Learning to Read from the Margins

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Long time friend of the blog "Samurai" left a comment last time where he offered some pushback to a statement I had made.

First, here's my statement:

We see books with opposing views, engaged in moral arguments with each other. So what I would want to point out here is, it is not any particular passage that is inspired, rather it is the debate that is inspired. What is inspired is the vigorous questioning and debate we can observe in Scripture of humanity struggling to figure out who God is and what faithfulness looks like.  The questioning is inspired, the dialog is inspired.

Now here's Samurai's response (the underlining was added by me):

I'm all about reading the Bible "morally." However, I see a logical problem with saying that only the internal debate in Scripture is inspired and it is this: you'd agree with me, I suspect, that the Gospels bear strong witness to the idea that God calls us to love those on the margins.

How do we know this? Because Jesus announces this as his mission in Luke, and because multiple passages in both the OT and NT mention that we must love the poor, the widow, the orphan, the least, and the stranger.

This abiding Christian value isn't based on inspired debates only, but inspired passages. We have to have a better paradigm than simply saying that only the questioning and debate are inspired in Scripture.

Let me begin by saying that I appreciate being challenged. It would be rather silly of me to advocate the value of dispute and debate within the Bible, but then be opposed to any kind of disagreement on my blog! On the contrary, I think it's great. Provided that we can do this with a spirit of mutual respect and grace (as Samurai demonstrates here) such conversations--even when we challenge each other--helps us work out together what is good and true.  Theology is something that needs to happen in conversation, in relationship. So I am grateful to get some pushback here.

Samurai's objection here is that if all we have that is "inspired" is a debate, how do we know which side of the debate to choose? How do we know to pick showing mercy over passages that command us to "show them no mercy"? If we are just valuing the debate itself, then how would we arrive at the values of enemy love or grace or compassion? Those ideas are not just found in the debate, but in one particular side of the debate.

That's a very valid point, so let me first tweak my original statement a bit. It would have been better to say "It is only individual passages that are inspired, but the debate itself that is inspired." That's an improvement since it is both/and rather than either/or. However I think I can do better, by showing how the two are connected. What I would therefore want to say is this: We often find "inspiration" in the places where Scripture makes room for protest to be heard from the margins, leading us to grow in compassion. Let me unpack that a bit:

The reality is that the Old Testament books were not written with the intent of being an open debate, as if both sides agreed to respectfully make room for the other to be heard. Instead what we have is a majority voice that is on the side of unquestioning obedience enforced through violent threat. This side demands you obey, no questions asked, or else. This majority voice (and by "majority" I mean both in the sense that it holds the power, and that most of the OT is written from this perspective) has no intention of allowing for other voices of dissent to be heard.

Yet in the canon of the Hebrew Bible we do find these minority voices of protest (it is the "minority" both in the sense that there are fewer pages where we hear this voice, and because it speaks on behalf of the marginalized, the scapegoat, the "bad guy" that the majority voice seeks to blame).

Hyper-Calvinists look at the Bible and conclude that most of it is advocating this majority voice of merciless unquestioning power (and most of it indeed is). Reasoning that "majority rules" they then pick that voice and advocate for violence and power in God's name (pro death penalty, pro war, pro capital punishment, pro torture, pro corporal punishment of children, etc). Anyone who disagrees they seek to silence. In choosing this majority voice however I believe that they are opposed to Jesus who instead sides with the voice of the marginalized. Thus while they have a view which represents the majority perspective from in the Bible, this at the same time is tragically a perspective that is the polar opposite of the way of Jesus.

If we want to read Scripture as Jesus does, prioritizing what he does, then we need to learn to read from the margins, to choose the minority view. That means we need to begin with Jesus and then go back and pick the minority narratives found in the OT that stress mercy and compassion, while rejecting the majority voices that stress the opposite.

The fact that the minority voice managed to find a place in the canon alongside the majority voice says something remarkable about the Jewish faith that we as Christians really need to learn from. Imagine if we let the voice of the heretic be heard alongside the voice of official orthodox doctrine. That is what the Hebrew canon is doing, and the result is that in allowing that voice of protest to be heard we can see how the orthodox majority view can sometimes hurt people. For example Jesus drew attention to how the practice of excluding people who were "unclean" from the temple was really hurtful, and instead worked to heal and restore people on the margins, rather than exclude and condemn them.

