Sunday, April 14, 2013

Scripture's Trajectory: You Are Known; Be Holy

Everybody interprets texts.  Interpreting texts means, among other things, determining the trajectory of the texts.  Where are they coming from, and where do they point us?

When it comes to the Bible, we've all been shaped by it, and we all have ways of responding to the pressures it has exerted while shaping us.

The early creeds try to maintain considerable latitude for how we regard the scriptures.  For instance, the Nicene Creed says "We believe in the Holy Spirit...who has spoken through the prophets."  Just how has the Spirit spoken, and what are we to make of that?

I'm grateful for those early Christians who, like St. Augustine, acknowledged that the scripture may have several senses.  The Spirit does not speak in monotone, but in harmony, and the scriptures may sing several parts at once.

I was born into a churchgoing family, but we didn't spend much time talking about scripture.  As a teenager I joined an independent church with charismatic and evangelical theology, and it was there that some of my strongest impressions of scripture were formed, in the presence of people who believed that the Spirit's voice in scripture could still be heard timelessly.  While I've since grown away from that church, the idea that God speaks through scripture has stuck with me.

So not only has it shaped my life indirectly, I have sought to make myself open to it, to let it teach and guide me.  Its songs and poems comfort me in hard times, and give me words when I want to express my joy and gratitude.  The prophets help me to name the compass-points toward which my heart stretches.  Its narratives offer opportunities for reflection on lives lived well, and poorly.  And while I've made no attempt to keep all of its commandments, I find in them rules and principles that help me to live a life of "long obedience," to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche.

They give me doctrines, too, ideas about the world that make sense to me and that I don't think I could have formulated on my own.  Creation, fall, and redemption; nurturing love, sin, and grace.  I doubt I could explain any of these in perfectly clear and agreeable terms, but even in their vague forms (perhaps especially in their vague forms) they help me to make sense of the world.

But there is more.  I take the Bible to be not just a collection of books, but a collection that holds together.  The Tower of Babel in Genesis and the Tongues of Fire in Acts go together just as the Garden of Eden, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the tree-lined streets of the New Jerusalem go together.  The stories of fathers and sons from Adam to Abraham, from David to Joseph, all fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; no two are alike, but taken as a whole, a larger picture forms.

This, I believe, is why the work of studying scripture matters to the communities that claim to be people of those scriptures.  Putting together the puzzle is the work of our lives together.

Which is not to say that I think God is a cruel puzzle-maker.  To say that would be already to have sorted out the puzzle.  I'm not fond of jigsaw puzzles--when I was younger I couldn't understand why I would purchase and subject myself to an unnecessary problem.  Why not just buy the picture before it's cut up?  But there is real joy in playfully and willingly choosing to tackle a problem together.

So here is my small contribution to our work together: I don't think the scriptures are simply about rules and doctrines.  Let's assume that God inspired the Bible; if so, and if God only wanted to deliver doctrines, God is not a very good writer.  There's a lot of fluff in there that doesn't contribute directly to our list of rules.

If, on the other hand, God wanted to create a community of love and wisdom, I'm not sure there's a better way than by giving stories and poems, and by getting personally involved in that community, sharing its joys and its sorrows and its work.  And if God wanted to make people who would not just obey but grow up into love and wisdom, all the more so.

This is why I take the Bible to be giving us a set of narratives that hang together, forming not a complete story but a story that is like a set of signposts, or a finger pointing in the direction we should travel.  We are not static automata, nor should we strive to be.  We are pilgrims with progress yet to be made.  As in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, a loving maker wants a lover, not a lifeless statue.

More than once I've heard facile criticisms* of the Bible saying, in effect, the Bible got slavery wrong, therefore the Bible is wrong.  But this is as flatfooted as saying that the U.S. Constitution got slavery wrong, and therefore the Constitution is wrong.  I take the Constitution to be a good document, and part of its goodness is the way in which it allows us to grow in our understanding.  As Thomas Aquinas said, no positive human law will ever suffice for all time; we will always need to be legislators striving to codify and live what is good.  We should not expect to arrive at our destination under our own steam; but we must try.  As the Talmud says, "It is not your job to finish the work but you are not free to walk away from it."** There is still interpretive work to be done.

When I was younger, I took the Bible to be saying that women should not hold positions of ecclesiastical authority.  As I have grown older, I've learned more about the cultures in which those texts were written, and it seems to me that quite the opposite conclusion could be drawn.  In Genesis 3 God tells the woman, "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you."  But this is in the midst of a curse, not a blessing.  The text that precedes it tells us that both man and woman were made in God's image, and that they walked the same ground as God.  This is the intention, the blazed trail.  Somehow we have walked in another direction, and that's what Genesis 3 describes: the horizontal relationships have been turned on end, and just as God has become hidden to us, so equality has eluded us.  Now we know the task is to seek God; surely, then, our task is to seek to restore all of those broken relationships, to practice tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

The Book of Job illustrates this same principle regarding women: in the beginning, before he sees God, Job's daughters have no property.  After he sees God's face, Job gives his daughters an inheritance equal to their brothers'.  In John's Gospel, Jesus obeys a woman, his mother, in performing his first miracle.  Who is the first missionary Jesus sends out?  It is a woman, and one rejected by her society because of her sin.  Who first announces the Resurrection?  Women.

