This morning I read an article reporting that several Agatha Christie novels have recently been edited to remove potentially offensive language, including insults and references to ethnicity. Similar edits have recently been done to works by authors Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and Mark Twain. It got me wondering what might happen should such similar efforts be directed toward our sacred scriptures. It would certainly make for a much quicker read!
This spring I have hosted three retreats for rostered and lay leaders where we have delved deeply into the scriptures under the gifted direction of Rev. Dr. Matthew Anderson, a biblical scholar and pastor of our church who serves as the Director of Camino Nova Scotia and lecturer at St. Francis Xavier University. Our theme title was “A Midnight Guide to the Bible: examining the scriptures through murder, sex, money, mistakes, #MeToo, and real estate!” It was not your typical bible study!
In case you’ve not yet noticed, there’s quite a lot of nasty stuff in the bible; stuff that typically doesn’t show up in our neatly bundled three-year lectionary of readings. Our default mode of dealing with such passages, when they do show up, is to quietly ignore them or to engage in forms of theological gymnastics that seek to defend, justify, or explain away actions which some of us can no longer equate with Godly behaviour. We need to do better than that.
A few years ago, I read an article wherein the author was exploring the question of violence in the Bible. The author referred to a piece written by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber where he reflects on Samuel chapter fifteen, where Samuel tells Saul that God has commanded him to wipe out the Amalekites – to kill every “man, woman and child, infant, ox, camel and donkey.” To be clear, God is commanding a genocide; plain and simple.
Buber’s response is a simple one. He writes, “Samuel must have misunderstood God. I cannot hear the word of God in these verses.” There is no attempt to justify, explain or defend. Samuel must have got it wrong because this is not God that Buber had come to know and experience in his life of faith.
So how do I reconcile the apparent contradiction between the God we encounter in different parts of the Bible? In short, I guess I don’t! I no longer feel compelled to try to reconcile these different and contradictory images of God and of the faith responses of those who would claim to be God’s people. I don’t disregard them. In fact, I accept them and try to learn from them. I accept them as being honest and faithful expressions of a religious tradition that is always moving, always in motion, and always in apparent possession of new truths and new understandings that can be quite different from those of our forebears.
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ This immortal first line to L. P. Hartley’s THE GO-BETWEEN suggests a helpful posture by which to approach the scriptures, particularly those portions that are most distressing and disturbing.
We can’t change or edit the scriptures. That would be both unfaithful and intellectually dishonest. We can, however, explore them, honestly, critically, and reflectively, not from a posture of arrogance and judgement, but rather of one of deep humility that seeks understanding. We don’t take the Bible literally, but we do take it seriously trusting that even the nasty bits have something to teach us!