A friend recently asked me why I teach at a school of theology, what it is I see as the value of theological education when Christianity and the Church and all its various ideas are so conservative and entrenched in the past. I heard this as a sort of “justify your existence” question, and I found the opportunity a good one to explain why I am a scholar of religion, the Bible, and ancient systems of thought.
There are many reasons why I am a scholar of religion and Bible. One is that I came to study the Bible, specifically the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, because of its stories. I find stories to be important, especially good ones, those that are well told (being an English literature major in university probably helped me appreciate them even more). The Bible is full of such stories. They are rich, complicated, superb stories, in no small measure because of the history of transmission involved in the process in their becoming “the Bible.”
Why are these stories important and what do they have to do with why I am teaching at a school of theology? Because they are far more unsettling than current Christian practice generally realizes. Consider, for example, the biblical texts that are the basis for the Jewish observance of Passover, which is about to begin. This story of liberation of those who were oppressed is inspiring for all who experience oppression and injustice at the hands of others. But the story itself also is deeply unsettling. Let’s not forget that there are nine plagues inflicted upon Egypt before the final one, the Passover, when the angel of death passed over the dwellings of the Jews because they marked their doorposts with blood (woe to anyone in the community who thought this silly or who forgot to mark their doorposts with blood). Suffering and death are part and parcel of this story of liberation, as it is for most stories of liberation, although we tend to forget this or gloss over it. But stop and think about various parts of this story, such as that all the first-born in the land are to be killed. Who do we think are included in this category? I only ever hear people speak about children. Killing them is terrible. But why do we restrict our thinking to the young? Aren’t all of us children of someone? The biblical texts indicate every first-born is to be killed an is killed in Egypt, all throughout the land (Exod 12:12, 29). I think this means every first-born child, regardless of age, was killed (this includes the animals, BTW). So the divine killing is much more widespread than is generally acknowledged. It also highlights something about Pharaoh, as perhaps an implicit criticism. The widespread practice of succession in the ancient Near East, including Egypt, was that the first-born son in the royal family becomes king. This was not always (perhaps often), given the aspirations of other sons and high officials who could arrange for some misfortune, such as walking into a knife, to befall the first-born. Since Pharaoh is not killed, is he not the first-born? More poignantly for me is considering all those who don’t make it out of Egypt and slavery, especially those who are the last to die because of old age, illness, the effects of oppression. This is like the last soldier to die in battle. What about these people, who don’t live to see liberation? They do not participate in the commemoration of the Passover. Yes, we acknowledge them, or can acknowledge them, in the festival, but the fact remains, they die just short of liberation. There is no liberation for them. How many of them died during the first nine plagues and thus died because God was busy demonstrating to Pharaoh God’s power so Pharaoh would know this God (Exod 7:5; 8:22; 9:14, 29)? Might they have lived to see liberation if God has limited this little display to, say, two plagues and then the Passover? If God is so concerned about these people (Exod 3:7), why delay their liberation in order to demonstrate God’s power to Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Exod 3:19)? What kind of God is this? These are questions for me, questions that disturb common interpretations of the story.
It is the unsettling aspect of these stories that motivate me and are why I teach what I teach in the context in which I am lucky enough to do so. The world I live in is messy, filled with disappointments, hardships, loss, back-stabbing, and all the other muck and dross of human existence. It is punctuated by moments of love, kindness, joy, celebration, and all such moments must be recognized for what they are and enjoyed. Most of the time when I am in churches or other similar settings, the theology I hear and the ways the Bible is interpreted centers on God’s love. This is well and good for what it is, but it is not the only thing said in the Bible about this divine being or the people who are in relationship with this deity (this includes, I dare say, the New Testament and stories about Jesus). So why has the messiness of the Bible been dropped out? Why a steady diet of love, as if love is all there is? In part it is to counter the messiness of the world in which we all live. But by failing to consider the messiness of the stories and the complex ways they portray God, how this being relates to humans and animals, and how people relate to this being, Christianity has cut itself off from a powerful resource. The tradition, in the form the Bible, offers to each community that holds it as authoritative, the possibility of speaking and being in their communities that is much more than only love. Suffering, anxieties about God and God’s motives, recognition of favoritism in the community, oppression within the community and by the community, and a multitude of other realities of human life are addressed in the Bible. So use the Bible, let it speak in these communities in unbridled ways. Let is unsettle community life. Let it be a model for how to speak the hurt and pain and joy of everyday human life. When someone feels jilted by God, let that be spoken aloud and allowed to exist openly within the community. When someone feels gratitude for something they perceive as God-given, let that, too, be spoken and exist in the community. Let both these realities exist together within the community, as they do in the biblical texts.
This is one reason why I do what I do. it is one of the possibilities I see for theological education, that of helping my students engage the Bible in new ways, to give them permission to read the stories, tell those stories, and interrogate them from perspectives other than those of current theology and interpretive conventions. The Bible is far, far more unsettling than most interpretive approaches and interpreters allow. The students whom I have the privilege to teach may reject this understanding of the Bible. They may graduate and join the ranks of those who fill the churches and religious institutions in taming and controlling carefully what the Bible can say or mean. But they may not. They may seek to open the interpretive doors and windows and allow these texts to offer more for their communities. This is what I had to say to my friend in answer to his question.