“We disagree with the text…”

One day, sitting in Old Testament II at Wycliffe College, the class got to talking about really difficult texts in Scripture. One example that we brought up was from Psalm 137:

8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock!

“What do we do with texts like this?” asked Dr Marion Taylor.

I can’t remember what was said, but eventually I grew so frustrated that I put my hand up. “Because we’re Christians, we disagree with the text!”

“Oh, interesting,” she said. “Say more!”

“We are Christians who interpret all of Scripture through the filter of the life of Jesus,” I said. “We know that Jesus would say that having a murderous thought is a sin. Therefore, when we read this text, we disagree that God inspired that sinful thought, and we repent because of the ministry of Jesus Christ.”

I must admit that I’m probably not remembering quite right; it was a long time ago, but I’m still disturbed by what happened next. A classmate of mine, much older than I, pitched his voice so that the whole class could hear if they wanted: “No.”

I have to say, that moment has stayed with me for ages, and represents for me some of the worst kinds of knee jerk reactions from the conservative evangelicalism of my youth. So many explanations spring to mind from my youth: “We can’t hold the Biblical peoples to contemporary standards of morality.” True. “Aren’t you glad that God allowed even the worst human emotions to be part of Israel’ s prayer book? Isn’t it good to know that we can be honest with God?” Yes. Despite my unfortunate wording, I have never intended to deny the inspiration of Scripture.

And yet: the Evangelicalism of my youth assumed that Scripture was inerrant, infallible, and univocal. It is, for them, without error in the original manuscripts; it cannot be wrong about any matters of which it speaks; and despite the multiplicity of human authors and shifting contexts, it only has a single teaching on any given issue. The Evangelical teaching of my youth claims that God, being truth, would not allow his Scriptures to be anything less than perfect in all details–in fact, the Spirit supercharged the minds and hearts of the Biblical authors so that the words they wrote in their various ways were exactly the ones that God wanted written.

But as problematic as most of these teachings are, the underlying metaphor is the root of the problem: Scripture functions in Christian community as the Canadian Constitution does. Along with pastor and theologian Brian McLaren, I would say that this legal image causes problems that cannot be resolved by the Scriptures themselves. The Constitution, being a legal document, is supposed to be internally consistent and must be interpreted as such; if it is not, the entire structure of the State becomes arbitrary. Many Christians view Scripture in exactly this way. If God, because a truthful and logical mind, cannot deliver a perfectly accurate and consistent document, we cannot trust anything in the book. Why should we believe any aspect of the Christian story if there are contractions in a book breathed out by God?

These concerns, notes McLaren, are answerable, but require the deployment of a different metaphor, especially if, as people of faith in Christ and bearers of his Good News, we want to take seriously the inspired humanness of the documents as we have them. Evangelical authors of the kind I grew up with spend hundreds of pages resolving contradictions, and some of their solutions are quite ingenious. But what if we substituted another metaphor? What if the Scriptures are a community library, assembled to help the people of God discern–even argue about–how to be faithful to the amazing God who came to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or in, through, and as Jesus? As someone with a BA in English, I realised that I’m already familiar with a similar concept–that of a literary canon. A culture or cultures create canons and choose representative authors because the issues that give shape to their identities are helpfully presented in all their complexity in the gathering process. (Of course, literary canons, at least in English literature, tend to be dominated by dead white men.) Readers don’t expect their best representatives to agree, always–but we sense that if we imbibe these texts, if we haggle and fight and sift and closely examine each line of thought, we will emerge with a sense of who we are in today’s world, and of who we might be in the future, too.

Despite the fear of many conservative Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, in form and function, the Biblical canon, spliced together over many hundreds of years, seems to express, at the human level, the same sorts of strong conviction and contradiction that comprise the best literary canons of the world’s cultures. Perhaps God wants God’s truth to emerge, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, when God’s people argue about and with the texts through which Jesus somehow manages to speak to us.

What does this have to do with babies getting bashed against rocks? Just this: the kind of violence in this text is not the only Biblical way to deal with oppressors. In fact, the book of Jonah might be a direct challenge to texts like this one. Jonah, the reluctant and racist prophet, eventually makes his way to the city of Nineveh, one of the key biblical enemies of the people of Israel, to tell them of God’s judgment: You are about to be destroyed. Repent. He goes through the streets whispering, and the people of Nineveh fall down in repentance–even their animals get clothed in sackcloth, so enthused are  they to be right with God! Well, Jonah gets right pissed off about that–and at the end of the story, though G od chooses to spare Gentiles who repent (oppressors though they were), Jonah remains the same bigoted–though now obedient–person that he was. The book of Jeremiah, too, instructs the people living in Babylon to pray that God would bless that city! Though all of these texts were written at different times and in different contexts, they nevertheless represent opposite choices about how to be faithful to God. Christians, in seeking to reflect the person, life, and teaching of Jesus must choose something much closer to the second option: Jesus was a non-violent man who chose the way of suffering in order to restore his people to their true vocation as the ones who show God to the whole world–including their enemies. “Bless and do not curse,” is a basic stance of Jesus that moves against grain of the psalm’s ending. Wishing the children of your enemies dead is a sin, and does not reflect the heart of Jesus Christ. I feel obligated as his follower, when asking the question, “How should I respond to my enemies?”, to reject the option proffered by the writer of Psalm 137. I disagree with the text–not because the text is an uninspired part of the conversation, but because their is a better, more complete and faithful option elsewhere within the same group of texts.

