I spent a very enjoyable day last Saturday listening to Lloyd Pietersen talking to a mostly Anabaptist audience about his book Reading the Bible After Christendom. One of the strong points that he makes in the book and made in the conference is that we have to take the biblical narrative as it is, warts and all, the rough with the smooth, come rain or shine, God of love and God of war. We cannot simply excise or allegorize or ignore the problem texts. I think he is right to insist on this.
Telling the story despite God
It is very troubling—especially to Anabaptists—that YHWH is sometimes depicted in the Bible as a violent God. The Canaanite “genocide” is the obvious instance. Pietersen considers various attempts made by interpreters to deal with the problem: the evil of the Canaanites was sufficient justification for the invasion; there is no archaeological evidence for the conquest anyway; the biblical account is overstated in keeping with “literary conventions of the day”; and the victories were really achieved by miraculous intervention rather than by military force.
But whatever validity we may attribute to these explanations or excuses, we “still have to deal with the actual presentation of Yahweh in the text and recognize that this presentation has informed the violent action of Christians throughout Christendom”.1
Pieterson’s solution to the problem comes in two stages. First, he argues that the violence of God must be allowed to stand in the text, but that it is not the last word on the matter:
If Jesus is the supreme revelation of God… then the non-violence of Jesus must be the ultimate arbiter in the complex and ambiguous characterization of Yahweh.
So in the end the God of the Bible can be affirmed as “nonviolent, shalom-inspiring”, but “we have to recognize that this God has a violent (textual) past”—it is, in Brueggemann’s phrase, “a crucial residue of YHWH’s character”.2
Secondly, Pietersen suggested at the conference, in response to a question, that a distinction has to be made between the God of the text and the God to whom the text refers. So presumably, while he would insist that the textual God has a violent past, the real God—the God to whom we respond here and now in our hearts—somehow transcends his own story and is only the God revealed in Jesus as loving and peaceful.
That raises a number of questions. For a start, is the God revealed in Jesus so loving and peaceful? What did Jesus mean when he said that he came not to bring peace but the sword (Matt. 10:34)? I think he meant that he came not to bring peace but the sword. Certainly, he insisted that his followers should turn the other cheek, but it cannot be said that his Father in heaven was all sweetness and light. The wrath of God against Israel would be a bloody awful business.
Moreover, as someone in the audience pointed out, if you accept that the God of the Bible was at times violent, it is difficult to argue that Christendom was theologically at fault when it sent its armies to fight under the banner of the God of Jesus Christ. It’s not just that the Old Testament narratives inspired European Christian war-mongering in one form or another. Narratively speaking the God of Christendom was the biblical God.
The point I want to make here, however, is that this distinction between a textual God and a real God is itself problematic. How are we to live with two Gods? What normally happens is that the God of the Bible is assimilated to the God in whom we believe, to whom we relate through worship, prayer, and service, which is why we excise, allegorize or ignore large sections of the biblical narrative. That’s one way of resolving the tension.
I would suggest, however, that a narrative-historical theology would flip that around. The “real” God in whom we believe would be assimilated to the “complex and ambiguous” God of the biblical narrative.
The story is always being told. In the biblical-Christian tradition God always has been and always will be a narrated God, a textual God, an interpreted God. It is only modernity that fools us into thinking otherwise.
Before we are believers in God, we are believers in a particular story about God, and even when we say that God has revealed himself to us or that he lives in us through his Holy Spirit, even when we try to say that our God is real, what we really are doing is telling a continuing story about the Creator God who raised Jesus from the dead. This story includes the brutal conquest of Canaan. It includes Christendom and the crusades. And it includes the shocking failings of the churches today.
Telling the story despite ourselves
We tell the story despite God sometimes, but we also tell it despite ourselves. The Catholic Church has not been many people’s favourite hidebound, antiquated, authoritarian, morally suspect institution recently. But in a BBC article and Radio 4 programme Matthew Taylor observes that in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 Catholic thought has suddenly become rather fashionable.
In the UK at least, politicians and social theorists have been picking through the waste bins of history in search of alternative traditions or ideologies out of which a new vision for society might be forged. One of the things they have come across, apparently, is the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which Pope Leo XIII “offered the ‘gift’ of Catholic social thought to a troubled world”.
I don’t want to make too much of this—I don’t know too much about it. But I think it illustrates a simple missional purpose. The church has been entrusted with the “good news” that the Creator God raised Jesus from the dead, and it always tells that good news as part of the long troubled story of a people chosen to be new creation in the world.
We can debate, of course, whether or to what degree modern Catholic Social Teaching is a proper outworking of the biblical narrative, but there can be no doubt that Christian social existence should somehow embody ideals of justice, fairness, and mutual respect.
The story is a “complex and ambiguous” one; it has always been the source of considerable controversy; and the church has only sporadically lived up to its calling. We tell the story despite ourselves. But we have to trust that it is worth telling. That is what we are here for.