So again, let me propose that we often find "inspiration" in the places where Scripture makes room for protest to be heard from the margins, leading us to grow in compassion. Doing this then directly leads to those inspired passages that focus on grace and compassion. Making room for the questions lead us to find better answers. In keeping with this we need to continue to make room to ask questions today so we can continue to grow, reform, and work towards the good.

When we make space to hear the voices of those on the margins--whether that is found in Scripture (in the Psalms or Job for example where we hear the voice of the victims) or today as we listen to groups who are often marginalized, demonized, and silenced by those with religious, economic, and political power--we make room for Jesus. We make room to learn how things that were intended to be good are really hurting people, and if we are listening this gives us an opportunity to grow in compassion, and to work towards reform (of our systems and ourselves) and restoration (between those who have been estranged).

When we instead try to shut down that voice of protest--as the majority voice seeks to do in Scripture through threat of violence (read Deuteronomy 28), as the church did in the past by burning heretics, and as many try to do today through economic power plays to silence people (and to be fair, it is not just conservatives who do that!) what we are then shutting down is the voice of Jesus found in the least of these.

So when we are looking for Christ in the Bible we need to look for the minority voice of protest. Listening to that voice, as Jesus did, was what lead him to focus on caring for those on the margins: the poor, the widow, the orphan, the least, and the stranger. In this way, making room to hear the minority voice of the marginalized leads us to those inspired passages that focus on compassion, grace, and enemy love. As we also learn to listen to the minority voice of the marginalized today, we  can likewise grow in compassion, and make steps towards creating a more just world.

So let's keep listening to each other with grace, and let's all keep pushing back in the name of compassion!




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4 Comments:

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Wow! Thank you so much for this elaboration on your thoughts. William Carlos Williams wrote in a famous poem: "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow...glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens." That poem speaks to how a deceptively ordinary/simple tool is monumental to a whole way of agrarian life.

In the same vein, Derek, I'd say that so much of your proposed way of reading the Bible depends upon Jesus - not only how he interpreted the OT, but what the Gospels tell us he valued, and who we discern God to be like based on those narratives.

I'm going to be vulnerable and say that even as a person totally open to questioning tradition and authority, I've struggled with your approach. I think the Jesus-shaped way of reading the Bible is definitely, as Jeremy points out, the best one I've seen out there so far. But just as the Force has a light side and a dark side, I think your approach has a potential "dark side" that needs to be discussed.

The light side is that it superbly addresses the problem of justifying immoral actions, or stories of immoral actions, in God's name. The dark side, as I see it, is that what you put forward to address that problem is not a surgical strike but a nuclear explosion. You are not merely asking people to reconsider justifying immoral acts in God's name. You're asking them to totally wipe clean everything they knew about how to read the Bible.

When I read the stories of Abraham or Jesus, both are pivotal narratives that shape our faith and way of being in the world as Christians. Part of what moves us so deeply about these stories is that we consider them to be real - not mere fictions dreamed up by ancient authors simply to convey important values. As epic as Lord of the Rings or the Chronicles of Narnia are, and as inspiring as they may be to many, they could never be the basis of an entire faith and worldview because we know they are fictional. Unfortunately, the stories about the patriarchs, about Israel, and to a much lesser extent even Jesus are entangled with eyebrow-raising violence and hard words. There's no neat way to separate the "wheat from the chaff." If we reject the violence of Joshua in Canaan, that's great on a moral level - but we're left wondering how much of the story is really true, if there is any value to reading about that part of the Bible at all (other than holding it up as an example of immorality), whether the Holy Spirit permitted that story to be there for some other instructive purpose, etc.

So my first question is, are we to read the stories about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, and yes - Jesus - as real stories, fictional myths, real stories told by people guided by the Holy Spirit, or real stories told from the biased viewpoints of people like you and me with no special inspiration, just struggling to understand God the best they can?

