Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Faith, Text, Tradition, and Community, Part II: On the Non-Hagiographical Memory of God's People

This is the second part of a series listening to David Plotz's witness concerning reading the entire Hebrew Bible, start to finish, and coming away "not a believer," so to speak, yet still somehow engaged with this God and this text. In Part I I discussed the particular Jewish emphasis, not on "choosing" to "believe in" this or that God, but instead on being part of a people who have no other than Yahweh with whom to do.

In this post I would like to discuss an issue raised by Plotz (writing as a secular Jew raised in synagogue), namely his remarkable discovery of the unseemly character of the "heroes" of the Bible. Growing up Plotz most certainly did not hear of Jacob "the con man" or David "the mercenary" or Joshua "the slaughterer," etc. These were the "heroes" of God's ancient people, men of character, men to be emulated by God's people today. Ooh-rah!

I suspect a similar attitude and stance is taken toward these "heroes of the faith" (we have our own phrase, courtesy of Hebrews 11!) by Christians teaching children and adults alike. And by "suspect" I really mean "know," since it has been my own experience, and because it bears out in the language and ethics of the church at large. I recall a famous pastor referring to the fact that David was a "man of God" and thus a kind of bloodthirsty violence in males must give God pleasure. I recall also a popular book in which the male author asked rhetorically whether Jesus was more like Mother Teresa or William Wallace ... the implied answer being both/and, not either/or. (Formative moment in my teenagehood: my youth minister pointing this passage out to me and naming what was wrong, not only with the comparison, but with the framing of the question at all. Thank God for faithful youth ministers.)

Anyone raised in a church knows this phenomenon, especially for boys. (It's easy to dismiss or demonize the women of the Bible. The men, by men, a bit harder.) David the man after God's own heart (and oh, his mighty men!), Moses the Giver of the Law, Abraham the Father of the Faith, Jacob the shrewd, Solomon the wisest of all, Samson the super crazy awesome strong (and his ladies!), Josiah the young and faithful. All to a man, examples in the long line of godly men in God's people, whose stories were written for us to know right godly life.

Now, of course this is an exaggeration. No one preaches or teaches David and Bathsheba or the binding of Isaac or Jacob and Esau without at least some acknowledgment of the questionable morals in play. Too often, however, it is either a brushing over or an easy moralizing. That is, we are told either "God ultimately ordained this so that..." or "God can use even an adulterer for his purposes..." Even here, something like Jacob deceiving Isaac or fooling Esau out of his birthright might go by untouched, simply because it is mostly untouched in the text.

The worst forms of dealing with these passages reside on the polarities of conservative and liberal churches. The former will often baptize actions unremarked upon by the text, so that David's or Joshua's violence gets the Christian Stamp for Christian Ethics. On the other hand, liberals often simply ignore the stories. Why deal with Dinah's rape or Sodom's destruction or Ezra's mass divorce decree when all it will do is cause problems?

In the words of Richard Beck, I want to plant two nonnegotiable poles into the ground of my theological interpretation of these kinds of problematic stories.

1. These stories are in the Bible!
2. These stories are not hagiographic; neither should we be.

Regarding the first, we cannot simply rid ourselves of these stories, either by explaining them away, easy moralizing, authorizing similar actions, or ignoring them. Scripture is our lifeblood, the determinative account of God and God's creation and God's people and God's purposes. What God's ancient people remembered about themselves, God's people today cannot forget.

Regarding the second, however, we cannot be simplistic readers and hearers of the text. Israel had a profound ability to remember ugly stories about its heroes and leaders. Its very namesake, Jacob, stole his birthright! David was hired for mercenary work by the Philistines! Hosea married a prostitute! Abraham sent away his mistress to die in the wilderness! Joshua destroyed entire cities and every person in them, man, woman, and child. These are not stories for the faint of heart. Yet Israel remembered them and put them into writing for future generations to continue to remember. We cannot come with simple ignorance or easy explanations; this is complex stuff, and we do injustice to the storytellers and scribes who gave us these stories if we do anything but take them as seriously as they take themselves.

And that gets to the heart of the matter: These are not stories for the faint of heart precisely because they are stories about real life as it is lived by real human beings. The Bible's role as such a potent force in the lives of so many people correlates exactly to just how "true" its characters feel, how much we can find ourselves in Jacob's deceit or Sarah's jealousy or David's lust. Fortunately, in his reading Plotz found these "ambivalent figures" a positive discovery, finding "that messiness ... joyful, and challenging." Similarly, I think his honest response ought to be a clarion call to churches to teach these stories exactly as they are: stories about real human beings -- imperfect just like us, courageous just like us, terrified just like us, faithful just like us. Loved, and storied, and peopled, just like us. Wonderful, just like us.

Now, this is not a call, again, to teach merely that "these guys were pretty bad, but God uses even sinners!" There is truth in that, but it can easily become a shallow truth without meaning or import. We cannot merely address the obvious "sinning" texts, like David's murder of Uriah or the rape of the Levite's concubine, or else we lose our moral integrity as well as truthful engagement of Scripture. We demean and underestimate and undersell those under our care, whether children or adults, when as teachers and preachers we do not treat the text with the utter seriousness it demands -- and all of it so. It does not matter whether God authorizes an action, or the text remains silent or even commends an action -- if we are squirming, or our listeners are squirming, or something doesn't quite click, we cannot let it slip by. I am utterly convinced -- and this is something Plotz seems to understand yet I would also want to emphasize with him further -- that God's word found in Scripture, brimming over with majesty and awe and death and horror, full of holes and questions and answers and healing, is meaningless, is lost, is incomplete, devoid of the kind of honest, angry, curious, perplexed engagement that does not let the text off scot free. The word is living and alive, our birth right and birth certificate. The mysterious and ineffable triune God revealed in Israel and Jesus is simply not that easy. His people, their stories so flawed and so strange, are neither easy nor "good" in the traditional sense of the term. But they are our stories, and we must own them, and wrestle with them. It is our duty and vocation as followers of Jesus.

I end as I did Part I, wrestling with the text like Israel's namesake wrestled God. It is a difficult metaphor to escape in such a discussion, and I see no reason to try. These non-hagiographic memories tell us something. May we have the courage, and may God give us the grace, to take up the task of discovering that something.

[Pictures courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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