Monday, March 29, 2010

The Bible: Friend or Foe?

On another forum someone wrote: "What I cannot comprehend is how this collection of fables and myths [the Bible] has evolved into the infallible word of a creator" and cited Nahum 1 (among others) as an ethically deficient text.

What happened, I would submit, is that the biblical documents and the oral traditions and social movements for justice that lay behind them were so powerful, and constituted such a threat to the powers that be, that the powers HAD to reckon with them somehow. So they did all they could do to hijack and subvert the interpretation and application of these texts. From Constantine to Karl Rove this is essentially what we see. This hijacking has been very successful and has become easier to maintain the more temporal and cultural distance separates readers from the original context, and as interpretations alien to the original contexts have been repeated so often for so long that readers no longer follow the original drift of the conversation. Imagine a Victorian era literary critic who has never lived in, say, late 20th C. Detroit, trying to understand rap music. "Oh my, what crazy nonsense...and EVIL!" would likely be the all too hasty and dismissive conclusion. The result is that neither today's fundamentalists nor those dedicated to combatting them--both carrying out an Enlightenment agenda of arriving at true and provable propositions that is alien to the original purposes of most biblical texts--are reading with much sensitivity.

But over the last 40 or so years biblical scholarship has made great strides, through historical investigation and the application of social science insights, in shedding light on the social circumstances in which biblical texts were written, edited, and reflected upon. Unfortunately, you won't hear much about this from the journalists, op-ed writers, pastors, priests, etc.--the folks on whom most people depend for their understanding of the Bible--who have yet to catch on. But some of the scholars who have sensitized me to these developments include Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, Warren Carter, Reta Halteman Finger, and others.

The above-named scholars disagree, of course, on many particulars, but they would all affirm the following observation that I think is crucial for reading and applying the Bible responsibly today:

The Bible was written in the shadow of empire, as the title of an excellent book on this topic suggests. Most of the Hebrew Bible was redacted in final form at a time when the Jews were living as exiles in Babylon, or not long after. Many of the stories and traditions are the preservation of a culture's distant memory of living under the thumb of Egypt and the oppressive system of tribute it imposed. Norman Gottwald argues that ancient stories of the Exodus and Conquest, for example, are a distillation of centuries of resistance by Hebrews who sought refuge in the highlands of Palestine against the rule of Canaanite and Philistine client states of the Egyptian tributary system. These stories are applied by later redactors and their exilic and postexilic readers to their situations of living under Babylonian, Persian and Greek domination, and they are applied yet again by people of Jesus's generation to the context of Roman imperial oppression.

So what do we do with a text like Nahum, in which the prophet pronounces violent divine retribution against Ninevah, home to the throne of the Assyrian Empire? The background is that the prophet and his readers live under the thumb of Assyria, whose leaders boast that its empire and oppressive system are invincible and inevitable. But, as Walter Brueggemann writes:

"The prophetic imagination knows that the real world is the one that has its beginning and dynamic in the promising speech of God and that this is true even in a world where kings have tried to banish all speech but their own. The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there."

Read in this light, this passage speaks hope to the oppressed. It affirms that the Assyrian Empire, contra the claims it is continually making about itself, is NOT the only or final reality. There is a LARGER REALITY that will bring it to an end. To be sure, the passage expresses a people's inevitable rage. And is there really no place for affirming such feelings in the large scheme of things, in the light of the biggest picture analysis?

But we must not read a text like this in isolation from the larger ongoing biblical conversation. Balancing the rage of Nahum 1 is the scandalous generosity of the Book of Jonah (one wonders how this book that preaches love toward the oppressor could ever have been written and gained acceptance--maybe there ARE divine miracles!) and the vision of "win-win" universal peace and justice throughout the prophets. Moreover, by the time we get to the New Testament, all the violent imagery is taken over and transformed via poetic irony as a metaphor for the power of faithful nonviolent love and service to overcome the corruption and brute force of oppressive systems like that of the Romans. For example, in the Apocalypse (the word means to reveal the true nature of something), Jesus, understood to be the prophesied "lion of the tribe of Judah" who would come and save God's people from their enemies, is revealed to be a gentle sacrificial lamb. The twelve tribes counted and loved by God are revealed to be an innumerable ethnically diverse multitude. Faithful nonviolent and just living is called "victory" (a word with violent military connotations in the Roman context). And the peaceful Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and preached peace is portrayed metaphorically as having more power than a Roman emperor, filling a valley with the blood of horses and soldiers. (I wish to thank Brian McLaren for solidifying this insight into the meaning of violent imagery in the Apocalypse.) The overall message is that there is a place for rage but that energy has to be transformed into gentle, persevering loving service that will change the world in the way that quiet yet forceful yeast transforms a lump of dough.

