiful and on that level enjoyed the song. But I don’t think it’s a Christmas song! It doesn’t celebrate the Love of God, the very gift and circumstance that would offer the woman (and the man) in the song deep acceptance and support with no price tag. And what about the man in the song? Culturally we assume that he will be satisfied by the one thing he wants. Does he want her just for now or forever? Is this ardent longing a *good* longing or …the usual? The Wikipedia article about this song shows that since 1944, when Frank Loesser (who wrote the song) sang it with his wife, Lynn Garland, to signal to their party guests that it’s time to go home, the song has been recorded at least 67 times. I saw an appeal on Youtube to “ban” the song. Surely not! Don’t people understand the concept of Freedom of Speech anymore? We don’t *ban* ideas, we examine them! My life interrogates this song, and finds that, like anything else, it has plusses and minuses. And I’m just happy that my loving husband and I have a relationship truly in, under, and through Jesus, and that I don’t have to drive home in the cold.

    • It is indeed quite odd to consider such a song as “a Christmas song” when there’s nothing that connects itself to Jesus Christ or the actual message of Christmas.

  • Instances such as these really do illustrate how horrible both ‘biblical inerrancy’ and ‘biblical literalism’ has been to Christianity. Things need to be looked at BOTH in terms of their original context and time as well as the later context of that modern believers find themselves. Instead of taking observations made in the past as set, firm rules, it has to be repeated that the bible is a very contradictory and very human book. Finding out ‘how now shall we live’ involves using one’s personal ethics and rationality well. Somebody who calls himself or herself a Christian gets something useful out of the bible if and only if one approaches it from the lens of ‘what would the actual Christ think of this’ coupled with ‘does this logically make sense’, both of which work in tandem.