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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God said it, but that doesn't settle it: Questioning the Bible

Sunday, May 11, 2014

I've been noticing a growing trend of people who are becoming increasingly troubled and unsatisfied with a literalistic approach to the Bible. The objection they have is a moral one: They observe that a "straight forward" and "plain" reading of Scripture inevitably leads people to do things that are against their conscience, against the most basic understandings of morality, and to justify doing these immoral things "because God said it, that settles it." In short, we've learned to read the Bible in a way that makes people immoral and proud of it.

One example of this is corporal punishment of children. Many parents feel that it is wrong to hit their kids. Pediatricians and mental health professionals agree. Yet the Bible says that you should hit your kids. Those who take the unquestioning approach to the Bible then argue that despite what your conscience might say, you need to trust the Bible. You need to submit to God's Word here. 

So people are being asked to go against their consciences and do things they feel are hurtful and wrong because the Bible says so. There are a host of similar examples you could mention here. Parents being pressured to disown their children who are gay. Women being excluded from the ministry. Taking a harsh and medieval approach to issues like crime and punishment despite what we know about psychology and mental health today. The list goes on and on. In previous years we would need to add issues like slavery and polygamy to the list (both of which are endorsed in the Bible).

This is obviously a huge problem. The Bible is of course supposed to make us more moral, not sear our conscience and make us immoral. However, as Pascal famously said, "Men never commit evil quite so gleefully and without restraint as when they do it in the name of religion." Looking at history we can see that this is true time and time again. People read the Bible in an unquestioning way and when it says to commit an act of violence and moral atrocity (like genocide, like capitol punishment, like child abuse, like slavery) they turn off their brains and consciences and do it "for the Lord!" with unbridled religious glee.

So when people seeing this problem become mistrustful about the Bible, they do so not because they are immoral but because they are moral. It's understandable in this context that the reaction of some is to simply discard the Bible all together. Or perhaps they discard the Old Testament where the vast majority of these problems come from. This was the reaction of the early church bishop Marcion. He found that the violent and angry depiction of Yahweh in the  Old Testament was simply incompatible with God revealed in Jesus, and so he tossed out the Old Testament altogether.

Marcion was declared a heretic by the early church because of this. They instead took the approach of reading the Old Testament war chronicles as spiritual analogy rather than as literal history. Now there's something very important to notice here: Both Marcion and the early church recognized that the depictions of violence and atrocity committed in God's name in the OT were indeed incompatible with Christ. Both rejected this and declared that if God actually commanded these things then that God would not be good, but rather as Origen puts it, "would be worse than the most cruel of men."

Neither takes a "God said it that settles it" approach, and both reject violence in God's name. Where they differ is in how they then understand it. Marcion thinks it was intended to be taken as history and rejects it. The church fathers (examples include Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and later Augustine) instead read it as spiritual analogy-- it's about the "battles" in our lives with things like pride or unforgiveness.

Now I certainly appreciate that both Marcion and the early church are wrestling with the immorality in the Old Testament, wrestling with a picture of God that would justify people to commit inhuman acts of cruelty, bloodshed, and oppression with religious zeal. However, I have to say that of these two options, I think Marcion's is the better one. Now, let me insert here that I think there is actually a third way of approaching all of this that is even better. However, the approach of the early church does not work for me for two reasons:

First, it clearly conflicts with the intention of the original authors. They were not intending to have what they wrote understood as a spiritual analogy. Such a reading would clearly get you an "F" in a course biblical interpretation in seminary. The reading of the early church is eisegesis not exegesis; that is, it is inserting a meaning into the text that was not originally intended to be there, and acting as if it was.

More importantly however is the second reason: It ends up whitewashing over the problem. This is a moral/ethical objection, rather than an academic one, and thus more important because it can lead to people being hurt. What we see in these OT passages is how religion can become abusive, leading to inhumane and morally appalling actions--genocide for Jesus, torturing and burning people alive for getting their doctrines wrong. We dare not whitewash over that by saying "it's just an analogy" as the early church did, nor should we attempt to erase it (as Marcion did). We need to face it, and we need to have the moral courage to question it.