So back to Nahum's scorched earth rhetoric against Ninevah.... The Assyrians, like all ancient empires, justified their oppression via religion, with its army of priests and thought police. (Sound familiar?) The oppressed Hebrews fought back, saying Yahweh, the transcendent "I am" who is beyond subordination to any nation's interests or agenda, will not let oppression ultimately prevail. In Nahum, this is expressed as "Yahweh's gonna torch ya!" Beneath all the mythical and poetic dressing, the original bottom-line significance is really, "Hey, this business of establishing equity for all instead of this hierarchical pecking order society that the Assyrians are imposing is important--damned important!" Thousands of years later, some child-abusing leaders in the Catholic church come along, and they may want to give "red-hot" texts like that a different spin: "Don't f*** with us, or God will do this to YOU!" But I hope what I have said shows the perverse absurdity of that. So long as we listen attentively to the original contexts, and keep in touch with the broader biblical conversation, we should stay out of trouble.

And we will turn that "troublesome" collection of ancient texts back into the powerful resource for justice that it was originally meant to be. So when we come up against all the evil of corrupt religion, which is a more authentic and effective response? To debunk the biblical texts that corrupt powers have hijacked and ripped out of context to serve their own interests? Or to expose the hijack, and bring the full original anti-imperial force of the biblical conversation to bear? To fail to do the latter, IMO, is to squander an incredibly powerful resource. As we face practical and moral crises greater than any humanity has ever faced--nuclear weapons, corporate domination and global oppression, climate destabilization, etc.--we cannot afford that. We need all hands--atheists, agnostics, Catholics, evangelicals, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.--on deck. My experience is that once you see the anti-imperial thrust of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, and a number of pieces start falling into place, you cannot live long with it without caring very deeply about these matters.

One more thing. Which "Bible" am I saying needs to be reclaimed and applied to the great struggles of our day? The tendency of many today who want to overthrow corrupt religion is to debunk the biblical texts that church establishments have accepted and used in their own interest, and to play up other "lost books" that were "suppressed." But many scholars believe the latter to be mostly later gnostic texts about Jesus that were farther removed from Jesus and his closest friends. Moreover, some have argued that they lack the anti-imperial narrative of the traditionally accepted texts. But, if that is so, why would an empire-imitating church accept and affirm such texts as the Pauline epistles and the canonical gospels if, properly understood, they indeed undermine the interests of the corrupt religious establishment?[1] I would submit that corrupt religion, like any shrewd mafioso, knows the importance of keeping your most dangerous enemies close. So you gotta accept these books that most people associated with the original Jesus, and then take their claims about the supreme importance of justice and subvert and harness them to support your own claims to absolute authority. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that the later gnostic texts just weren't in that playing field:

"We should note, as of some importance in the early history of the Bible-reading church, that those who were being burned alive, thrown to the lions, or otherwise persecuted, tortured and killed were normally those who were reading Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and the rest. The kind of spirituality generated by 'Thomas' and similar books would not have worried the Roman imperial authorities, for reasons not unconnected with the fact that 'Thomas' and the similar collections of sayings are non-narratival, deliberately avoiding the option of placing the sayings within the overarching framework of the story of Israel. It is sometimes said or implied that the canonical books, unlike those found in other collections, were written as a way of making early Christianity more socially and culturally respectable. Irenaeus, who returned to Lyons as bishop after his predecessor had been martyred along with several other Christians in 177, and who remained an implacable opponent of the kind of theology found in 'Thomas' and similar writings and an enthusiastic supporter and expositor of scripture, would have found such a proposal grimly amusing. As his writings make abundantly clear, it was the canonical scriptures that sustained the early church in its energetic mission and its commitment, startling to the watching pagan world, to a radical holiness."

(N.T. Wright, The Last Word (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), pp. 63-64.)

Hope this is food for thought, at least, in support of a point of view that is not getting as much airplay in the usual popular channels as I think it deserves. Your comments will be most welcome.

[1] I am not suggesting that any particular statement of a church father or council affirming books of what is now considered the "canonical" Bible embodied this hypocrisy. On the contrary, the spirituality of people like Athanasius was on the whole exemplary. I am suggesting that the trajectory of corruption present at all times in the history of the church and coming to flower over the centuries could neither officially expunge the accepted Scriptures nor tolerate their original and authentic force. So long as the people were kept in the darkness of illiteracy, corruption could flourish unchecked by any appeal to Scripture. I think the Reformation, the Enlightenment, aspects of the more moderate expressions of postmodernism, and the relatively recent flowering of historically and anthropologically informed critical scholarship mentioned above, have all contributed in their own ways to unleashing the original power of the Bible in opposing unjust powers.