Privilege and Biblical interpretation

Privilege and Biblical interpretation April 30, 2013

This is a post where I’m raising a question that I flat-out don’t know the answer to. I watched a conversation yesterday between Derek Rishmawy who represents what I call the “Calvinist you can talk to” perspective and Stephanie Drury who is a “post-evangelical feminist.” Derek had written a post about the importance of not dissing King Solomon and the sacredness of scripture just because Mark Driscoll has misused Solomon’s words in Proverbs and the Song of Songs. Stephanie’s response was that for people who have been spiritually abused, some words in the Bible are permanently toxic as a result.

Derek and Stephanie represent two worlds that intersect inside of me as an evangelical wannabe man-feminist. My commitment to the canonicity (divine inspiration and set-apart-ness) of scripture is integral to my identity. However, I am also aware that I’m in a position of complete privilege because none of these words I call sacred could ever be used to justify abusive behavior towards me. It’s a “theoretical” question for me whereas for other people it’s a question that involves physical and spiritual bruises. So how do I honor both realities at the same time?

Sometimes in the discourse of identity politics, privilege is deployed as an atomic bomb that completely discredits everything that a person has to say on account of their whiteness, wealth, maleness, or straightness. I’m 4 for 4 on that rubric. I actually went through a phase in my twenties where I pretended to be / thought I was bisexual in order to have one -ism “right,” to fit in with the radical community better than I did as the rich white straight guy who was the cause of all the world’s problems.

It wasn’t entirely that cynical; there were real reasons I wrestled with that aspect of my identity. In high school, I was the “sensitive guy” who wasn’t like the jocks who bullied me and got all the women that I was best friends with. So I’ve always had a need to say, “I’m not one of them (even though I am).” In any case, I have experienced first-hand the way that the privilege bomb can be a conversation-stopper analogous to “The Bible says it; that settles it.” You’re a rich white straight guy; you’re wrong; that settles it.

So what do I do with privilege? When I read Paul write, “Wives submit to your husbands as the Lord,” I’m not kicked in the teeth by that sentence, directly. It makes me angry not entirely on account of a sense of solidarity with women, but also because it conjures up (irrational) images of my high school jock bullies who have smoking hot wives and pastor megachurches now. When I attack the complementarian perspective, it feels like I’m spraying my jock bullies with a rhetorical Uzi.

So I’ve got my own axe to grind, and yet it’s not about me. When I write that Paul was applying Christian discipleship into a Roman context in which the man was legally the head of the household and the purpose of submitting to him was not because God has hard-coded gender hierarchy into nature but in order to win the husband to Christ, all of that is theoretical discourse. It’s a way to earn man-feminist points and justify myself over against those misogynists. But it’s also about my love for my wife and my belief in her call to ordained ministry and my horror at the thought of ever resolving any impasse in our decision-making by saying, “Well, honey, you know the Bible says that I’m the leader here…”

I cannot know what it’s like to read a text that has been thrown in my face by an abusive spouse. I cannot know what it’s like to have a husband who says he’s going to fix something and doesn’t do it for weeks and whenever you remind him, he says, “A nagging wife is like a dripping faucet.” I cannot know what it’s like to hear something that sounds like: “Yeah I’m sorry those words were used the wrong way with you, but you know, they are part of the Bible so uh… [respectfully long pause] get over it. ;-).”

How long do you have to pause between the “I’m sorry,” the “I believe you,” the “What they did was wrong” and the part where you say “I believe this”? Is the “I believe this” always going to send like a dismissive “but” to the person on the other end of the conversation? Do they have to be two separate conversations? Can I be in solidarity with someone who has been abused and still believe that the collection of words that were used to abuse them are sacred? Or is my belief in what hurt them inherently antithetical to solidarity with them?

I’m actually in the process of reading Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible, which takes evangelical Biblical interpretation to task. I saw a lot of echoes of Smith’s argument in the conversation on Derek’s blog. I agree with Smith that we have to read the Bible through a Christological lens rather than see it as a “flat text” in which every word is of equal value because we so mistrust the Holy Spirit’s active guidance in our interpretation that we idolize a book.

This means that we can say unequivocally and authoritatively that Jephthah should rot in hell for sacrificing his daughter to God in Judges 11 because Christ is utterly absent from that picture. And we can also say that the massacre of the Canaanites in Joshua looks nothing like Jesus, and so it is utterly abominable for the American colonists to use that story to justify the genocide of Native Americans or for Israeli settlers to use it to justify the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank today.

