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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (4)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (4)

Part 4 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 12, and 3.

I am not sure where I’m going with all this. When my friend asked why I am still a Christian, I actually started writing the story/explanation below about why I haven’t gone the “spiritual but not religious route.” But then I stopped and wondered if I was really getting to the issues that frustrated me so much about my experience of Christianity. By relying so heavily on my own interaction with scripture as the basis for why I considered myself a Christian, wasn’t I once again pull out the evangelical stops? What if I was just reverting to the old, gutted belief that beliefs themselves are what make a Christian? Am I again engaging in the very bibliocentrism that I’ve tried so hard to get away from?

Maybe so. Still, this seems to be what I have. Here I am: Pope Rebekah. Me and my exegetical tools and my imagination. I offer you what may in fact be a contradiction to the story I have told above.

This is the story that makes sense to me.

God's Missing Body

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian.

Maybe I shouldn't be. There might be any number of compelling reasons not to be. Couldn't I just be "spiritual, but not religious"? Active, thoughtful, not tied to religion?

I don't begrudge those who go that route. It might even be necessary for some folks. Sometimes religious trauma can only be dealt with by leaving the structures that housed the abuse. And maybe stepping away from evangelicalism (even if not from Christianity as whole) is a similar kind of divorce.

But that's not where I am. The Bible education that has proven so toxic for many young Christians (I know this from many, many conversations with peers who graduated with a Bible degree) has been my lifeblood.

If I hadn’t been so textually-oriented from the beginning, things might have been different. But I’ve loved words and interacting with stories ever since I was a little girl. My mother encouraged me from a young age not only to write, but to engage life creatively, generatively. Words have been my life.

My mother’s creative bend laid the groundwork for the handful of college professors (some of whom were later ousted from their teaching positions–go figure) who opened my eyes to the dynamism of Judaeo-Christian scripture and its history of interpretation. The Bible was not a static, monolithic body of text or monologue, but a constant dialogue back and forth.

And gradually, the girl who used to bunker down and wait for the world to end caught sight of the world outside her dugout and stepped out into. God grew bigger, and the earth did, too.

But the bigness of God was only one side of it. The scope of my world, my self, my God–all this grew in relation to God's smallness. And it still does.

I keep coming back to the story of a God who has legs, skin, hands, eyes, teeth. The story of Jesus' incarnation–God becoming human in a specific person–is what takes me beyond the god of the apocalypse. God's body, God as organic matter, is the definitive affirmation of this-worldly existence, hinted at from the beginning of Hebrew scripture and climaxing in Jesus.

You can read the stories of the Bible different ways, and the fact that it's stuffed the gills with lots of different metaphors and stories is an open invitation to do so. (It's the classic problem of trying to write a comprehensive biblical theology–there are so many themes and so many threads, you can't just pick one and say it's the central theme.)

The story that's always stuck with me, though (if I took it into my head to attempt a biblical theology) is the story of God's missing (or hidden) body. It's this story that fuels my passion to live, to create, to build the world we long to inhabit.

You can feel God's absent body hovering everywhere in Hebrew scripture, a sharp breath from an unknown deep rippling across its surface.

The writers of Hebrew scripture have always been a bit squeamish when it comes when it comes to depicting their god (Yahweh by name) in corporeal terms. They engage in a deliberate and difficult dance between talking about Yahweh using pictures and metaphors from human life, while at the same time insisting that Yahweh is not reducible to these verbal images. And while verbal anthropomorphisms abound, visual depiction, specifically the making of cult images of Yahweh, is strictly forbidden.

The peoples of the ancient Near East had no such reservations when it came to depicting deities whether it was in literature or visual representation. The faces of gods could be seen all across the ancient world, from the sacrosanct cult images that lay hidden in the great temples most of the year, to the statues sitting in the shrines that dotted the hills, to the small images of household shrines. Gods had arms and legs and heads like humans and beasts, sometimes wings or claws or talons. Gods ate and drank and had sex.

But did Yahweh, too, have a body?

