Uncomfortable Mirrors

Musings on the experience of reading the Bible

I find the Bible a tough read, even the good bits. So there I’ve said it. To say this makes me feel bad, especially when I am insisting that my community engages with The Bible Challenge, a 360-day reading program encompassing the entire Bible. But I will get back to why this is also important, later.

The truth is I feel guilty about the Bible and my attitude towards it. How can I feel this way towards something I also believe to be an inspired vehicle for God’s communication? Donald Winnicott is one of my psychoanalytic heroes. He was that rare man, a psychoanalyst and also a pediatrician. This gave him a unique aspect

Donald Winnicott is one of my psychoanalytic heroes. He was that rare man, a psychoanalyst and also a pediatrician. This gave him a unique aspect on early infant development.

Winnicott believed that the emergence of guilt marked an important milestone in human infant development. Guilt, he explained, was the development of the realization of having damaged what is also most loved. Remorse, repentance, sorrow, and a capacity for healing through the process of reparation are all dependent on a capacity for guilt.

For so-called modern Christians, previous generational emphasis on punishment makes a healthy acceptance of guilt more difficult. Thus, mainline Christians like Episcopalians tend nowadays to deemphasize the importance of guilt. According to our therapeutic deism guilt and punishment no longer matter to the God of love, gentle in all his ways.

So much religion equates guilt with the dire fate of Penny Pingleton in John Water’s 1988 musical Hairspray. Penny’s mother Prudence has a real old time religion approach to the raising of her daughter: 

Penny Pingleton, you know you are punished. From now on you’re wearing a giant P on your blouse every day to school so that the whole world knows that Penny Pingleton is permanently, positively, punished.

Our attempt to get away from the image of ourselves permanently wearing a giant P has led us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because the problem is that abolishing guilt is as spiritually damaging as responding to it with threats of punishment. By eradicating guilt we’ve tried to communicate an image of God as never wanting us to feel bad. The God of therapeutic deism – our contemporary heresy, is a God who is all understanding and non-judgmental. No matter how we are attracted to this self-projection onto God, this is not the Christian vision of God.

The crucial role of guilt in spiritual development

As Winnicott explained, feeling guilt arises when the infant reaches the developmental stage of connecting up its damaging, aggressive feelings with its loving, protective feelings. It discovers that the mother who frustrates it and provokes hatred is the same mother it desperately seeks to preserve through its power to love. The growing child thus learns about accountability and the predominance of love over hate.

I feel guilty about finding the Bible a tough read because at the edge of my conscious awareness I fear my attitude damages my relationship with the God I deeply love. I’ve been taught that this makes me bad, and punishment is what awaits bad boys and girls.

I want a nice God, a God who is forgiving but gentle with it. So when I turn to the pages of the Bible I am confronted with a not nice God. I find there a God who does not easily fit with my expectations and this leaves me feeling guilty – after all, it’s not meant to be this way, surely I must have misunderstood.

Maybe this explains my attraction to traditions that sit lightly to Bible reading outside of the weekly liturgy. The fact is that reading the Bible is the fastest way to really challenge one’s own self-projection onto God. Throughout the pages of the Bible God simply refuses to act according to our expectations and play nice.

Those of us at St Martin’s, who have been persevering with The Bible Challenge, will on Monday arrive at day 93. Along the way, we have waded through some pretty tedious and gruesome stuff. Recently in the Bible, the book of Joshua’s depiction of Israel’s genocide of the Canaanites as God’s chosen instrument gives way to the same storylines, now retold through the lens of the book of Judges. If we detect Judges retelling the Joshua story let’s not be too hasty and skip over. If we do we will miss noting that the two books tell two different versions of the same story of the settlement of the Promised Land. Joshua presents it as a blitzkrieg campaign during which no quarter is given to the poor old Canaanites. However, Judges presents it as a long process of gradual infiltration with the Israelites winning some and losing some. The end result is a picture of assimilation, with Canaanites living cheek by jowl with Israelites.

The book of Joshua’s unremitting chronicle of slaughter, worthy of a Viking Saga or from the Game of Thrones gives way to a more complex picture in which the tensions of fidelity to the old ways and assimilation into newfangled ones – an age-old story, forms the central narrative. It’s interesting to note that modern archaeology tends to confirm the Judges version.

Here is an interesting thing about the Bible. When we read through the lens of modern expectations of reading either descriptive truth or even reliable history, we get bogged down at the level of the words on the page. Read as descriptive truth or somewhat vague yet reliable history the words describe events that outrage our modern expectations of a loving God, gentle in all his ways. Yet, if we raise our eyes from the words on the page and pay attention to the directional flow of the narrative, e.g. take-in the story flow from Joshua to Judges, we begin to catch a glimpse of the shape of the forest above the tree line, a forest stretching towards the horizon.

If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice it’s because the Judeo-Christian epic bends it in that direction.

