Navigating through the Bible’s Shadow

Navigating through the Bible’s Shadow January 26, 2019


Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

One of this blog’s patrons named Aaron asked, in response to my post Nonduality in the Bible and Us:

Not sure if you’ve posted one before, but is there a resource that collects verses for the mystical and non dual in the Bible? Did you have a post that had more?

Also, this is just a passing thought. This post is beautiful in how it handles the non dual. But what about the shadow side of the Bible. The terrible things (god rejoices when the infants heads are dashed upon the rocks) or the very dualistic things (wives should submit to their husbands)? How should we as contemplativea treat such things? Should we only focus on the nondual and the beautiful loving parts of scripture (like a confirmation bias of sorts)? How can we still take the Bible as a whole with the terrible and downright evil in some cases and still be true to love and our contemplative practice? This has seriously prevented me from studying the Bible and doing lectio for years.

A quick answer to your first question: one of my dream projects is to compile a nondual guide or commentary to scripture. Since I am not a scripture scholar, it’s an overwhelming thought, but something like that needs to be put together. So unless someone beats me to it, I hope to make it happen — someday.

But on to the question about the shadow side of the Bible. Aaron mentioned Psalm 137:9 and Ephesians 5:22 — but there’s more where those came from. Indeed, a British newspaper a few years back published a list of the Top 10 Worst Bible Passages. In addition to infanticide and the subjugation of women, you can add genocide, slavery, the sanctioning of violence agains gay persons and psychics, and plenty more.

I think it is vitally important for Christians (and Jews, and anyone else drawn to the Jewish and Christian scriptures) to honestly and fairly reckon with these violent, misogynist, homophobic, and otherwise disturbing passages in the Bible (and the same should be done for violent or disturbing passages in any other sacred scriptures, such as the Quran).

Why do I say that? First, because authenticity demands no less.

But also because I believe that these “shadow verses” (or in the words of scripture scholar Phyllis Trible, these “Texts of Terror“) make it clear how important it is to read the Bible through the lens of sound scholarship and interpretation. You can believe the Bible is the word of God, and perhaps even believe it is inerrant. But such beliefs must be forged in the furnace of honest and informed scholarship. Anything less suggests, frankly, that God is a slavery-condoning, sexist, homophobic, violent monster.

I for one have no interest in bowing before such a monstrous god. I also know that the God I do recognize and worship — the God of unconditional love and infinite mercy — is well-represented in the Bible, and is in no way undermined by the shadow verses, as long as they are understood in a scholarly way.

Reading Through the Eyes of Love

Photo by Bethany Laird on Unsplash

I don’t have a source for this, so I may be getting it wrong, but I attended a catechist’s conference a few years back and heard a Bible scholar talk about methods of interpretation. He quoted one of the church fathers — I believe it was Saint Augustine — as saying something to the effect of “you should interpret every passage of the Bible in the light of the love of God.” Well, whoever said that first, wiser words were never spoken.

If we read every passage — including the texts of terror — through the eyes of love, it becomes easier to see when a passage represents the limitations or biases of the author — and not a declaration of the Divine Will.

For example, when the Bible suggests that God condones slavery, we know that God is a God of love and justice — so clearly, those slavery-accepting passages represent the cultural bias of the human author, and not the word of God. The same goes for all the shadow verses that suggest God is okay with violence, or genocide, or sexism, homophobia, and so forth. If a passage undermines God’s love and mercy, we can safely assume that the passage is telling us more about human imperfection than about divine perfection.

It’s so important to read the Bible as a documentation of centuries of human beings striving to more fully respond to God’s love. Any great love story is filled with twists and turns, conflicts and misunderstandings, moments when fear or jealousy or anger threaten to overwhelm the power of love. When it comes to the love story between humanity and God, these same dynamics appear. But all the failings happen on the human side.

So the Bible records so many ways that we humans get it wrong. We project onto God our biases, our bigotries, our prejudices. Humans can be violent, and we want to think that God condones our violence (but not the violence of our enemies, of course!). We can be hostile toward those who are “other” — other tribes, other races, other cultures, other gender, other sexualities. So it’s not surprising that those kinds of shadow perspectives show up in the Bible — it may be the word of God, but it is the word of God filtered through the writing of sinful humans.

I should also point out that, in addition to the shadow verses/texts of terror, there’s plenty in the Bible that simply seems irrelevant to us today, from the never-ending legal minutiae of Leviticus to so much of the prophetic writings that seem to be responding to very specific moments of history. Do these passages teach us about God? Perhaps — but often they seem to say more about the writers and their circumstances. And it’s okay to recognize this, and to read such passages with that cultural context in mind.

Doing Lectio Divina Honestly

Back to Aaron’s question. Given that the Bible is a text that is difficult to read and interpret, with passages that seem to say more about humanity’s sin than about God’s grace, why should we bother to even study the Bible, let alone use it as a jumping-off point for meditation, prayer, and contemplation? (If you’re not familiar with the practice of Lectio Divina, read this post: Lectio Divina Every Day).

Aaron asks (in regard to the shadow passages),

How should we as contemplativea treat such things? Should we only focus on the nondual and the beautiful loving parts of scripture (like a confirmation bias of sorts)? How can we still take the Bible as a whole with the terrible and downright evil in some cases and still be true to love and our contemplative practice?

I think it’s important to read the entire text, not just the “good stuff.” So no confirmation bias is necessary. Part of having an adult faith is learning to grapple with the shadow side of life — including the shadow side of our faith community and belief structure. So we need to “receive” the violent and oppressive parts of scripture — not to merely accept them, but to argue with them, understand them, and use them as a reminder of what we know is true about God: God’s justice, love, and mercy.

These passages are like distractions during prayer. In his wonderful book Into the Silent Land, contemplative teacher Martin Laird shows how distractions during prayer can actually lead us to deeper silence. I think the same is true for the shadow passages in the Bible. They testify to the truth, beauty and goodness of God by reminding us that sometimes we human beings get God wrong.

So how do we remain true to love and contemplative practice? Fortunately, there is still so much wisdom, beauty, and light in the Bible that if we are diligent in reading it through, we are continually being trained in the goodness, mercy, love and forgiveness of God. We use the Bible as a whole to interpret any one part of it — including the difficult parts. So, ironically, being faithful to a regular practice of lectio divina actually equips us to deal with  the difficult passages better: even though when we encounter such passages, we will naturally recoil from them and argue with them. That’s how it should be.

One final thought. The Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has written a book that can help Christians who struggle with the violence in the Bible. It’s worth reading: How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: Is God Violent? An Exploration from Genesis to Revelation.

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