Rowan Williams on the Bible (2)
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.”
9 thoughts on “Rowan Williams on the Bible (2)”
so even in the OT, among the ‘prophets’ there is an evolution in understanding of God’s will . . . .
I’ve been wondering recently just how firmly evangelical people see Christ as ‘God’ in the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity, because during the Patterson reign over Southern Baptist Convention, Christ was removed as the ‘lens’ through which all Scripture was to be interpreted . . . .
and so in the end, having discovered the RESULTS of removing Our Lord from that authority, and having examined Patterson’s treatment of women, the SBC moved to fire him from leadership at South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary . . .
he reaped what he sowed and it began with a shocking attack on the dignity of the personhood of women in the Church and in Southern Baptist academia
His example is a lesson in what can go wrong when a man tries to replace Our Lord’s vision for this world’s healing.
as to the idea of ‘midrash’, I say that it foreshadows the coming of the ‘collegiality’ of the Body of Christ, where Christians are called to gather and contribute their insights and understandings together to affect the direction of the Church to seek Christ-imaged answers in new ages with new problems
Is the word midrash?
Very good thoughts, Ian. I prefer your understanding to the one I was presenting in my comment. Thank you.
> Which hasn’t ended even yet, right?
I do not believe it will ever end; not as long as our demographic, technological, economic, or climactic context keeps changing.
> We are not supposed to use the text to guess what Hosea might have thought about things,
Good point; above we are still reading the text “Historically”, which is not the purpose of Myth.
There is a word|term for this use of text . . . which is escaping me now. 😦 Argh! That term captures how much of the Talmud treats Scripture, where it brings as much framing to the text as is necessary to create the necessary meaning; quite different than mining the text as if it is material to be sifted to separate the ore from the grit.
“…an example of this development..”
Which hasn’t ended even yet, right? Otherwise what’s the point of the whole LGBT/gender/social justice debate? All our fundamentalisms are characterized by just this quality – drawing an arbitrary line in the sand and saying ‘this far and no further’.
“I think it’s very likely that Rowan Williams and we are reading something into the text to arrive at a moral position that is so congenial to our liberal Western European sensibilities.”
Well of course we are, and rightly so. Rowan Williams is expressly reading this passage through “Jesus-shaped” eyes. Our “liberal Western European sensibilities” are formed and shaped by Jesus’s “love your enemies”, ” do not return evil for evil” and “those who live by the sword will die by it”. We are not supposed to use the text to guess what Hosea might have thought about things, but as a text about Jesus, as Jesus said the whole Bible is. In the light of Jesus we can see in Hosea’s words the cycle of violence, of eye for eye for eye for eye over and over again throughout history, which Jesus came to halt, by taking the violence on himself and seeking no revenge but forgiving and holding open his arms in love even as we killed him.
> But then I see how the prophecy uses a language of violence about . . .
I don’t know. We still do this, I mean all the way down to the lowly community meeting: recognition of past sins, followed by the evil we are going to do tomorrow. Not slaughter or civil war, certainly, but still dripping with the very same hypocrisy. Hosea’s moral irony feels very familiar.
Rowan may have a point, given the reality that human cultures learn v-e-r-y s-l-ow-l-y, with the occasional reboot where the process feels like it has to start all over again. 😦
> I think it’s very likely that Rowan Williams
It is certainly possible that Hosea’ words represent a change in the political winds as much as anything else.
I want to believe that this prophecy of Hosea represents development in the moral sensibility of the Scriptures and the community of Israel, development such as Rowan Williams describes, in which earlier glorification and sanctification of atrocity is reversed and repented. I really do. But then I see how the prophecy uses a language of violence about punishing and ending the whole “kingdom of the house of Israel” for the sins of a few, or even many, of an earlier generation, language that is as likely as not to be used as glorification, sanctification, and justification of later atrocities. This causes me to have serious doubt about this text being an indication of moral development rather than something else, something we don’t and may never understand from our 21st century perspective. I think it’s very likely that Rowan Williams and we are reading something into the text to arrive at a moral position that is so congenial to our liberal Western European sensibilities.