Where does this leave me as a former conservative Evangelical? Am I going to start ripping pages out of the text because I don’t like them? Well, no. As I said, I try to read the Scriptures with Jesus as centre of my way of reading, in the company of those who also want to follow him. Jesus is alive, which means that He, by the power of the Spirit, is willing to make sure that I don’t try to shrink him down to my size, and thus make the sole determinant of my interpretation…my own ego.

There is a story in our Scriptures that perfectly encapsulates, for me, how I try to live with the Scriptures as “the word of God written.” The patriarch Jacob was once in a dark and fearful place in his life: he couldn’t go back to the way things were, and he wasn’t sure if he had much of a future, either. The story goes that the Angel of the Lord came to Jacob and wrestled with him all night. As the sun was coming up, the Angel said to Jacob, “Hey, dude, let me go!” “No!” Jacob replied. “I will not let you go until you bless me!” In order to get away from Jacob, the Angel cheats by intentionally dislocating Jacob’s hip, so that afterwards he limped. And though the Lord refused to give Jacob his name, God blessed Jacob with a new identity: “You are the one who has fought with God and won!” The story ends with a quick comment about the origin of a custom: Israelites, to honour their founding father, don’t eat the meat on the hip of sacrificial animals. We, too, the story implies, are the ones who struggle with God and prevail.

We live in a time of change and chance. As Christians, we long to be faithful to God, but we’re not really sure how in the darkness of the night, and even a sense of exile. We can’t go back to fundamentalism, to shoring up our faith with scientifically demonstrable certainties and metaphors of legal consistency. But for many of us, it feels like we may not survive much longer without the usual securities–like Scriptural inerrancy, infallibility, or univocity. And yet here we are with the Scriptures, God’s message to us in written form. What to do? We must fight with Scripture until we hear the Word of God, Jesus Christ, speaking our names and changing our identities. It may seem unfair, but in the moments we limp away wishing that God wouldn’t pull a fast one on us, we may hear a new name, a new Word of hope. It is to this living Word, and not to the supposedly demonstrable perfection of Scripture as constitution, that we cling.

When I–when we–disagree with the text, let us do it carefully, fighting until we hear Jesus speak to us. This is the victory that we seek, and we will not let Him go until he blesses us.

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2 comments

  1. Theophilus

    Hi Rob,

    After reading this post, I wonder how, or if, you would choose to separate the thesis of this piece from an understanding of Scripture that is a bit Marcionite. In particular, I’m curious about how your denial of the divine inspiration and normative authority of a verse like Psalm 138:8-9 affects how you see authority, normativity and inspiration in other parts of the canon. How does this winnowing process work for you? Are there certain parts of the canon with authority over others (perhaps the “red letters” of Jesus), or is the process more purely spiritual/subjective?

    Like

    • theologywriter

      Hey Theo!

      Yikes – your question reminds me that as a theologian, I can’t say everything at once. But given that, I think your question is great. First of all, I *absolutely* affirm the inspiration of Scripture (it is “useful for correcting, teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness [liberating justice, per Evangelical scholar Thomas Hanks]) but I *deny* that a conservative evangelical understanding of inerrancy and infallibility is necessary for such an affirmation. In the facebook thread that is beneath this article, I basically want people to understand that the curse in those verses was not planted in the heart of the author by God, because God does not cause anyone to sin. So the inspiration of the text must lie somewhere else: perhaps in its honesty in recording the human condition, or perhaps as one voice in the ongoing struggle to be faithful to the Story revealed by the God who liberated Israel from Egypt and delivers the whole cosmos through the ministry of Jesus. I hope you can tell, by that last sentence, that I am not Marcionite (or if I am, I don’t want to be)!

      Every Christian, and every Christian community, has a winnowing process – those that deny this strike me as profoundly naive. For Anglicans generally, the hermeneutic begins with the life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, extends to the New Testament, and then to the Old. Christ is always the centre of the Church’s message, way of life, and biblical interpretation (which makes it, oddly enough, quite compatible with John Howard Yoder). Anglicans generally also realise that we read in a community that tries to be faithful to Jesus by the power of the Spirit, and argues about how to do so. This is why Nicene orthodoxy is crucial for the Church’s reading of Scripture – despite all the bullshit politicing around it, the Creed represents one of the Church’s best attempts at being faithful to the Story–and in our history, Nicene orthodoxy has had an explosively positve effect, overall.

      So as an example, lets take texts that portray Israel as an unfaithful wife. The texts more or less read like this: “Israel, because you are such a slut, I am going to cause you to be raped in the street, and I am going to watch. But I still love you.” The inspiration of these texts is very difficult to discern for many Christians. Yes, Israel violated the covenant and God caused Israel to go into exile, and there are many metaphors about that in Scripture. But this one shows a great deal of mysogyny and abusiveness that is inappropriate under any circumstances for a Christian spouse. Jesus Christ himself would have intervened to stop the rape if it had been an actual occurance. And we have the gospel of John’s record of his decision about the woman caught in adultery (where was the man involved?): “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.” I am not denying the faithfulness of the prophets in their contexts to the overall story. I’m saying that there are multiple voices in our canon, especially that of Jesus, that do not agree with each other. Since the conviction of the New Testament is that God is Jesus, I am going to put texts that I can’t reconcile with his words and deeds on the back burner of my life. The Church’s conviction is that this text is inspired, but I’ll need to fight with it more until I/we hear God’s word. But picturing Yahweh as a battering spouse is never appropriate, and never was. Thanks be to God that the value of Scripture does not rest in its internal perfection, but in the struggle and prayer that it elicits in the people of God.

      I hope my answer puts your mind at ease, a little.

      Like

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