Keep telling the story, despite God and despite ourselves

Tue, 06/11/2012 - 16:21

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.

  • 1. Kindle, loc. 1804.
  • 2. Kindle, loc. 1590.
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Lloyd Pietersen
Herald Press (2012), Paperback, 259 pages, $19.99

Comments

Lots to think about here.

In the biblical-Christian tradition God always has been and always will be a narrated God, a textual God, an interpreted God

Yes, and fortunately living outside the text as well. But does this validate all the ways in which the church has interpreted God through history? Not least, if you like, through a Christendom narrative? Especially in relation to church/state sponsored violence?

However God may have been seen and understood in the OT in its day, it has normally been the case that Christianity frames an interpretation of the OT in the light of the NT, and that goes for NT teaching as well as the narrative.

Even the Christendom church tried to accommodate this sort of interpretative process by developing a ‘just war’ theory, on the basis of which a great deal of the violence perpetrated by church/state contravenes its own principles.

I think the biblical narrative has to be interpreted through the life of its supreme narrative-teller, Jesus himself, who provided a great deal of re-interpretation in his own life and teaching. It’s not just a flat narrative which can be transposed to current practice from any given stage of its development.

Admittedly this does not provide satisfying answers to the required Canaanite genocide, but it does preclude using the OT as an unmodifed template for behaviour in the light of the coming of Jesus.

I also happened to catch part of the BBC Radio 4 programme referred to, and wished at the time I could have heard it all. The Roman Catholic church, that standard-bearer of a supposedly outworn and outmoded Christendom mentality, sometimes comes back to bite us with astonishingly contemporary and razor-sharp insights.

But does this validate all the ways in which the church has interpreted God through history? Not least, if you like, through a Christendom narrative?

The problem is, Peter, that we only validate from within the narrative, which means at least that we have to be cautious in our judgments. Of course, we think the Christendom church was wrong to ally itself to the state. But we come to that conclusion from a post-enlightenment, largely secularist, libertarian perspective. We are simply not making the same judgment that the Constantinian church or the Byzantine church or the medieval European church had to make.

I think the biblical narrative has to be interpreted through the life of its supreme narrative-teller, Jesus himself, who provided a great deal of re-interpretation in his own life and teaching.

But as I said in the post, Jesus appears not to have been a pacifist.

I suppose, calling Jesus a pacifist is as anachronistic as calling him a socialist or a feminist. But I still can’t see that Jesus in the gospels defends human use of violence. When his disciples use their swords in Gethsemane, Jesus corrects them. The swords were there for prophetic reasons–they were not actually meant to be used.

Andrew, what is your take on Girardian readings of the narrative of Jesus (like Denny Weaver’s “The Nonviolent Atonement”)?

Fredrik, my point is not that Jesus directly advocates violence. It’s that he expected violence against Israel as in some way an expression of the anger of God. The alternative would be to say that God failed to protect his people from their enemies.

No immediate take on Girardian readings. I don’t really see how we can take violence out of the biblical narrative.

My understanding is that penal substitutionary atonement makes sense within the Jewish framework—Jesus’ death anticipates the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, which was punishment of the people for persistent rebellion against YHWH. But what Jesus’ death achieves for the Gentiles probably needs to be construed in different terms.

If anyone’s interested, there’s a review of Weaver’s book by Telford Work here.

I don’t think we can take violence out of the biblical narrative. The problem of violence is at the core of the entire story, from Gen 4 onwards.

But I do think that a narrative reading of the Bible must allow the main characters, God and Israel, to evolve and change. God kills most people in the flood, but promises not to do that again. Other peoples are wiped out to make room for Israel in Canaan, but later in the story God’s judgment is focused on Israel itself. The book of Job tells a story of how both Job and God evolve and mature through their interaction.

God’s violence and anger should be read through the character of Jesus, God-in-human-flesh. Jesus is quite emotional, often angry. His anger is sometimes expressed in harsh language, but never in physical violence. He teaches his disciples that love of enemies is the measure of perfection in being like their heavenly father. His love and anger brings him to the cross. In Jesus, God’s answer to violence is resurrection, not retribution.

