Tuesday, July 24, 2012

God's Violence and How to Avoid Facing It

Which dummy is speaking?
I recently posted on the human cruelty sanctioned by God--and, indeed, indirectly perpetrated by Him--in biblical passages such as Joshua 6:20-21.

Some of God's defenders point out that God can do what He likes with human life, as all life "belongs" to him. This apology is special pleading par excellence. As a student of literature I note that no other single character in all of fiction or history has been praised for violently and indiscriminately taking back what he has freely given.

Other God-defenders insist that those who were killed--including non-military, children, the old, the ill, and even livestock--deserved what they got. They did something, or didn't do something, and so God was morally justified to make Israel his instrument of genocidal brutality.

Biblical scholar Peter Enns suggests, following one of his mentors, that difficult passages such as Jericho can be rendered less problematic if the Bible is understood as God letting His children tell the story. He explains:
The Bible is what happens when God allows his children to tell his story–which means the biblical writers told the story from their point of view, with their limitations, within the cultural context in which they wrote.

When children tell the story of their father or mother, parents are typically delighted by how much they get and the childlike way that they see the world. But they are also well aware that children miss a lot when they tell the story, and invariably refract the complexities of family life through their own youthful vision.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but roll with it: Think of how young boys talk in the schoolyard about how great their father is. They are ways of telling the story to make sure everyone knows they have the best dad around.
No, it's not a perfect analogy. And, uh, it's hard to roll with. I'll summarize some of the difficulties I have with Enns's approach, but here's a bit more of his explanation:
When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.

That is how people thought, and this “rule” is stamped all over the Old Testament. This is a way of understanding why the Bible behaves the way that it does. It bears the marks of the limitations of the cultures.

Bear in mind this is only an analogy, but if we want to extend this to the New Testament, we can think of the teachings of Jesus as a more “mature” telling of God’s story. Jesus tells the story in a way that is more in line with who God is (“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”). Such things as land acquisition and killing and enslaving enemies is no longer part of God’s narrative.

It’s like a boy who grows up to be an adult, gets a job, and has a family of his own. Now ask him to tell his father’s story. The son’s life experiences have brought him to a deeper knowledge and appreciation of his father’s experiences, and the story will reflect that.
What problem does the "schoolyard rules" approach solve? Well, it suggests that God really didn't do as much killing as the Bible says. It also indicates that He wasn't in full support of all the killing perpetrated by the Israelites.

OK, so maybe God ain't so bad. But wait. God's exoneration comes at a heavy price, for now we have to wonder how credible "His children" actually are. What else did they exaggerate? Could they have outright fabricated a story or even several stories?

Other problems: Did God approve of some killings and not others? Which ones? Was he OK with the killing of children but not livestock? How do we know?

More problems: Did God let His children tell the whole story or just parts of it? How do we distinguish God's telling from His children's telling, since they both use human language? Is it merely a matter of using the schoolyard rules approach when God does something that makes us uncomfortable?

Even more problems: Are other holy books from the world’s many cultures also re-tellings by God’s children? When re-tellings contradict, how do we adjudicate between them?

These are serious issues. Now take a look at the second section I quote. We see clearly that Enns has the ultimate concern of dropping the "OT" and getting to gentle Jesus. Jesus offers, Enns implies, a truer (what else could "mature" mean?) account of who God is and what He does.This approach reflects a longstanding Christian paradigm wherein the Hebrew Bible prefigures the New Testament. In other words, nasty genocidal God points the way to fatherly God sacrificing himself/his Son out of...love. Yes, love.

Hold on, for Houston, we have more problems. The teachings of Jesus are themselves re-told by the gospel writers. Are these to be viewed also by schoolyard rules? Should we then apply the same questions of credibility, structure, and speaker identification to these teachings?


Despite his cautions on using the analogy, Enns provides no clear statement of how it unambiguously succeeds. We're given the idea that it helps us to accept God's violence but this idea gets us nothing but momentary, visceral relief. Indeed, if we think about it, God's exoneration is passed off to the Israelites. Those kooky Jews were telling tall tales.

I suspect that momentary, visceral relief is all many believers want. Many will not pursue thinking about schoolyard rules and what their truth would entail for the Bible, biblical criticism, and belief.

Sometimes I wonder why people don't just make it easier on themselves and become deists. That way, they could just believe in a supreme being and dispense with having to maintain the authority of the Bible/New Testament.

If you want to believe in the Bible/New Testament, you simply have to accept that God is a huge douche and Jesus is a surly prick--these aspects are inextricable from the characters. Against the plain readings of the Bibles in their original languages and in their many conjoined historical and linguistic contexts, you cannot maintain uniform conceptions of God the loving father and Jesus the meek savior. The conceptions don't hold.


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