Sunday, July 31, 2011


There are few things that almost guarantee a yawn than reading something about method. Telling other how one does anything, from putting up a tent to reading a book, is by its very nature dull stuff. All the same, I think a few comments are in order in light of some of the comments made on yesterday's post.

It shouldn't need to be said that when we are reading the Bible, we are reading an assortment of literary styles, written over hundreds, even thousands of years, collected together in its final form over 1800 years ago, in languages that are no longer used. Except, of course, it does need to be said. It shouldn't need to be said that the people who wrote and edited these various writings carried around with them, usually without even thinking about it, all sorts of things - ideas, assumptions, mores - that are completely foreign to contemporary readers. Except, of course, it does need to be said. It shouldn't need to be said that reading and interpreting and appropriating any part of the Bible is always a provisional thing, a process that is never complete, and to be done together as a community in conversation (even heated conversation!). Except, of course, it does need to be said.

The discovery of history as a category to be applied to human society is a relatively recent invention. It was first applied as a critical tool to the Christian Scriptures in the newly invigorated Prussian University of Berlin. While it is not correct to claim, as many have, that prior to this little critical reading of Scripture existed - one need only consider the careful textual analysis the High Scholastic applied to various received texts to determine authorship to understand the error of this view - what became known, in its first incarnation, as Higher Criticism took a new approach to the Bible. While never calling in to question the inspired nature of the works under scrutiny, in treating the Biblical texts as the specific products of a specific people in a specific time and place, historical criticism put a distance between them and contemporary readers. This distance needed to be bridged through careful study, attention to revealing details, and an understanding of the many things we do not know about the authors, let alone editors and compilers, of the works. This space created both problems and opportunities for people of faith; by relativizing the textual witness, we can understand our own always partial grasp of the experience of faith and its subject. We also, of course, raise the specter of privileging one perspective over another - either that of the text, or of ourselves - in the process.

It is important to keep in mind that the historical critical method, as it grew and developed, was itself a product of certain historical forces, unstated assumptions, and specific to a time and place - a newly reformed Prussian Kingdom yearning to break free of the choke hold of the Holy Roman Empire. In the tragedy and triumph of the Napoleonic Wars, many saw the hand of God moving the give the German people a land of their own. The triumphalist philosophies of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling became reimagined and reworked in Hegel's works, which saw in History the movement away from barbarism and toward true humanity and freedom. In the 9th Symphony, Beethoven - whether he understood it or not - expressed this same sense of triumphant renewal and possibility.

Inherent, however, in all these various intellectual and artistic movements were sinister moments, minor notes among the major themes. Antisemitism is rampant in the writings of the moralists Kant and Fichte. The naked nationalism of Hegel, the inherent superiority of the German people over other nations and races is "proved" through the movement of the Idea expressed in History. The discovery of history was as much about proving the superiority of the present moment over the past as it was recognizing the simple, banal reality of temporal distance creating social and cultural difference.

Historical criticism, then, carries as much baggage as any intellectual movement, is limited in how far it can take us in to any text (Biblical or otherwise), and recognizing and acknowledging that is an important part of using it.

I always find it fascinating to read people who use the Bible to support odd ideas. Leviticus to support discrimination against gays and lesbians; the admonition that women are to give birth in pain as punishment as justification to keep anesthesia from them; St. Paul's letter to Philemon to justify slavery. What is fascinating to me is not only the lack of critical acumen involved in doing this. It is also the absence of any theological hermeneutic. The purpose of Scripture is to give to ever-new generations of the faithful an account of the original witness to who God is, by showing us how God interacts with humanity. We see a piece of that puzzle when we read the Bible. It helps us, if we are faithful and carry on the tradition of reading and figuring it out together, to fit our own piece in to the picture that is not yet finished.

It is important to recognize the limited nature of the Biblical witness. It is necessary to insist that the description of the LORD's presence and action as given in the passage from 2 Samuel quoted yesterday is socially and culturally light-years from us. It is important to call it what it is - a view of the Israelite's God, carried around on his little wooden box throne from place to place - of a piece with ancient views of deity. It might even be necessary to note that the story in question - the striking of Uzzah for daring to reach out his hand to the Ark of the Covenant - an example of a kind of magical thinking about divinity that is completely foreign to us.

Historical criticism can tell us these things. If we stop there, however, we are only telling part of the story. Unless we are willing to insist that this story, for all that it comes from a time and place and people who ways of thinking and living bear no relationship to ours, the story becomes unintelligible. It becomes historical artifact, rather than living testimony to the living God we profess in faith. The story becomes an interesting piece of historical fiction, rather than something that tells us who God is. It isn't enough to proclaim historical continuity between the faith of Israel and Judah and discipleship to Jesus Christ, if we are unwilling or unable to claim texts which are strange, or socially or morally offensive, or simply unintelligible (try reading Numbers and making sense of most of it, which is little more than a census roll, interspersed with legends and tales of the Israelite "murmuring" against God) for our living faith today.

The very different example is the way texts from Leviticus are used to justify bigotry against sexual minorities. No matter how hard pressed to justify lifting these texts above the rest, the only thing we continue to hear and read is that, having been included in the Bible, they are there for our instruction. My own view is slightly different. Yes, the texts are in the Bible, but it would seem ludicrous to lift just these couple verses and privilege them above all the others, when the church jettisoned the rest of the Levitical code almost from its founding. At the same time, it is necessary to acknowledge, in both sorrow and repentance, that they are a part of our Scriptures. We cannot ignore them. We cannot set them to one side, or explain them away. We are called to wrestle with these texts, no less than those we find more acceptable, less offensive. We cannot dodge the reality they exist as part of the Bible anymore than we can dodge the triumphal calls to military slaughter in Joshua, or the talking donkey in Judges, or Lot's wife turning to a pillar of salt.

It is never easy to make sense of the writings in the Bible. Anyone who says otherwise has never really tried. It is necessary, however, if one wishes to be faithful, to use whatever critical tools are available, to take the texts seriously as witness to the Divine life with creation. In order to make sense of who this God is whom we claim to worship, we need to be willing to refuse to privilege our own prejudices, even when we so clearly see the prejudices of others. We need not to set aside whatever we may call texts of terror. To do so, for me, betrays a fear of confronting our own faithlessness in the face of offense to our own sensibilities, sensibilities we so easily see as limited in others.

Virtual Tin Cup

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