That moral questioning is what  I see an increasing number of people doing, and I am glad to see this. However the place to start is in recognizing that we in fact have a huge problem: The way most of us have learned to read the Bible leads to justifying things that are simply immoral. What we learn in seminary frankly does not help with this (I'll get into that another time). However, what I see a lot of people doing is acting as if there really isn't a problem, as if the solution was simple and easy. As if it were a minor issue. If we need to adopt a completely different way of reading the Bible from the one we learned, then that is not simple... as much as we may wish it was.

It also does not help to uphold that we still believe that the Bible is "inspired" or "infallible" when we clearly have very different understandings of what that means than the person who advocates the hurtful immoral "plain reading" we are opposing does. 

The reason people who are arguing for a more moral way to read the Bible want to continue to use words like "inspired" is clear: they don't want to freak people out who are still on the fence, they don't want people to panic and run for the exits. I get that, and appreciate that we want to be careful here. The problem is that for those of us who are trying to work out how to read the Bible differently, how to read it morally, such platitudes are not enough. They are not practical. They don't show us how to read differently.

So what might these two very different understandings of "inspired" look like? I think Brian McLaren illustrates the differences well in a recent blog post of his called Q & R: A nasty piece about you. In it he contrasts two vastly different ways of understanding inspiration:

First we have the way of his neo-Reformed critic Tim Challies who maintains that inspiration excludes the possibility that anything in the Bible is "subject to error, evolution, antiquation, or reinterpretation." One wonders how that view is supposed to work with slavery if nothing can ever be reinterpreted. Why is it that we don't practice animal sacrifice if nothing in Scripture can ever be antiquated or evolve?

Brian instead proposes that we see the Bible as "an inspired library" where "stories quarrel with stories" and thus we witness error, evolution, antiquation, and reinterpretation in Scripture itself. 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.

Here contradictions are not mistakes. They are intended. After all, that's what a disagreement looks like. If there's a debate and someone objected, "but what this one person says contradicts what the other one did" you'd answer "Of course. That's what a debate is." The Old Testament is a catalog of debate, a record of opposing perspectives. So we find in it one story upholding interracial marriage which maintains that a foreign woman can be good and moral and that Yahweh will recognize her faithfulness and "shelter her under his wing" (the book of Ruth), and along side of that we find other stories that instead maintain that all foreign women are immoral and corrupting and command the Israelite men to cast their foreign wives along with their children into the night (Ezra & Nehemiah). 

Now since Ruth clearly (and intentionally) contradicts Ezra & Nehemiah we can't say that the Bible is free from error since one of them must be wrong here (hint: it's Ezra & Nehemiah). However, if we instead see inspiration as being found in the larger debate, rather than in particular verses or books, then we can affirm the inspiration of Hebrew canon as a whole which allows such dissenting voices to stand side by side, while at the same time being able to say that the proposals of Ezra & Nehemiah were wrong and immoral.

Now, if you are not aware of the fact that the Bible contains these opposing perspectives, and instead expect it to all fit together -- infallible and free from error or contradiction -- then this is of course super confusing. People thus go through all sorts of mental gymnastics trying to harmonize it all. But once you recognize the multivocal nature of the OT  it suddenly all makes sense.

The big picture here is that the Old Testament has many voices which present different and opposing views. Some moral and good, and some terrible and cruel. So we need to know which to pick. We cannot embrace and adopt it all, since it is intentionally contradictory -- it presents opposing perspectives and calls us to make moral choices.

The solution is not to just toss it all out (like Marcion) nor is it to pretend it is something that it is not (like the early church), nor is it to unthinkingly accept it all as neo-Reformed folks like Tim Challies do (which creates a schizophrenic Jackle and Hyde picture of God which is deeply unhealthy). These are all poor choices.

No, the solution is in joining into the ethical and moral debate found in Scripture. We need to learn to read the Bible honestly and ethically. My contention is that if we look at how Jesus read Scripture we can clearly observe that this was his approach. I demonstrate this in detail in my forthcoming book. As I argue there, we need to not only adopt his conclusions, but to adopt his approach, his way of thinking and questioning, so that we can use that to address the many issues in our day that he did not face in his. That's what following Jesus is all about.

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