I feel like venturing out among the shoals of controversy tonight, so why not? The topic is biblical, specifically that most famous Jewish King and my own namesake, David.
The denominational bible study material we’re using at church comes straight down the chute of Christian orthodoxy. I don’t believe that orthodoxy serves David very well, though. If the idealized, sanitized, legendary characterization my orthodox friends hang on David is accurate, and if their version of David could be reincarnated in the present age in the American Deep South, King David would join the Crepe Myrtle Grove Baptist Church and lead praise and worship with his lyre, lofting the melody in twangy, baritone dipthongs to fit in the denominational “club,” punctuating his dialogue with frequent injections of “Praise the Lord” and “Long live inerrancy!” I just think there’s something naive and simplistic in the traditional characterizations of this “man after God’s heart.”
To wit, let’s not forget this is the same David, by the way, who pronounced “Happy is he who bashes the heads of Babylonian babies against the rocks.” That doesn’t sound very Christian. And of course, there’s the ugly, downright criminal Bathsheba and Uriah thing. (Hmmm, how would the deacons at Crepe Myrtle Grove handle that affair?) And he sanctioned so much other bloodthirsty violence and terrorism, all of which was pervasive in that ancient culture.
To me, the problem in our making David into a “folk hero after our own heart” ignores first of all the historical and cultural context, which must strike us as bizarre in comparison to our own; and second, the gravity of the troubles and problems this great man brought upon himself through moral failure. Sure, he was a man after God’s heart, and he was a strong leader who teaches us volumes about repentance. (The irony is that the Crepe Myrtle Grove folks wouldn’t tolerate an ordinary member in their midst who messed up as big as David!)
In the end, I think David is just a lot deeper, even darker, and certainly more complex, than orthodoxy has framed him.
For this reason, Michelangelo’s startling statue truly hits the mark for me: The King’s stark nudity, frozen in stone in broad daylight, represents our own stark vulnerability–the vulnerability to mess up really bad, to get it wrong, to miss the mark beyond the point of being embarrassed–but at the same time bearing a nobility of stature and carriage that results from the access to grace following contrite repentance, that truly amazing grace which enables all of us to stand forth amid our woeful circumstances.
No, the truth is, we wouldn’t feel any more comfortable around this man in his time than he would feel comfortable around us in ours. So let’s strip the character of the orthodox veneer and let him be David, the King of the Ancient Jews, whose life, like all of ours, was a mixed bag of virtue and ugliness. Leaving him in that context, he makes more sense for us as an example of manhood accountable to God.