1.25.2006

Tough Texts

As a general rule, I do not discuss work-related issues here. While I appreciate the blogging ministers who maintain personal and congregational anonymity enough to delve into veiled details, I tend to err on the conservative side when it comes to writing about the people I serve.

That said, I'm momentarily breaking this rule to write about the three-week Bible study we started last night. The study is called Tough Texts, and it is a curriculum I thought I wrote while doing my field internship; upon opening the two-year-old files the other day, I realized that I had a lot of work to do. So let's just say it is a curriculum I am writing.

Two primary resources inform the study, at least in spirit if not in letter: Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror, and a brilliant article by Barry Moser called "Blood & Stone: Violence in the Bible and the Eye of the Illustrator." Moser is the bloke who illustrated the only one-man Bible published in the 20th century, a King James Version I'm still kicking myself for not nabbing out of a bargain bin.

If I had a penny for every time someone made the condescending comment that "local congregations are 50 years behind the seminary" or "this perspective [insert feminist, liberationist, historical-critical, Girardian, post-modern] would never fly in the church," I'd be able to repave our parking lot.

Last night, equipped with the my feeble grasp of the forbidden brackets, I laid out a nervy introduction to biblical interpretation. I pointed out the vast difference in the moral systems that inform the scriptures and modern civilization. Like, we think killing babies is bad. If someone told you they had been told by God to sacrifice their child, you would intervene like nobody's business. You'd speed-dial the police on your landline and the Child Protective Services on your cell, and get that child beyond the reach of her father's murderous hallucinations. Meanwhile, in the scriptures, Abraham gets thisclose to sacrificing Isaac, until the same God who demanded the sacrifice intervenes and provides a ram instead. In the Book of Judges (Chapter 11 bankruptcy), Jephthah foolishly makes a vow to made a burnt offering of who/whatever comes out of his house, if only he can kill a lot of people and win the battle for Israel. His daughter emerges - dancing a welcome with timbrels. He faults her for sending him low, and after giving her a few days to mourn with her girlfriends in the mountains, does with her what he had vowed.

Scriptures like these are overwhelmingly ignored. They rarely come up in worship (you will find Abraham & Isaac in the lectionary, but not the tragedy of the raped and dismembered concubine in Judges 19). We prefer a generic Bible full of goodness and light, even though this is far from the case, Old and New Testaments alike. Consequently, when Christians come across unfathomable biblical violence in their devotional reading, they have no framework and no resources to deal with them. Their primary option is to ignore the texts, as they have been implicitly instructed by the church. This does not make for a very mature faith, does it? To say that we are people of The Book, even though if we are completely honest with ourselves, The Book gives us the heebie-jeebies?

One of the major points of my intro last night was this: Our perspective of God and our understanding of the Christian faith is shaped by the Bible. But our perspective of God and our understanding of the Christian faith in turn shapes our interpretation of the Bible. In other words, we all believe a lot of stuff that isn't necessarily "biblical," or is at least comprised of extremely selective biblical wisdom. We believe stuff our mamas told us, our preachers told us, stuff we picked up while taking that glorious walk in Glacier National Park. And some of that stuff we believe conflicts with elements of the Bible, even though we rarely point out the discrepancy.

The reason that I find this point so essential is that we need to know what theological convictions we're taking in with us when we start reading scriptures like Judges 19. My own overriding theological conviction that I recognize is selectively biblical and certainly rooted in reason and experience is that I believe that God is radically present to the suffering of Creation, not as a cause, but as a companion. The perennial question, "Where is God in [this]" will, for me, always have the answer, "Weeping with those who weep, suffering with those who suffer." God is right there in the thick of it, engaging in the awesome incarnational practice embodied in Jesus Christ. So when I read about the daughter of Jephthah, my semi-biblical conviction informs my interpretation that God is up on that mountain, weeping with the girl and her companions.

We all have these semi-biblical convictions. They come in every stripe: liberal, conservative, pacificst, etc. It jars us a bit to recognize them and call them out for what they are. This recognition, juxtaposed with the stuff of biblical criticism, can make it feel like the Bible is being systematically torn to shreds. But simply reading the story of Noah and his ark and realizing that it probably looked more like the tsunami than the bucolic drawing hanging in the nursery can have the same effect.

This is all to say that last night, after a monumentally crummy day, I led an extraordinarily difficult study that not only challenged the heart of how we read the Bible, but also grappled with some of the most appalling passages in scripture even as we were freshly vulnerable. I was nervous the whole time. This practice has strengthened my faith, but that doesn't guarantee it will strengthen the faith of my flock. I really don't know how everyone responded. I experienced the profound need to be pastoral as I played the part of prophet. Comfort, comfort.

I felt God's presence among us last night. We were suffering. Certainly not the kind of suffering experienced by Jephthah's daughter and her descendants of sorrow. But as we wrestled with enormous, central questions of faith and morality, the Spirit of God was among us.

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