Today we continue our series of reflections on Rowan Williams’s book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, returning to the second big theme of the practice of being Christian — hearing God speak through the Bible.
It is all very well to talk about finding yourself in God’s story, about reflecting and imagining; but, as we do all that, how can we decide what a good or bad interpretation of that story might be like? What criteria do we have for discerning truth from falsehood? The Christian answer is, unsurprisingly, in terms of Jesus Christ. (p. 34)
For Rowan Williams, reading the Bible must be, to use Michael Spencer’s term, Jesus-shaped. The person of Jesus is the center and focal point of the scriptures. This means that our lifetime assignment is to see how the various bits of the Bible move us relentlessly to him.
Those readers who know their business are doing just that: pondering and absorbing the Bible, hoping that something will come alive in relation to Jesus Christ in a new way. So reading the Bible is about listening to God in Jesus… (p. 36)
What a great summarizing sentence: “Reading the Bible is about listening to God in Jesus.”
As we read the various (and often strange) stories, laws, poems, prophecies, and other materials in the Bible, we place ourselves in the story, in the human drama, in the place of the people who are experiencing God, responding to God, questioning God. As we do, we relate ourselves to these people, we try to make sense of their words, attitudes, and actions as depicted in scripture. We see ourselves in them. And — and this is the key — we relate and evaluate what we see in the light of Jesus the Christ.
What we learn of him enables us to evaluate what is a faithful response and what is unfaithful. What he teaches helps us to grasp what is an incomplete understanding of God and how God works in the world and how it fits in the development of theological, moral, and ethical thought up until Jesus.
Williams gives an example of this development in the pages of the Tanakh itself. In the last part of 1 Kings and the early chapters of 2 Kings, the prophets Elijah and Elisha receive God’s commission to anoint Jehu king of Israel. Jehu’s major accomplishment will be to rid Israel of the legacy of King Ahab by murdering his family and supporters en masse. This is portrayed as, in Williams’s words, “a triumph of God’s righteousness.” However, just a few generations later, the prophet Hosea takes a much different view of Jehu’s atrocities at Jezreel:
Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. (Hosea 1:4)
Rowan Williams comments:
[In] the book of the prophet Hosea (1.4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.’ (pp. 37-38)
Here is one small step in the Story toward God’s Messiah (anointed King) teaching his followers to love their enemies and then exemplifying self-giving love by taking their violence upon himself at the cross.
“Reading the Bible is about listening to God in Jesus.”