Is it okay for some of these Old Testament passages to be the story of a people getting to know God progressively over time, i.e. having and even writing down in canonized words their partly mistaken assumptions about what God was telling them to do at certain points because all of that was necessary to laying the groundwork for an Israel that could give birth to Jesus Christ? If there were no Leviticus law, then Micah wouldn’t have had a foil to respond to in his sixth chapter, saying God doesn’t want your animal sacrifices, he wants mercy, justice, and humility. If the temple were not sacred, then Jeremiah couldn’t chide his people for thinking that God would defend it forever from the Babylonians.

Does the canonicity of scripture mean that all of it must be prescriptive? Can “useful for teaching and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) include negative examples? Yeah, that Old Testament polygamy… not such a good idea for family systems. And when Solomon engages in a blood-bath at the beginning of his reign, maybe we’re supposed to be bothered by that (even if the scribe who recorded it thought it was perfectly normal and proper for an incoming king to do). If our approach to Biblical interpretation is to look for and submit to the authorial intent of the human scribes, then we can’t make those kinds of assessments.

Now I love my brother Derek but I’m going to have to take issue with the common retort that I heard him use to the Christian Smith’s argument for a Christological interpretive lens: “Which Jesus?” The insinuation seems to be (?) that the words of scripture mediate our access to Jesus, so it’s nonsensical to say that we can mediate our interpretation of scripture through Jesus. But I would rejoin that if we see Jesus as trapped underneath the words of the Bible, then we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Him. Every time we read the Bible, we’re having a God-breathed conversation with Jesus, who is not just in the book but in the room with us.

Yesterday at my Monday mass, the gospel reading included Jesus’ promise from John 14:26: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Jesus doesn’t say that a book will teach you everything; He says that a person will. The only reason that the Bible does anything for me is because God breathes on me when I read it. That breath is an infinite person. The Greek for God-breathed is theo-pneustos which we could see as a verb form of the slightly different word hagio pneumati, the Holy Spirit. Without the spirit, the letter is dead. When we read the Bible as a flat text upon whose univocal meaning we can come to a clear agreement, the way we are reading it precludes the possibility of God breathing it.

I hadn’t been to mass since before Easter, so yesterday was incredible, particularly after I received the Eucharist. My heart and mouth were filled with the strange language that somehow erupts inside of me when the Spirit has saturated a room. It was the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament that shaped my encounter with the Biblical passages that I read after mass. I cannot explain why it is different to read the Bible in that room, but I have never heard it talk that way when I read it in other places. The book by itself is nothing; the living, in-the-physical-room-and-not-just-metaphorical breath of God makes it everything it is.

This has gone afield from my original question, so I’m going to try to get back if I can. The tragic fate of the Bible in our era is that many Christians who wanted to use sacred words for their power and control have stomped the God-breath out of the Bible like a legion of pigs sloshing around in a garden of delicate plants. When people who have been hurt try to open that book, all they hear are sneers and all they see are disingenuous, patronizing smiles. Maybe the plants can come back, and the sacred words can be reinhabited by the breath that gives all things life. I’ve seen cilantro that shriveled up in a brutal winter and proliferated in leafy goodness come May.

I believe that the Holy Spirit is our ultimate teacher. I also believe that we need an anchor in the concrete transmitted testimony of Jesus Christ and the people of Israel. Part of trusting in the Holy Spirit means not having the goal of certitude and conformity in Biblical interpretation. Certitude precludes infinite divine personal presence. Every person encounters each sacred word on a very specific journey with God in which God is breathing through the testimony in a very specific applicable way. I think what 2 Timothy 3:16 promises me is that even horrible stories like Jephthah killing his daughter to “honor” God can provide some kind of useful teaching to somebody somehow even if I will never be blessed by them myself.

Privileged guys like me need to interrogate our motives in the battles we fight over the sacred words that we love. Is the Bible a citadel where we have gathered our coalition of forces to shoot arrows from the walls at the insurgents below? Or is it a garden into which we invite plants that have been crushed and ravaged by a legion of pigs, doing all that we can to walk lightly so that God’s breath can restore them to their infinite beauty?

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