Saturday, January 12, 2019

Why are we reading these stories?

It was a strikingly honest question. “Why are we reading this?” 

My Wednesday morning Bible study has spent most of the past year working its way through the stories of the Old Testament, using an abridged Bible  called “The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God’s People.”  Even in this modern-reader-friendly format, the stories we are reading have been, at times, shocking. For those who generally think of the Bible as a source of encouragement and comfort, the stories of Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Pharaoh, the liberation from Egypt and the conquest of Jericho, do not align comfortably  with modern expectations of a God who reliably rejects violence and offers a big warm and fuzzy welcome to everyone. The question, “Why are we reading this?” was the dismayed reaction to the story of Samson, in which every time the Holy Spirit comes upon the hero, a horrific slaughter follows. 

The Bible is both wellspring and challenge to faith. It is impossible to imagine being a Christian without the Bible. How could we be faithful without the Gospel stories to teach us about Jesus, or the guidance offered by the letters of Paul? How could we be authentic Christians without the poetry of the Psalms, the promises of the Pentateuch, or the warnings of the prophets to help us turn our lives in a Godward direction?  The Bible is the root and ground of what Christians believe, an unshakeable foundation in an uncertain and unsteady world. A Christian who does not read the Bible is, in the words of Jesus, like a seedling that springs up in shallow soil, unable to survive, much less thrive, when conditions are less than ideal. 

But the Bible is also a product of another era and a very different world view. The people who first shared these stories had never encountered archeology or geology; they had no written records to verify even such basic facts as the date and place of someone’s birth; they had no idea what made people ill or why some people got better and some didn’t. They lived in a world where violence was common, nature was unpredictable, and everyone assumed that good fortune came from pleasing the gods and bad fortune from angering them. The stories they told reflected the way they made sense of that reality and the way they encountered God in the midst of the world they inhabited. The differences between their world and ours can leave us wondering whether the God they encountered has any relevance to us, or even whether those divine encounters were really just a product of their ignorance of bacteria and plate tectonics. 

The temptation is to respond to those challenges like Thomas Jefferson, and excise the parts we find unbelievable or difficult, to turn the Bible into a collection of inspiring and uplifting quotes by removing the stories that depict God in ways we find unpalatable and alarming. But doing so removes the necessity of confronting difficult questions about our faith and our relationship with God, and leaves us unprepared for times of loss, pain, and anger, when a warm-and-fuzzy understanding of God is not sufficient. 

In her book, The Rock that is Higher: Story as Truth, Madeline L’Engle recounts how in the immediate aftermath of an accident in which she was severely injured, it was the stories of her Christian faith that gave her strength to endure. Reflecting on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ betrayal and death, and especially Jesus’ crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” she writes, “This is the story that gives meaning to my life, that gave meaning to those draggingly difficult days in the hospital and if it isn’t story it doesn’t work. The life-giving, lifesaving story is true story that transcends the facts. … In the hospital in San Diego I didn’t get much comfort from facts.” Faith is necessary for the part of the story that stretches our credulity — a story of the Creator of the universe being born as a tiny baby, “totally human and simultaneously totally divine.” But it was this incomprehensible, incredible part of the story that gave her what she needed in the midst of pain and loneliness. “Who wants a comprehensible God in the aftermath of an incomprehensible accident?” she writes.

The Bible gives us not just happy stories of people whose prayers have been answered, but also stories of people whose cries of anguish seem to have gone unheard. It gives us stories of blessings and abundance, and stories of famine and suffering. It shows us people sure of their path, and people wandering lost in the desert. No matter how blessed we are, sooner or later one fo those stories of loneliness, loss, and abandonment will be relevant to each of us. Life involves as much struggle as joy, and if the only stories we read and treasure are the ones that assure us of God’s presence when things are going well, how will we know where to look in life’s barren moments? 

But finding the value in some of these stories isn’t easy. Take that story of Samson, for example. Not only does Samson come across as a Grade A idiot, the Holy Spirit’s primary contribution seems to be to drive Samson into a frenzy of violence. Far from the ideal emissary of a gentle God who urges us to love our enemies, Samson is a brutal and violent man, whose violence is not only excused but sanctioned. How are we to find any redeeming value in such a story? Surely the ancient storyteller was wrong, and the Holy Spirit had nothing to do with any of this, because how could anyone think God would sanction that? 

A couple weeks later, though, I watched the 2018 movie Samson, from PureFlix. The movie itself isn’t going to win any awards: the acting is pedestrian and the plot predictable. But it reminded me that context matters. Sure, Samson still comes across as a young idiot, but his foolish decisions are cast into the context of a young man deeply in love, thwarted and humiliated by a cruel and arrogant man. While the book of Judges tells us that “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for 40 years,” it doesn’t describe the circumstances in detail.  The moviemaker, however, has imagined the situation as slavery to cruel masters, who torture and murder the innocent at will.  In that setting, Samson’s violent responses to the Philistines’ various evil acts are those of a freedom fighter refusing to submit, a war hero mowing down the enemy in order to save the men of his platoon.

The movie raised at least as many questions for me as it answered. The movie portrays Samson’s pacifism as resistance to God’s will for him: can violence really be God’s chosen solution, ever? How do we tell?  What about Jesus’s teaching that we are to love our enemies? Are the Philistines really more evil than the Israelites, or are they equally oppressed by unjust leaders? If the latter, do they deserve death and destruction?  But at the same time, it also made me realize that I would hear this story very differently if I and my family lived under the constant threat of torture and death. A hero miraculously given the power to destroy those who tried to kill me and my children would, indeed, be God-sent. 

It is my deep and fervent hope that Samson will never really speak to me, or anyone around me.  I pray for a world in which Samson is always horrifying, to everyone, everywhere.  But to simply throw the story away because it doesn’t speak to me here and now is to ignore the many oppressed people over the centuries who have found in it encouragement that God is present in the midst of their oppression, and will act to free them. Who am I to say that God is not, even now, lifting up a champion for a people unable to fight back against their oppressors, a hero who will overthrow those who cruelly misuse their power by might of arm? Wouldn’t that be a life-giving, lifesaving story for those who have no hope of rescue?

I don’t know for sure. But I do know that because the Bible is full of stories, it is adequate to the whole of human experience — the uplifting and beautiful and the desperate and despairing and everything in between. Unearthing its wisdom requires discernment, and a willingness to consider that possibility that while Timothy may be right that "all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16),  some parts of it may not be for us, or our particular situation. Sometimes we should hear warning where others hear encouragement, and vice versa.

And I am confident that we need to read these stories, if only to keep us from complacently assuming that God loves us best and will never let anything bad happen to us, no matter how badly we transgress. The very stories we least want to read are probably the ones we should study most carefully, lest we forget that while God loves us all, we are promised judgement as well as mercy. These stories might stop us from continuing to do evil in the sight of God while we reassure ourselves with words of comfort meant for those we have harmed. 

At the Museum of the Bible, one of the exhibits invites vusitors to write a word on a digital tablet to describe how reading the Bible makes them feel, which are then projected onto the walls in a collage reminiscent of end-of-year word montages on social media. Most of the words floating around the room the day I was there were words like, “peaceful,” ‘happy” and “encouraged.” After a few minutes, I added mine: “challenged.” And I think that’s a good thing.