Saturday, January 03, 2015
Jump to Reader Questions, part 1
This time well take a look at the question,
"If Jesus is the key to identifying what moral vision to embrace in the Old Testament, why not simply read the New Testament and discard the Old?"
Let's begin with the idea of a "canon within the canon." Pretty much all of us do this. For those from an Evangelical background like myself, there are certain parts of our Bibles that are covered in multicolored highlighters and underlines, and other parts that have none. Mainliners are the same. Phillip Jenkins notes that the liturgy readings in Mainline churches systematically have left out violent parts from the Scriptural readings. So the fact is, we all, in one way or another, "vote with our feet" and end up for all practical purposes having a very different canon within the canon, based on what we feed ourselves on, what we spend time with.
I think that is probably healthy. What I stress in Disarming Scripture is that need to honestly face those violent parts that so many of us ignore. We need to do that because they have been, and continue to be, used to justify harm in God's name. They illustrate how religion can be used as a vehicle for evil. They thus shine a light on us, and how this is a human temptation we all must be aware of.
That does not mean however that we should read passages that promote hurt (like the genocide narratives) as part of our devotions. Here I'm reminded of Paul's words in Philippians,
"Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." (Philippians 4:8)
I can certainly also understand that people would want to focus on New Testament, rather than on the Old. After all, the New Testament is not multi-vocal in the way the Old Testament is. So doesn't the New Testament provide what we were looking for? Isn't it our source for the right answers from God?
The problem is when this is done from the perspective of unquestioning obedience, history demonstrates that it has led Christians to endorse the institution of slavery based on an unquestioning reading of the New Testament.
That is, if we read New Testament, hoping that we now have all the right answers, which we can follow unquestioningly, we are placing ourselves on path towards violence and hurt. Not because the New Testament promotes things that are wrong, but because we missread it.
Here's the bottom line: The issue is not ultimately between a bad Testament and a good New Testament. On a much deeper level the real issue is that even when we read something good, if we read it unquestioningly and without understanding, this inevitably leads to harm. We therefore need to learn to read everything like Jesus did, with the approach of faithful questioning motivated by compassion.
This is true even for the words of Jesus. An unquestioning reading of the words of Jesus has led some Christians to perpetuate cycles of domestic abuse, in a tragic attempt to be faithful to the way of self-sacrificing love.
The answer therefore is not to find a perfect text that we can read unquestioningly, but to learn how to faithfully question ourselves, our culture, our religion, and our sacred texts.
This is what Jesus models for us, and as his disciples it is simply not enough to thoughtlessly copy his answers, like a poor student copying answers to a test without understanding them. We need to understand what motivated Jesus to ask the questions he did; we need to learn how to think morally, critically, and creatively as Jesus did.
The simple fact is, obedience absent of reflection or understanding inevitably leads to abuse. We therefore cannot unquestioningly follow the New Testament or even Jesus. Rather, if we really want to follow Jesus we need to learn to adopt his method of faithful questioning motivated by love and compassion. Jesus does not want us to blindly obey him (making us into a sort of Jesus-Pharisees), Rather, he wants us to really get what he is saying and learn to question injustice and work towards compassion as he does.
As moral agents, we must not unquestioningly accept whatever the Bible says (including the New Testament). Nor should we accept without question whatever our culture says is right (whether from the left or the right). Rather, we must learn how to step into the dispute — both within the pages of the Bible, and in the public square — and make our case for what is good. This is exactly what we find Jesus doing in his time. For those of us who call ourselves his followers, we need to learn how to do the same in ours.
Next time I'll address a question that get's at the very nature of how we understand Scripture,
What is Scripture? What is that which is referred to as "God's word" (though I now understand that Jesus is the total expression of God, not the Bible)? Why did the OT writers record the things they did as if it were commanded by God's very spoken word if they were in fact wrong and what they were doing was something which could only have been inspired by a voice or force of darkness?Go to question #3