Monday, 25 April 2016

Just because it's in the bible doesn't make it right

A disclaimer, before we begin here. I love the bible. I believe it tells us about God, it invites us and teaches us to live under God,'s rule, it has wonderful images and ideas, pictures and stories about God and us. I believe the historical narratives in the bible are theological reflections on events. I hope I have made my position clear...

I like to read the bible every morning and night, and in between sometimes too. In my personal reading I've been going through the book of Isaiah recently. A few weeks ago, I was caught off guard by one verse tucked away in this book. Isaiah 19:16 says,

   On that day the Egyptians will be like women,  and tremble with fear before the hand that the LORD of hosts raises against them.

 Maybe you're already shocked too. But just in case you're not with me, here's why I was shocked. This verse talks about God's impending judgement on Egypt, using the image of the Egyptians as women who tremble with fear before the raised hand of a (male) figure. The word 'women' here is the same Hebrew word that is most frequently used to talk about a wife in the Old Testament. The Inge, therefore, could be that of a husband, striking fear into the heart of his wife with his hand raised, ready to beat her. The fear, perhaps, is based on terrible experience...
 My difficulty with this text is not that God would strike like this. That's up to God. My problem is that both the prophet Isaiah, and his audience, would be so familiar with this image. After all, if it's not familiar, the simile doesn't work. It depends on the audience's awareness of the image. And so, it made me think about whether the 'practice' of wife-beating was widespread (this I don't know). And is this image of God, then, ok?
 I mean, how many of us think domestic violence is ok?
 I'm really hoping the answer to that is very few indeed.
 And so, we see how easy and necessary it is to critique the text, and to realise that what may have been acceptable then is not acceptable now. Just to go over that again, I realise that the bible is not commanding domestic violence here, but in some ways it could legitimise it (since it is a valid image for God's judgement). Maybe I'm overthinking it, but aren't we in 'cosmic child abuse' territory here?
 We can't allow the bible to endorse or justify any kind of oppression or violence or abuse.  Even when the text says it.
  The thing is,the bible is not timeless. It is time-bound, and it was written at specific times, by specific people, in specific places, to deal with their specific history and their specific experiences of God.
 But the bible always has something to say to us. God can always speak to us through the words of scripture. The bible is not timeless, but timelessly timely, as one hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) scholar has put it (I forget which one!). So, what the bible has to say is not always the face-value reading.
 This calls for a critical reading of the bible. We can critique the culture in which it was written. It is not honouring to the God or the people of the bible (characters, writers, communities) to treat the words as final, once and for all. It's not helpful to simply transplant views and values, beliefs and behaviours, doctrines and deeds, from the biblical context to our own. A tutor of mine used to say that if the good news isn't good news for everyone, it isn't good news. So, when we com to a text, we need to ask, is this liberating, or oppressive? In what ways is it life-giving? Does it show God's character and kingdom?
 Let's remember, Jesus was quite prepared to challenge the received wisdom on scripture, when he repeated the formula "You have hear... But I say..." I don't believe Jesus was trying to undermine scripture, he was reinterpreting it in ways that brought life more abundantly. Jesus was not afraid to challenge scriptures and interpretations thereof that were designed to exclude or oppress. At times, we see Jesus even setting aside some parts of the Law, in favour of showing a better picture of God's kingdom of love and grace.  But he could do this because he knew both the bible and God's kingdom, inside out.
 The call, then, is for us all to get to understand both better.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

All traditions were new once

As someone who does a lot of thinking, who loves coming up with ideas, wondering how things could be different - theologically progressive, ecclesiologically an innovator - that sort of person, I find myself sometimes at odds with traditionalists, who might not get or buy into all the change or new ideas.  However, it occurred tome recently that all traditions were new once. A tradition is simply something that is passed on, and someone started it sometime, somewhere. Like at school, when someone whispers something to the person next to them and says, 'pass it on'.  Rarely was it indisputable fact, unless you went to a really clever and studious school...
In the same way, traditions are always started off by someone who has an idea. At the time, it may be revolutionary. Imagine the person who came up with the wheel, they probably laughed at her/him. They probably got rejected by the Stone Age version of Dragons Den. But look at how that ended up.
I once heard a story about a young man, maybe in his very early teens, who complained that the songs in church were boring and irrelevant. So he started writing his own songs. Lots of them. I expect they were not well received by all at the time. But 300 years later, we all know them and many of us love them. The boy was called Isaac Watts. One of my favourites of his is 'When I survey the wondrous cross'.
When wereadthe Gospel accounts, we regularly encounter these pantomime baddies called Pharisees. The thing they are often criticised for - not least by Jesus - was their tradition, and their devotion to their traditions. They are presented as inflexible, conservative, closed-minded. But the origins of this group within Second Temple Judaism was actually the opposite to how we find them in the New Testament. This group emerged as a liberal movement, who believed that the Law, the Scriptures, did not speak for themselves in the contemporary culture, and so they started to interpret the Law, creating volumes of commentary on the Law, which became basically small print to help ensure that the Law was observed properly. So these guys were liberal, in that they wanted to make the Bible make sense in their culture. That, in fact, is a founding principal of classic Liberalism, the quest for a theology that makes experiential sense.  The trouble is, often very fluid or provisional interpretations, working theories, become cast in stone.
That's a problem we often encounter in theology. Theology is the study (ology) of God (theo). Now if one's theology never shifts, then one's understanding or experience of God doesn't either. In a sense, a theology that is closed, fixed, is presumptuous, in my view. It suggests we know all we need to know about God, or even that we know everything about God. Of course, such a presumption would usually be unconscious.
Anyway, I think theology can only ever be provisional. Like a scientific theory, if new observations, new data, disprove the theory, we can adjust it. That's not to say we give up our faith convictions. But it is to say maybe we don't need to hold tight to so many propositions.
To return to my initial point, all traditions were new once. This applies to traditionalists and progressives alike. New traditions often start as correctives to existing ones. Think of revolutions and reformations. And while we're there, let's remember that many totalitarian regimes started with revolutions. Many dictators stood for and fought for freedom first. Today's liberals may be tomorrow's conservatives. In fact, liberals can sometimes be the least liberal towards other people's views. So, not all traditions are bad, and not all change is good. But neither is all change bad, nor all traditions good. Let's be open to try new things and old ones. Let's learn from one another about faithfulness to what got us where we are, and fearlessness of what will get us to where we might go.