A scholar of Song of Songs, Elaine T. James, MDiv '07, ThM '08, PhD '13, faced a common dilemma people have with biblical texts. “There’s the wonderful resource of having millions of readers of the book before you, but also the problem of what new could there be to say,” she says.
What about the Song’s lush descriptions of the natural world that are unlike anything else in the Bible—its treatment of vineyards, fields, and gardens? she asked. “Even within the turn to ecological hermeneutics, there hasn’t been any treatment of this as a potentially central text for considering ancient conceptions of land or ecology,” she says.
The author of Landscapes of the Songs of Songs: Poetry and Place (Oxford, 2017) and, most recently, assistant professor of theology at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, James is back at Princeton Theological Seminary, this time as a member of the faculty. “When this position came open, the idea of returning to PTS was really exciting to me,” she says. “It’s a dream job. I’m really eager to be back.”
This fall, James will co-teach Orientation to Old Testament Studies with Dennis Olson, professor of Old Testament. She will also teach a course on the exegesis of Song of Songs, which will put contemporary ecological questions and concerns at its center.
Her interest in poetry started early. She loved the Psalms as a young person and felt that these texts spoke with a language that was both ancient and familiar. Later, she studied Song of Songs at Princeton Seminary with Chip Dobbs-Allsopp, professor of Old Testament, who eventually became her PhD advisor. James co-edited Biblical Poetry and the Art of Close Reading (Cambridge, 2018) and is at work finishing a handbook of biblical poetry for an Oxford general-interest series called Essentials of Biblical Studies.
A Washington state native, James traces her love of the outdoors to growing up in a rural area. “I have always loved rural landscapes and natural landscapes,” James says. She found that geography and landscape theory helped her to explain the relationship between a work of art, such as Song of Songs and “a richly, mutually enmeshed sense of flourishing of the human within the natural,” James says. “You have this human embeddedness in landscapes."
"The vineyard, the garden, and even the city appear in Song of Songs as landscape that is both natural and cultural at the same time.”
It fosters a type of thinking that doesn’t see humanity as distinct from the natural world, she explains, but as always a part of it, modeling an ethical mode of vision.
“I came to my academic studies with a pretty vested interest in our ecological future,” James says. “Over the last 15 years, it has become increasingly and alarmingly apparent that we’re in a state of crisis.”
It’s an awareness that informs her work. “I think ancient traditions offer indigenous patterns of thought, or ways of thinking about the natural world that represent human thinking of and with landscape,” James says. “There are resources in these patterns of thought that can be illuminating and instructive for contemporary readers.”