The clownfish Nemo has been netted in the open seas, just off the reef that he calls home, and imprisoned along with a number of other exotic tropical creatures in a fish tank in the office of a Sydney dentist. In addition to the humiliation of their captivity, they face the threat of being bagged and committed to the unsafe keeping of the ghastly, destructive child Darla.
This is a metaphor – or a parable. Nemo and his friends in the tank are the key elements of Paul’s theology in Romans: gospel, wrath, salvation, righteousness, faith…. They have been forcibly decontextualized and confined to the artificial and very modern environment of a personal narrative, whose end is the assured salvation of the individual. As if that affront to their dignity were not bad enough, if they do not escape soon, they are likely to meet a wretched end at the hands of a brutish and careless secularism.
The point is not that these beautiful creatures have been rendered meaningless – they have been kept alive, and to some good; but they have been diminished, misrepresented, misunderstood. So what can we do to ensure that they are returned to the surging, expansive sea of history? Here are some suggestions.
1. Begin by imagining what the sea must be like. Journey there in your mind. Travel out to that distant reef and plunge in, just to get a feel for the dense, cold, heaving, murky reality of first century Jewish history. We have got so accustomed to looking at fish in tanks that our minds have been reduced to the same boxed, angular dimensions. Much of this is just about a change of perspective.
2. History is a sea of texts. The Bible is just one of them. We cannot expect to make sense of its complex biology if we ignore the world in which it exists, the unique ecology that produced and sustains it. So we should read the Jewish Scriptures and the diverse literature of Second Temple Judaism; we should read the laments over the destruction of Jerusalem; we should read Josephus and the classical historians of the era; we should read the Fathers of the early church, looking not for dogmatic generalities but for the signs of a clash of worldviews and cultures. We do not learn much about a clownfish by watching it swim through a little model of a submerged classical arch.
3. Fish in a tank are idealized specimens in an idealized, regulated environment – they are how we imagine life in the sea to be. The water is clear, aerated and filtered for contaminants, the floor of the tank is decorated with colourful plastic coral and miniature pirates’ chests, the weed is carefully managed, there is no decay or death, no predation, no disease. In our minds we need to shift from an idealized, regulated theology to a non-idealized theology; we need to abandon the bright neo-platonic forms, the simplistic narratives, and immerse ourselves in the struggle, which was Paul’s struggle, to make theological sense of difficult, ambiguous, disorienting historical phenomena.
4. Keep in view the stupendous backdrop of the reef and the wide ocean. The big words that Paul uses refer not to abstract or inward or spiritualized essences; they refer to prominent, large-scale features in the political-religious seascape of his world. Wrath is the judgment of God, the decisive intervention of God, against corrupt Jewish and pagan cultures; Paul’s gospel tells of historical transformation to come, when the righteousness of Israel’s God will be demonstrated; and faithfulness is what will get the harassed, ostracized, vilified, persecuted community through this difficult transition.
5. It may help, in fact, to chart the underwater topography. Mark the prominent features on a map: the gullies, the outcrops of startling coral, the banks of sand, the overhangs, the caves, and the shipwrecks – above all, the shipwrecks! Paul’s Letter to the Romans must be situated purposefully in a narrative landscape of salient events: the return from exile, the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes, the Roman invasion of Judea, numerous futile uprisings against imperial rule, the expulsion of the Jews from Rome by Claudius, the pogrom against Christians under Nero, the shipwreck of national Judaism in the war of AD 66-70, the sporadic outbursts of intense persecution across the empire during the early centuries, and the final defeat of the ancient gods in the fourth century.
6. Don’t be bullied by ordinary Reformed folk – the well-meaning dentist and the less well-meaning Darla of Nemo’s world – who tell you that Romans means what it has always meant since the sixteenth century. Claim the moral, theological and hermeneutical high ground. Stand up for what is right.
7. We need to repent of our abuse, our modern complacent domestication, our diminution, of the subtle, elusive, extraordinary creatures of Paul’s submarine theological world; and we need to do what we can as eco-theo-activists to restore them to their natural habitat, where they can flourish and grow big and dangerous again.
8. If people say that we have to keep these fish in a tank or modern city-bound people will never get to see them, tell them that they do not understand history. Tell them to stretch their minds, buy a boat and scuba gear, take the risk of venturing out on the open sea, and plunge into that alien world. Get to know it better. It may be that the rising ocean of history is about to overwhelm our shallow, low-lying modern faith. What good will our down-sized, reductionist, self-centred, privatized theologies do for us then?