“The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.”

“His hands formed the dry land.”

“The eyes of Yahweh search the whole earth.”

“May Yahweh make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.”

Mouth, hands, eyes, face–if Yahweh’s body could be envisaged in verbal form, why this resistance to visual depiction?

We could spend years and volumes trying to answer that question (many have). But let's just approach it through one doorway, one theme: creation.

In both ANE literature and the Hebrew Bible, creation is linked to rulership. The god who creates the world is enthroned over it and determines its destiny. But we also see this rulership delegated in various ways. In ANE literature, the "image" of a god is tasked to be the god's reigning presence–an extension of the god, not just the god's legal authority, but its real presence (scholars debate on how exactly to tease this out). In the ANE, sometimes the king is referred to as the "image of god," and other times "image of god" refers to the god's cult image housed in its temple. In Genesis, however, the divine image is not cult statue of wood or stone nor is it the king. The image of god is humankind.

The Hebrew Bible, particularly the Book of Isaiah, sees the “image of god” as a statement not just about the god and its image, but the fate of Israel (and ultimately the cosmos). Through a series of polemics against the making of Babylonian cult images (Isa. 40:18-25; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-7), the writer of Isaiah 40-55 insists that making cult images is an attempt to supplant both humans and Yahweh, thereby subverting or denying the power of both to act and change the course of history.

The human craftsmen (who, in the context of Isaiah, appear to typify both the other nations and Israel itself) try to make an image that resembles a god, but they actually end up making an image that resembles a human being. The very humans that are themselves the image of Yahweh, tasked to advance the destiny of the cosmos, use their creativity to make their own replacement image to rule instead. The cult image, in turn, ends up being conflated with a god, and receives the worship due to Yahweh. In reality, the prophet insists, these other gods don't have the power of the Creator and thus cannot act in Israel's history or save them. Yahweh, by contrast, is the god who formed Israel and can rescue her from her oppressors.

This is one way of looking at the mystery of God's missing body. It isn't so much missing as it is hidden in plain sight. We are God's body. Humanity is God's image, God's "son." Just as Adam fathered a son in his own image and likeness (Gen. 5:4), so God "fathered" humankind in his image and likeness. The image has the power to create, to shape the world.

This power comes with a responsibility. The image must emulate the the Creator's own generous spirit, for God shaped the earth, filled it with creatures, and provided food for all. "Multiply, fill the earth, subdue it." Don't let an obsession with militarism distract you from the richness of these words in their context. What we have in Genesis 1 and 2 is actually two creation stories juxtaposed to one another, which have two kinds of language to talk about humanity.

First, we have the regal view in Genesis 1: humans as monarchs, exercising dominion and spreading throughout the world. (In this first story, humans and God are both regal: God creates the world by speaking, by giving commands like a divine king: "Let there be light!" and the cosmos obeys.) In Genesis 2, we see humans as people of earth, tenders of the garden: "Cultivate and keep." (God, too, gets dirty: he doesn't create humans by speaking, but by forming and breathing into them. This God is a gardener more than a king.)

By placing these two stories together, Genesis qualifies the kind of kingdom to be advanced by and through humankind: not a rule of plunder and pillage and scorched earth, but of tending, tilling, and cultivating.

If you've read the rest of the stories of the Hebrew Bible, you know that the images of God struggle to embody this kind of generative rule. Genesis 3 shows us the images of God staging a mutiny, trying to usurp the place of the very deity who made them. They are sent into exile outside the garden of God, away from Yahweh's presence.

God's body goes wandering, estranged from the Creator that formed and animated it.

That's not the end of the story, of course. God keeps reaching down, searching for images who want to embrace their divine resemblance, lean into it, to be the gods he formed them to be. He appeared to Abraham and proffered a similar gift: land, descendants, and blessing. The land itself wasn't cosmic in scope, but the reach of it's influence was meant to be: God told Abraham that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. And Abraham, unlike Adam and Eve, believed God would make good on his promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness.