It’s something of an overstatement, but not much of one to say that the consistent directional narrative of the Bible concerns the keeping of promises. The repeating plot line is one of the covenant -the reciprocity of promise keeping. The ups and downs in the relationship between God and the Chosen People chronicle the repetitive cycles of remembering and forgetting promises. Things go well when the people remember their promise to worship the Lord. Things go badly when they forget God and stray into worshiping other gods. All the while the long epic of the relationship is moving towards greater inclusion under laws of justice and mercy, thus bending the arc of the universe towards justice.

Hypothesis put to the test

The hardening of the Jews against receiving the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah was one of the deep pains of the Apostle Paul’s life. Romans, chapter 11 brings his exploration begun in chapter 9 of the fate of the Jews in a post-Jesus world to a climax.

I ask then, has God rejected his people? Hell no! ….For the promises of God are irrevocable.

Paul arrives at a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion that: 

God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Paul’s confidence in the mercy and love of God rests on his refusal to accept that God can be unfaithful, for God keeps promises whether or not we keep our end of the covenantal bargain. We may not like the results, and Paul choked on Jewish rejection of Jesus, he could not conceive of God going back on his promise to Israel. Although God desires that we keep our promises also, the point is not so much to be faithful in return but to trust that no matter what we do, God is always trustworthy. Wanting desperately for some clarity on who’s in and who’s out of God’s favor, Paul has to settle for living in the tension of contradiction.

We read in Matthew 15 of Jesus dispute with the Pharisees about ritual practice. The Pharisees seem to be taking the position that performing the purification rituals rendered one spiritually clean. Jesus contends that these are simply external practices that at best confirm the internal state of purity. It’s not what we eat or drink that defiles us, but the words and actions the emanate from an impure heart.

Note that when Jesus is in the Jewish heartland this is the kind of disputation he is confronted by – wrangling over rules. Contrastingly, he then travels among the gentiles and here he encounters another kind of disputation with a woman Matthew archaically refers to as a Canaanite woman.

Now, the Canaanites had long since departed the historical scene by Jesus’ time. From our reading of Joshua and Judges we are immediately alert to the way Matthew wants to project the historical tension between Israelite and Canaanite into the current context of Jew and Gentile with a new twist in mind.

At first, Jesus rejects the woman’s claims on him reciting that God’s promises are exclusive to Israel only. Seemingly for us, he uses the very offensive Jewish metaphors of giving the children’s (read Jews) food to the dogs (read gentiles). It’s her response that startles him and maybe we catch a glimpse of Jesus learning on the job. She takes his line of reasoning and pushes it in a new direction. She boldly asks, do not the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table? Is this a new insight for Jesus, being confronted by the expansion of God’s promises? Whether or not, we see the application of his earlier teaching to his disciples on the nature of spiritual acceptability. God is not only faithful to his promises but he desires to extend them to new, hitherto unacceptable and excluded groups.

The text is always written by the authors for those of the generation who first read what is written.

Why read the Bible, especially the early books of the Torah? In them, we read page after page of the violent practices of tribal exclusion. We read about an image of God that we vehemently protest is not our image of God. But me think we protesteth too much. As current events swirl around us, the surfacing of tribal memories assail us. Animosities we thought long since transcended raise their ugly heads again. White tribalism, racism, and anti-Semitism dare to speak their names once again upon the civic stage.

The text is always written by the authors for those of the generation who first read what is written. There are three contextual aspects to keep in mind as we read Scripture. The first is the context described in the text itself. The second is the context within which the text is actually written. The third is our contemporary context readers. Scripture is written for the writers and their context. The story’s setting is a fiction constructed to confront the generation who author and first read the text. Whatever mythological events described, and whatever the authors of the text intended to convey, as contemporary readers we have our own context. How does the text inform us about ourselves and our unacknowledged projections into God?

Context 1. The books of Joshua and Judges describe the conquest of the Promised Land, now shrouded in the mists of time. Primitive tribal nomads, as a rule, do not write down their experience. At best, they record their experience in oral stories, repeated by word of mouth. All generations project themselves onto the blank canvas presented by God. So we should not be surprised that Moses and Joshua’s God is remarkably like them.

Context 2. Scholarship now indicates that the books of Joshua and Judges were written down during the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 during the prolonged experience of captivity in Babylon and Persia. Joshua and Judges make their appeal to a captive people who are struggling to hold onto their identity after the destruction of nation and Temple. The message is, don’t lose faith, do to not forget their glorious past. God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness are incisions that cut to the heart of the experience of captivity. The books encourage a people at the darkest point to remember how in the past God has blessed them. This is a call to turn away from disobedience and return to God as their ancestors did.

Context 3. As we read the history of the Israelites and their struggles with God, let’s not be too hasty to rush to judgment. Do we not see more of ourselves in these pages than we might care to admit? Are we not a people with genocide in our history? Does not our history of the institution of slavery continue to disturb and disrupt the security of our identity as a people? As the greatest military superpower, is there not a deep contradiction between how we see ourselves and the perception other nations have of us?

The text is often an uncomfortable mirror.

Reading Joshua and Judges provides us with a larger context that aids our introspection so that better prepared and forewarned, our own primitive Israelite likeness, lurking just beyond sight, will not so easily ambush the unwary.

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