During April, I wrote a series of 5 posts (the first of which is here) chewing on how we might understand some of those difficult passages of the Bible which appear to portray God as a mass murderer, who commands rape, child sacrifice and even cannibalism.
For example, this one. Mass murder, mass rape- but the keeping of a trivial oath- all in the name of the living God.
I began by considering some apologetics- here. There were some glimmers of hope of explanation, but on the whole, I found the business of trying to explain away the contradictions of a violent, murderous loving God (as apparently described in the Bible) impossible.
Next I chewed a little on the way Jesus seemed to deal with the hard judgmental, ‘scriptural’ truth that religious people hit him with. I noted that when he talked about the truth that would set you free, he did not seem to define this truth by a narrow interpretation of the written words that were handed down to him.
Next, I wondered about this word ‘context’- and how we needed to attempt to understand the nature of the cultures and historical times that the Bible stories emerged from- often violent, bloody and dynastic. Inevitably reading the Bible like this is a slippery slope towards liberal re-interpretation (as any good Evangelical will tell you.) I am sliding…
Then I got into a bit of a philosophical ramble about the nature of truth- which to be honest, did not help much. The basic conclusion that I suppose I might take from all this is that truth is almost always nuanced, subjective, debated and interpreted according to perspective.
Finally, I wondered about hell and listened to Francis Chan suggesting that our understanding of hell may well be a rather recent invention.
I am no theologian- although I have been trying to make sense of this stuff for most of my life, so I suppose this might give me some personal source material, even though I lack the breadth of study. But I think the time has come for me to commit myself to some soft conclusions arising from the above.
Soft- because they will be imperfect, and incomplete. They will need to be reviewed and be open to challenge and modification.
Soft too because it is so easy for conclusions to become self referential, self sustaining, and the bedrock for further and more lasting distortions. Perhaps it is even impossible for this NOT to happen.
But conclude I will, because (as discussed in a previous post about (un)belief) I think it is time to step aside from the deconstruction of faith, and start to build again.
So here are my shallow, portable foundations- you could even say the flat surface for my fragiletent-
The stories in the Bible are open to our interpretation, to our questions even to our doubts. They are open in this way because God is open in this way. God is bigger than our understanding, or the understanding of the ancient writers of the Book.
There are many way to approach a reading of Bible passages- context is important, but Brian McLaren lists 10 other ways here– we have got stuck with a either/or approach- either literalism or myth. Perhaps we need to address this tired polarity by giving other things a try for a while.
This might steal away the mystique and sacred from the Bible for some- but this might be a good thing, as we could have stumbled into a kind of idolatry, where we venerate a book, rather than who the book is about.
In trying to approach the book with this mindset, there are countless potential beartraps and cellar stairs to fall into. So we need to start with the body of knowledge within the church- both recently and more ancient. But be prepared also to work our understandings out as (Rollins again) “faithful skeptics”. And we should do this in community.
We do not need to have the answers to all of our questions. The questions too can be holy.
We are followers of Jesus- and we need to start with the stories about his life. This can be challenging enough after all! After that, we can then use our understanding of him to work backwards and forwards into history. But let us not try to make everything fit. It sometimes will not! And where it does not seem to fit- this can be a window for the Spirit too.
And speaking of the Spirit- he is present, NOW- not just in the pages of a book, but in all sorts of ways-
dreams and visions
Kindnesses and moments of sublime grace
Music and dancing
Gentle promptings of guilt and remorse, as well as longing for things to be better
In the midst of us, and also in wild places, stirring the waters
And because of this- we are not alone in this search. We are not powerless nor unenlightened. Rather we might expect the unexpected. The God of Surprises.
And finally- back to all that murdering and raping and child sacrificing. Did it happen in the way described? Well, perhaps. The times these things happened were full of such things. But as much of these stories were written down centuries after they happened, and survived through oral tradition, you would expect that there would be a reframing process- a self justification process. A God-on-our-side process.
Even if through the whole thing, there is a God-in-the-middle who still emerges as we read these stories.
Did it happen that way because it was what God commanded- what he demanded to assuage his lust for blood and vengeance?
My soft conclusion to this is-
You might not concur, which is fine- but don’t lynch me please.
Because the other useful fact that has emerged for me came from Helen’s comment on one of the previous posts in this series- regarding the fact that our faith had overemphasised hard belief and doctrine- whereas perhaps more important than this is how we live- how faith sets us on a journey.