Even stodgy old St Paul acknowledges he was taught by a woman.  And some of those passages of his that have been used to justify inequality strike me as taken very seriously out of context.  The famous line in The Epistle to the Ephesians, "Wives, submit to your husbands," comes in the context of a long passage about everybody submitting to everyone else, and is followed by a very long passage about husbands acting as their wives' humblest servants.  And that line where St Paul says to Timothy "I do not permit a woman to speak in church...women must learn in quietness and full submission" is directed to a culture where boys went to school and girls did not.  The boys already knew how to learn "in quietness and full submission" to the one reading the text.  It looks to me like St Paul is saying "tell the women that their education matters every bit as much as the men's education; don't let them miss out on this opportunity just because their culture has told them they are inferior.  Their culture is wrong."

I could be wrong about all this, but I'd rather be wrong on the side of giving people too much credit, too many opportunities, and too many rights, than on the side of giving others too little.  If I have to stand before God and apologize for what I believe (as I imagine I will) I'd rather apologize for having too much love and too much trust than not enough.  Was I wrong for receiving the Eucharist from a woman priest?  I'm sorry, but I trusted God was able to deliver the sacrament through all sorts and kinds of unworthy vessels.  After all, as Paul writes elsewhere, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ.  The old distinctions that seemed to matter so much?  Once we, like Job, see the face of God, we might see that we are all made in God's image, regardless of outward appearances.

Which brings me to my conclusion.  Last week, a young woman in my community wrote a stirring blog post about marriage.  I don't think I know enough to say very much that is wise about this matter other than what I've already said.  The story of marriage in the scriptures is, it seems to me, a story that comes to us in pieces that need to be fitted together carefully, by a community.  Marriage, after all, is not just about the marriage partners, but about the community that endorses, acknowledges, and protects it.  In my church, at least, when two people are married, they act as priest to one another in making their vows - making this a unique sacrament - but this is usually done in the presence of a gathered community that then promises to honor and support their union.  The "pieces" of marriage found in the pages of the Bible include polygamy, forcibly taking war brides, marriages of political convenience (e.g. Solomon), marriages predicated on economic necessity (e.g. Ruth), arranged marriages, marriages of love.  And even divorce and remarriage - though the Bible often has particular vitriol for divorce and for the "hardness of heart" that may sometimes cause it.  We don't get a rule; we get a trajectory.

That "first missionary" I mentioned?  You can find her story in the fourth chapter of John's Gospel.  She had been married five times, and was living with another man when Jesus met her.  As far as John tells us, Jesus didn't rebuke her for this, or command her to live differently.  Instead, he just let her know that he knew about her, and he continued to speak to her - something no one else in her town would do, apparently.  (Even Jesus's partially enlightened disciples were astonished to find him speaking to such a woman.)  He let her know he knew her, and for her, this was revelation enough.  She returned to her town and told her townspeople that she was known by the Messiah.  This was her Gospel.

And what a Gospel it must have been to her, that she was willing to go into the town that rejected her and tell everyone she met, everyone who hated her, that there was Good News.  You may hate me, but I am known, and I am loved.  Go hear for yourselves.

As I said, I'm no Biblical scholar, and I'm swimming in deep waters here.  But what if we saw the stories in the Bible as offering not a simple rule but pieces of a puzzle, arrows pointing in the direction of knowing and loving one another?  I'm not arguing that same-sex marriages would be free from sin; I am arguing quite the opposite, in fact, because I imagine that probably every marriage of every sort (including those that aren't called marriages) is full of unkindness and the other fruits of sin.  So the task before us is, once again, to love one another, and to try to be holy.

Perhaps, rather than trying to shape laws, the church should be trying to speak a word of grace, one spoken with our lives more than anything: be holy.  As you know holiness--as you are known by Holiness--work to embody it in your deepest loves.  When we focus on trying to shape laws, it makes it seem that laws and power are what we most love.  When our focus is on singing the joyful song of those who have chosen to try to be holy because they believe they are known by their Maker, we cannot be mistaken for people who are trying to control others.  We become people who are captivated by the beauty of holiness and grace. 

Again, I might be wrong, but might it not be that the whole creation is groaning to hear such a word as this? You are known.  Be holy.


*  Dan Savage made this claim last year; I don't think he's altogether wrong in his conclusions, and I think he's trying to do a lot of good, but he and I have different approaches to scripture, and his strikes me as hasty and dismissive.  This is unfortunate, because there are few texts like the Bible when it comes to power to transform societal beliefs; and because attacking the Bible doesn't help win over those who believe it.  If you don't like the popular interpretation of a text, attacking the text is not as helpful as offering a serious, scholarly rival interpretation.
** Pirke Avot 2:21


  1. Thanks, Dave. I wonder if we might add "you are fully known and you are fully loved: be holy." This simple response to such a radical grace is truly the most profound and reasonable act of worship.

  2. Something to think about (if you have not already) and something I thought about while reading:

    In the Old Testament there are a lot of commands to be perfect or blameless and descriptions of things having integrity or being without blemish. (see Psalm 15:2, Ex 12:15 and etc.)All of these commands and description come from the same Hebrew word- תָּמִ֥ים. This word also means whole or entire. (see Psalm 119:80, Ezk 15:5, and etc.) So, behind all of the commands to be perfect is the physical metaphor of wholeness. Gospel writers like Mathew would have known this. So when Mathew commands us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, there likely is a call to wholeness and oneness of community in God behind it.

  3. When I receive two thoughtful comments from women who know more than I do, I can only acknowledge with gratitude your contributions. Thanks, Andi and Brooke!

  4. While I have been beaten down by abusive interpretations of scripture, I don't wish to reject the Bible, but instead want to see it through a more hopeful lens. This post and those like it by others are incredibly healing to me. Thank you.

  5. I'm glad to hear you found this helpful, Tamara. May the healing that is going on in you continue to perfection.