The Hebrew scriptures are full of stories of God reaching down and humans reaching up. Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in many ways. Through the prophet Moses and the giving of the Law. Through Elijah and Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. Through the prophets whose names have been obscured or forgotten.

But in these last days, God has spoken to us in his son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. This son is the radiance of the glory of God, the spitting image of his nature.

In Jesus, the mystery of God's missing body reaches its zenith, collapses, and rises again. At the very point in time where God is reunited with his estranged image–the moment of power when the image flawlessly embodies its Creator–he surrenders his body, gives it over to death. By leaning into death, Jesus fulfills humanity’s generative destiny.

By participating in humanity’s corporate fate of death (brought on by humanity’s rebellion) despite his own individual innocence, he simultaneously inhabits the corporate body and prophesies against it. Instead of insisting on his rights as God’s faithful heir to forgo the suffering brought on by the human rebellion, he suffers with humanity and so embodies the kind of self-offering righteous rule that God desires. At Jesus’ resurrection, the body of God that has gone into hiding emerges from behind the veil.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (2)

Part 2 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 13, and 4.

Being True to the Body 

Being "true" to a body may mean adherence to the explicitly held beliefs and practices, but it can also mean the implicit values that are inherent to the structure itself. And sometimes (often) we experience tension between our individual convictions (or lived experience) that seem irreconcilable to the larger body. Within the context of the church, departure from orthodox teachings and practices of the church is often viewed negatively.

At the same time, however, Jewish and Christian tradition both have a long history of individual dissent within the body (I’m not saying this is necessarily unique to Judeo-Christian tradition). The Israelite prophets depicted in the Hebrew Bible are some of the earliest evidences of this strain–speaking and performing words against the practices and beliefs of larger bodies, whether the bodies are other nations or Israel itself.

Every prophet views herself as either hearkening back to some earlier teaching or upholding and/or advancing the real heart of the body. It is not understood as a revolt against the body so much as a call to the body to come back to its origins, to its “true self.” A contemporary example of this would be those evangelicals who consider the embrace of Trump to be contrary to the values of the Bible in general (and more specifically the teachings of Jesus). The true structure, they maintain, the real heart of Christianity, has been lost and replaced with a terrifying specter, a false image.

However, as a cradle Protestant, I know how elusive agreement on what constitutes the “true body” (and “trueness to the true body”) can be. To what image do these prophets call the body back?

One of the key features of the Protestant Reformation was of course a call to return to the text of scripture and use this to measure church tradition, teachings, and practices. In the evangelical community of my youth, there was again this odd divorce between what thought and said we were doing, and what we were really doing. On the one hand, we espoused the text of the Bible as primary. On the other hand, the majority of us (even our pastors) didn’t have a lot of education in biblical exegesis and interpretation. We were able to live with the impression that we were under the direct authority of scripture without a Pope or authority to interpret for us. We had a direct line to and from God. We thought we had unmediated access to God’s word. In actuality, we had (as everyone does) presuppositions, traditions, ways of reading that we all brought to the text without knowing it.

None of these mediators–whether they were individual Bible readers, church leaders, the Pope, or Bible scholars– could function as a univocal, definitive authority on how to understand God’s word without the whole system collapsing. We presupposed that presuppositions were inherently bad, that we had to check our theology, our minds, our everything at the door and come to the Bible as a clean slate. But presuppositions are not only not-bad (how’s that for a sweeping endorsement?) but inevitable. Presuppositions can become bad when they are considered normative and the system closed, the body refusing to be challenged by other voices (whether they come from within the body or outside).

If that idea is raising your hackles, I suspect it’s because you (like me) were raised with a closed view of scripture. The idea that scripture speaks univocally is demonstrably false. That’s just not the scripture we have. Such a view taken to its logical conclusion would have to exclude the possibility of Jesus as a new, inbreaking revelation of Yahweh, for in order to understand Jesus’ identity, the New Testament authors simultaneously invoke Jewish scripture and go beyond its original authorial intent.

The Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) was composed by many authors speaking in various times and places. This doesn’t mean there is never any agreement between the voices of the Bible or that what we have is a bag of completely divergent voices. On the contrary, there are common themes, metaphors, patterns of thought that keep cropping up. Newer texts engage in dialogue with older texts.  

One point of basic unanimity between the books of the Hebrew Bible is monolatry: worship of one God. (Unlike monotheism, which holds that only one God exists, monolatry allows for the existence of other deities, but maintains that only worship of one particular God is acceptable.) The Hebrew Bible is unapologetically monolatrous. Yahweh and Israel have entered into a covenantal relationship, and thus worship of other gods constitutes infidelity to the covenant. At the same time, within these “orthodox” texts, we have evidence Yahwistic Israelite faith that does not always adhere to monolatrous orthodoxy. An example would be the Israelite worshipper portrayed in Judges 17-18 who does not appear to be familiar with “orthodox” thinking on making cult images (more on images below). Another example would be the cases of religious syncretism in Israel, say, when King Solomon erects cult centers to other gods (1 Kings 11). These are portrayed negatively in the biblical texts. Solomon loses the kingdom for this offense. It is considered a breach of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. Yet at the same time, these breaches do not disqualify Solomon (or the worshipper in Judges 17-18 for that matter) from the covenant community. They are still Yahwists and still Israelites.

These points of agreement in the biblical text do not negate the idea that the Bible is polyvocal. The Hebrew Bible’s unapologetic monolatry is a actually a very good example of the dynamism of the biblical texts because Jesus’ entrance into the scene redefines monolatry and monotheism  in a way that runs counter to Jewish monotheism. The Bible is not not a closed system. Christianity holds that Jesus is the same God of the Old Testament. That one God exists in three co-eternal person: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is a new idea. This is unorthodox.

Viewing the Bible as a closed system is contrary the Bible’s own polyvocal witness. There cannot be one defining voice. The Word of the Lord, if it is really to speak to us “at many times and in many ways” to different peoples and contexts, must meet us as the words of the Lord–in the smallness, in the lowercase, in the plural. I think you can argue plausibly that this is what God did in the incarnation of Jesus (more on that below).

In short: when I studied biblical exegesis (and a smidge of church history), I realized that the quest to make the Bible the locus of faith is not only wrongheaded, it was impossible. There we were–just me and my Bible. I had all my exegetical tools, my linguistic knowledge and backgrounds knowledge, and all the knowledge that was to be had in the Western intellectual tradition. At last, I could really be my own pope.

But there were three related problems here, as any Bible scholar with an ounce of self-awareness will tell you. First, having better tools with which to study the Bible still didn’t give me unmediated access to the text–I still brought to it all the other structures I inhabited. My social location still influenced how I read the Bible. My whiteness, my economic status, my gender, etc.–I didn’t get rid of any of these coming to the text. The second problem was that being able to elicit more historically-informed readings of the text did not constitute participation in the church, the alleged True Body. Being part of a body isn’t just giving assent to doctrines or even the stories you tell (though this is part of any body, not just religious), but a space you inhabit (whether willingly or unwillingly). Whatever “true participation” means, Bible study alone wasn’t it. The third problem was the just the old issue of what constitutes true participation (we’re back where we started).

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My Bible Education: Does It Mean Anything?

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My Bible Education: Does It Mean Anything?

As I near the end of nearly seven years of formal training in Bible and theology, I wonder if it means anything. I’ve had enough divine sovereignty hammered into me to know that it will end up meaning something, but I’ve also breathed in enough eschatology and incarnation to know that the present event and the ending up are in constant tension. And there’s no glory gained for the ending up by glossing over the present futility.

*

“We must follow the evidence where it leads,” a Bible professor of mine once said, “and trust that the truth will be made known.”

I believed in these words for many years. When it came to the Bible, I tried my best to lay my presuppositions aside and follow the evidence where it led, trusting that if God was true and the Bible was his word, then the Bible would be able to bear up under academic scrutiny. 