A systematic-dogmatic reading of the Bible has problems with a God who changes his mind. But a narrative reading expects precisely that. Isn’t that the point of narrative reading?!

The problem is, Peter, that we only validate from within the narrative

Do we? I think most believers would say they validate not only from within the narrative (which is a slightly strange way of putting things), but from their own experiential witness and that of God’s people in history, which has interpreted the narrative.

If the question were raised of whose or which experiential witness, it is argued that the witness most to be trusted is that which most closely resembles the witness of Jesus as the model, and the NT church, through the apostles, who most authentically demonstrated the character and ministry of Christ in their lives, and the principles which emerge from the ministry.

This control, or test, of how the narrative is to be interpreted, is no longer applicable to your interpretation of it. As you say in your most recent post, “we have moved on from Jesus”, which is relevant in the immediate context of the remark as well as, more alarmingly, in the broader trajectory of your narrative interpretation.

If the question were raised of whose or which experiential witness, it is argued that the witness most to be trusted is that which most closely resembles the witness of Jesus as the model, and the NT church, through the apostles, who most authentically demonstrated the character and ministry of Christ in their lives, and the principles which emerge from the ministry.

Doesn’t that rather contradict your first paragraph? The experience is interpreted from within the narrative, with reference to the narrative.

I also made the point in the article that the narrative is a continuing one. It is not confined to the scriptures. “This story includes the brutal conquest of Canaan. It includes Christendom and the crusades.” This is the worldview—though really we are talking about worldviews—from within which Christians inevitably make sense of their personal and corporatre experiences of God.

You quote me as saying “we have moved on from Jesus”. Would you mind pointing out where? I can’t find it.

I can’t find it either. I think I probably meant to quote:

The story does not begin with Jesus and it does not stop with Jesus

from “Reading the parable of the mustard seed after Christendom”. Your statement here only suggests that “we have moved on from Jesus”, so it was incorrect of me to quote you as if verbatim. I do apologise for this.

Your statement is only correct in one sense: which is that Jesus’s life and actions are part of a broader narrative, and that this narrative extends before and after his earthly life and ministry.

In another sense, your statement is misleading. This broader story does in fact begin with Jesus, as the prime agent of creation - John 1:1, 3, 9-12; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2. He was present during the Exodus wanderings - 1 Corinthians 10:4. As it’s difficult to date NT literature precisely, one can argue over Jesus’s continuing involvment in the story post AD 70, though Acts 1:1 suggests this is the case, and would continue to be the case throughout Acts and the letters.

The story does end with Jesus though it doesn’t “stop”, in the sense of the continuing activity through history of Jesus in the church, of which Jesus remains an integral part. This end comes in a nexus of events, a continuum which includes birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, outpoured Spirit, spread of the kingdom, continued opposition, and second coming. The “end” here is creation renewed, at first in part, then by a climactic event totally. This interpretation says that Jesus brought about not only the end of second temple Judaism, but the end of the old creation, and the beginning of the new.

This isn’t your view at all, but I think it is a better narrative interpretation, just in the interests of balance.

Isn’t it possible the Old Testament God’s bloodthirstiness is really attributable to the human authors? That one reason God became man is that we kept getting HIm wrong, He came in part to show us who he really is? That the Hebrew warriors justified their rape and mass murder with “God told us to do it”? Anyway, I think along those lines….

Hi, Dan. Many thanks for your comments.

One problem with the approach you suggest, it seems to me, is this. By what criteria do we decide what is of human origin and what of divine origin in the Old Testament? I’m not sure we can even appeal to a New Testament standard. I think it is clear that a central theme in Jesus’ prophetic ministry was the prospect of dreadful destruction and loss of life as an outworking of divine wrath against Israel. To put it bluntly Jesus’ God is just as willing to “use” violence as the God of the Old Testament. How much of a difference is there, either theologically or morally, between God judging Israel by means of Babylon or Rome and God judging the Canaanites by means of the Jews? That rather suggests that what we are really doing is filtering out the dark side of the New Testament material on the basis of a modern post-enlightenment worldview that cannot tolerate the thought that God engages in violence. That may be a legitimate and necessary recourse, but we need to be honest about the hermeneutical sidesteps we are making.

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