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.
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?