What I didn’t realize then–in those early days when I was drunk on dead poets and the musk of crumbling books–was that my professor’s statement was limited by its own rationalist assumptions and the myth of objectivity that form the philosophical basis of the Western academy. This philosophy assumes that we can follow the evidence without bias to some logical conclusion–to truth, if you will. It advocates a mode of “knowing” that assumes we can submit to truth as discovered through empirical means, and that the truth leads us.

But the evidence itself is siphoned through our own selectivity and assumptions. The evidence may not end up leading us to the truth, but simply back to ourselves. (In a rationalist system, this is a negative thing, for if we inculcate ourselves into truth, it has no authority over us since it stands within us instead of outside us.)  Although rationalist philosophy uses the rhetoric of “being led” to the truth by evidence, the idea behind the rhetoric (how the divorce of form and content haunts our words, both confirming and contradicting them) is that we are able to lead ourselves to the truth by the sweat of our intellect, tapping into a higher truth by gaining mastery over it.

In a rationalist system, the ideal is to remove ourselves from the equation so that abstract truth can reign. The system collapses, however, because we are still attempting to know truth by standing outside of it. By trying to stand outside, we set ourselves up as the authority over it. We also abdicate our hope of knowing, for knowledge does not come by standing outside, but stepping within.

So I believed that if I followed the questions raised about the Bible by higher criticism that I would arrive at a fuller understanding of the Bible since I would be able to better understand the messages of the biblical authors in their original contexts. I was persuaded that if I used the proper tools, I would somehow come to see the Bible for “what it is,” since I would be setting the text free to speak on its own terms.

I am now persuaded that the questions lead back to the questioners.

For people of faith, the evidence would lead to scripture’s divine authority (however that authority might be mediated through the limitations and concession of human language and culture). For people of no particular faith but rationalism, the evidence would lead to the Bible as a merely human book sans any divine trace or authority. For the former, the evidence led to a history of revelation (God reaching down to humanity), but for the latter, the evidence led to a history of religion (humans reaching up to God). In both cases, the evidence led back to the assumptions.

The problem that I did not perceive as an undergrad was that the bulk of conversation about the Bible in the academy was had in the context of this rationalist framework, which could only lead back to the Enlightenment illusion of objectivity (with a big helping of functional deism to boot).

My professors seemed to think everything was okay (and so did I). The cultural context of the Bible “properly understood” would lead to a re-affirmation of the Bible as the word of God, mediated in human speech.

But it was that assumption–the presupposition that “proper understanding” came through the tools of grammatical-historical exegesis–that began to become a barrier to actually hearing the word of God.  In the early days of my Protestant faith, I did my fair share of harping on the Catholic church of Luther’s day and the monopoly it held on biblical interpretation. Only later did I realize that the rallying cry of ad fontes (“back to the original sources!”) and the development of critical tools for the study of scripture meant that the final authority on interpretation had simply shifted from the Church to the individual scholar (who, through use of the proper linguistic tools, was able to somehow determine the “meaning” of scripture).

These are the tools I have been learning to use for almost seven years now, freighted with all the philosophical presuppositions described above. And for the past two years, I’ve been in a program that’s given me all the ammunition to pick apart the Bible and virtually no theology with which to put it back together.

The grammatical-historical method is founded on distance. The ideal is to disentangle yourself from theological presuppositions–to suspend your history with the text and the God it proclaims–in order to come at it with some sort of disembodied, objective, God’s-eye-view of the thing.

Sometimes I feel like the Israelites staring at the manna, this bread from heaven, asking, “What is it?”

What is it? Just eat it. You’ll see.

“There’s nothing but all this manna to look at.”

So don’t look at it. Eat it. It will nourish you and preserve your life.

“Is YHWH really among us or not?”

Eat.

But eating is the very thing we must not do with texts. For when we eat, we lose perspective. When we eat this word, letting it live in us, letting it know us, it changes us. We learn to love it instead of interrogating it in the old way.

And if I’ve learned anything in the past seven years, it’s that I mustn’t love this word.

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