A biography of the Bible and the loss of peace

I read Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammed while we were travelling in Iran recently and enjoyed it greatly. If we close our minds to the subsequent history of Islam and make allowances for the necessary realpolitik of the survival of the early Muslim community and the imperative of recovering Mecca, we encounter in her portrayal of the Prophet a plausible and engaging spiritual leader with a vision to forge an elemental compassionate monotheism that would probably appeal to many Christians today struggling to find their way out of the intellectual and cultural labyrinths of modern Evangelicalism.

So enthusiastic was I about the book that my wife bought me Armstrong’s The Bible: The Biography, which is part of Atlantic Books’ ‘Books That Shook the World’ series. It’s an accessible history of the Jewish/Christian Bible, written from Armstrong’s rather conventionally liberal, mystically inclined, popularising perspective. It interests me because it is clear that New Perspective readings of the New Testament – if they are to be taken seriously by the church – raise difficult questions about how or to what extent a historically constrained narrative can be formative for theology and praxis today. I don’t expect Armstrong’s history of the Bible to answer that question directly, but a bit of historical background doesn’t go amiss – and so far I have enjoyed her account of the emergence of a ‘biblical’ consciousness in the history of ancient Israel.

I have quoted the last paragraph of the introduction below, however, because it touches on the theme of shalom. I will be in Brussels next week with a group of people from The Well, looking at how the life and mission of their community throughout the coming year might be informed by the idea of shalom.

Originally, the people of Israel had achieved this ekstasis [she means the religious experience of transcendence and completeness] in the Jerusalem temple, which had been designed as a symbolic replica of the Garden of Eden. There they experienced shalom, a word that is usually translated ‘peace’ but is better rendered as ‘wholeness, completeness’. When their temple was destroyed, they had to find a new way of finding shalom in a tragic, violent world. Twice their temple was burned to the ground; each time its destruction led to an intense period of scriptural activity, as they sought healing and harmony in the documents that would become the Bible. (7)

Two thoughts struck about this argument. The first is that the quotation reminds us that shalom is not an abstract or internalized ideal. It is bound up with the experience of a historical community – and I would argue that this is as true for the New Testament as it is for the Old. The story of ‘peace’ in the New Testament is the story of the reconciliation of an estranged and beleaguered people to God and of the restoration of a creational wholeness, which is always to be lived out concretely, socially, communally and historically.

Secondly, it seems to me that the church is again going through the loss of shalom – the loss wholeness, integrity, well-being, prosperity – as a consequence of the destruction of the ‘temples’ of Christendom by the amassed forces of modernity, and that this has again led to an intense period of ‘scriptural activity’, not least in the form of the New Perspective’s endeavour to recover the historical, pre-theological, pre-Reformational dynamics of the New Testament. In order to safeguard faith and negotiate the difficult transition into a new age, in order to construct new foundations for peace, we necessarily embark on a massive reappraisal of the biblical narrative.

Jim Hoag | Fri, 09/24/2010 - 04:01 | Permalink

Andrew,

Glad you are back and a great post. This statement was such a huge clarifier: "and that this has again led to an intense period of ‘scriptural activity’, not least in the form of the New Perspective’s endeavour to recover the historical, pre-theological, pre-Reformational dynamics of the New Testament". It just lends more clarity  to the "why" of the incredible theological transition/excitement our church leadership is experiencing. Not sure why, but it also reminded me of Phyllis Tickle's statement that "Every 500 years the Church holds a giant rummage sale and casts off the things that restrict its growth..."

But anyway I have a question: you said, "In order to safeguard faith and negotiate the difficult transition into a new age, in order to construct new foundations for peace, we necessarily embark on a massive reappraisal of the biblical narrative". It appears like embarking on a "massive reappraisal of the biblical narrative" is somehow able to "safegaurd our faith, negotiate the difficult transition into a new age, in order to construct new foundations for peace". How does a massive reappraisal of the biblical narrative get all that done?  

Jim, thanks. I suggested on the back cover of my Romans book that there’s a connection between the decline of Western Christendom and the development of a historically oriented exegesis that can be seen to maintain rather than abandon the ‘evangelical’ and missional dynamic of the New Testament.

Phyllis Tickle’s approach is interesting, and there may well be something in the 500 year cycle thing; but I think it overlooks the theological significance of the disintegration of European Christianity in particular, which is not a 500 year old story but a 1700 year old story. I think that the New Testament (indeed, scripture as a whole) fundamentally predicts or aims at or finds its primary telos in the victory of Christ over European paganism. But if that’s the case, where does it leave us now that this victory has been reversed?

I suspect Tickle represents a more American perspective that sees itself as distinct from rather than entailed in European Christianity.

As for your question, I don’t mean to suggest that all it takes to make the transition to the age to come is to retell the biblical story. But I do think that it constitutes a necessary first step – that it must be in some way foundational if we are to remain in viable continuity with scripture. I think it’s necessary in order to understand who we are as the people of God, as the family of Abraham. I think the pre-Christendom interpretation of the New Testament that I outlined above gives us an important insight into the fundamental nature of the current crisis – Reformed theologies offer us no guidance at this level because they are trapped within that limited 500 year cycle. I think the narrative-historical approach helps us to recover a sense of the church as a community that must respond to the vicissitudes of history on the basis of faith.

And a whole lot more…

 

Andrew thanks for your response. You said, “Reformed theologies offer us no guidance at this level because they are trapped within that limited 500 year cycle. I think the narrative-historical approach helps us to recover a sense of the church as a community that must respond to the vicissitudes of history on the basis of faith”.

I'm not exactly sure what you meant (enjoy anymore clarity) but the thought I got was maybe Reformed theology perpetuates the Tickle “cycle” because it just keeps on returning us to the need for another “rummage sale”, allowing us to think by doing so we are getting rid of the “unnecessary” when instead we are just getting re-energized about the same schematic but dressed in more contemporary, even missional, garb; e.g. the Reformed/missional approach of Mark Driscoll. When Scripture is located within a narrative/historical framework, rather than a hyper-systematic grid, maybe it can help stop (among other things) the ecclesial redundancy that comes when you don’t take off 16th century spectacles or move beyond the eschatological horizon for which Jesus prepared His disciples. What a blessing to be getting located properly in time, dealing with a final, future horizon consisting of the absolute renewal of creation. This instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, whether it be fighting the ecclesial/theological wars of the 16th century or reenacting the eschatological crisis of the early centuries. That just wears you out.