A neat and good-sounding theological answer might be to say "all of the above, and it's up to us to use our judgment and discriminate that." But in practicality, I think that leaves us in some pretty dangerous and uncertain territory. Now, I'm not pretending that there will ever be absolute certainty in theology. But I believe we need more principles from Sciptural witness to make those kinds of judgments than just extrapolation from a few examples of Jesus overturning Old Testament laws, or how he acted towards those on the margins.

The second question I would have is: if we accept the Bible as an inspired text in some way guided by the hand of God, why is it that the majority voices are most often on the side of wrong?

In other words, Derek, I'm saying that your proposed way of reading the Bible is exciting and revolutionary. On the other hand, I think an excellent answer to an important problem has raised several other monumental questions that I think also need to be addressed in order for the argument to stand - even with folks like myself who are totally open to it.

 
At 6:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Samurai,

I'd like the suggest that the issue you are wrestling with is not actually one of fiction vs. nonfiction. What is being questioned is not whether there really were battles and wars, but the "God told me to commit mass murder" part of it. Did God actually tell Joshua "kill everything that breathes, show them no mercy" or not?

If not, then this means we cannot say "everything the Bible claims in God's name is 100% reliable, straight from God, with no human error possible." So the question then becomes: How do we then read it? And more to the point, how do we read it as Scripture, rather than as just some ancient book? More broadly, how do we then read Scripture at all? What makes it "Scripture" if it is not something we can take as beyond question, beyond culture, beyond human blind spots, beyond error?

"I believe we need more principles from Sciptural witness to make those kinds of judgments than just extrapolation from a few examples of Jesus overturning Old Testament laws, or how he acted towards those on the margins."

You are certainly right that we can't base our view on just a few isolated inferences of how Jesus read Scripture. That's why I'm writing a book that lays a deep groundwork for this. So do keep in mind that anything I can put in the blog here is just glimpses of that, due to the limitations of space!

To tip my hand, I don't think that our answer should be "Yes, the Bible's nothing special." I think for many people (myself included) the Bible is a sacrament. That is, it is a means by which we can encounter God, a way God can communicate love to us, convict us of sin, minister to us in our need, and so on.

"The second question I would have is: if we accept the Bible as an inspired text in some way guided by the hand of God, why is it that the majority voices are most often on the side of wrong?"

Maybe because the Bible is reflecting the reality of our human condition here. Look at Christian history: Why is it that the majority voices from the church are most often on the side of wrong? That's sadly been true for century after century. You have the occasional burst of light (Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, etc.) but then a whole lot of awful people doing really horrible things in power.

So maybe the question is: How can we find God in the dung pile of our human history? How can we find God in the dung pile of our messed up imperfect lives? And if the Bible reflects the dung pile of our real messy human lives, how can we find God in there too?


 
At 6:20 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

To put it more succinctly: the good part is that view solves the problem of violence in the OT. The bad part is that it puts in question how we read Scripture *as Scripture* at all. So we would need to consider how to read the Bible devotionally in light of this. I'd propose here that both the liberal approach (it's just a human book) and the conservative approach (it fell from heaven) are dissatisfying. I'd propose a third way focused on encountering the Holy Spirit thru the text (that would take a while to unpack of course!)

 
At 6:28 AM, Blogger Samurai said...

Derek,

I'm excited to hear more about this third way.

"So maybe the question is: How can we find God in the dung pile of our human history? How can we find God in the dung pile of our messed up imperfect lives?"

I wholeheartedly agree with this in theory. I guess my question is "how?"

"I'd like the suggest that the issue you are wrestling with is not actually one of fiction vs. nonfiction. What is being questioned is not whether there really were battles and wars, but the "God told me to commit mass murder" part of it. Did God actually tell Joshua "kill everything that breathes, show them no mercy" or not?"

Well - yes and no. I have no problem, actually, rejecting the violence of Joshua. But if we say that God didn't really order Joshua to do that stuff like the text says, the next question becomes a no-brainer: why should I trust or believe anything the narrative says as real? Is this just a myth cooked up by someone trying to glorify Israel's domination of other peoples? In which case, the story belongs in the trash.

Or is this a real event that we should still read as actual history, except told from the wrong point of view? And if so, where is God in this dung pile?

I'm saying that questioning certain events leads to questioning the entire story's authenticity (without better tools grounded deeply in Scriptural witness to counteract that).

 

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