Jesus and the Wrestlers

Jesus told these stories.

He’s famous for them, actually, and why not? Stories are great. You see them employed everywhere difficult concepts are explained simply. Stories make nebulous concepts clear, they make understanding easier.

Except when Jesus tells them.

Jesus didn’t seem too taken with absolute clarity. He would often answer direct questions by telling a long story and then walking away, leaving everyone confused. His disciples never really got the hang of it either, often returning to their master to ask for some kind of explanation. Jesus, it seems, was making things difficult on purpose.

This has always seemed to be the case in the rest of the Bible as well. The old testament is mostly a collection of ancient stories and artworks collected into a single volume. Some stories are inspiring and beautiful, but much of it is just plain weird to me.

A prophet takes a walk and some children mock him, so he calls a curse on them in God’s name and two bears maul the kids. 42 of them, to be exact. That’s it. (2 Kings 2:24)

Two daughters get their father hammered so they can have sex with him. (Genesis 19:36)

A poet writes a song in which he says “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9)

It goes on like this, for hundreds of pages. What do we make of these stories? When people call the Bible God-breathed, do they mean “This story’s so obtuse, Jesus could have told it?” Stories just end, seemingly without closure or some Aesopian moral, like the book of Jonah’s powerful conclusion: “And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

And also many animals indeed. Open ending have been with us for a while, it seems. This open-endedness only deepens when we start looking more closely at our holy writ.

Nineve could almost certainly not have been as big as it is described in Jonah. The amount of people is accurate… For a hundred years after the time Jonah was said to have lived.

God tells David to hold a census (2 Samuel 24). No, wait, it was the devil (1 Chronicles 21). It’s the same census, but the Bible claims two radical different reasons for it.

What kind of God make his Word so damn confusing? If it’s God’s word, shouldn’t it be basically straightforward? Shouldn’t it give us simple rules to live by (and don’t get me started on how weird the actual rules inthe Bible are)? If the Bible is God’s love letter to us, I don’t think I’d want to introduce her to my parents.

I’m not saying there aren’t explanation for the weirdness and inconsistencies. But it takes some digging to get to them. Getting the neccessary tools to read the Bible well is a life-long journey. You have to struggle with the text for a long time.

A lot like the disciples who were listening to Jesus’ stories. If the point of a parable is not to tell you something about the world, but to change the way you interact with it (Peter Rollins), there is more involved than simply understanding what a story’s about. We only ever change through engaging deeply. It is when we hurl our very spirit into something that we find changes in the shapes of our souls.

I think this is true of Jesus’ stories. By making his parables difficult, he forced those who were really serious about his words to wrestle with their meaning, to truly engage, and through the engagement discover something about themselves and God in a way that impacted them deeply.

I find it interesting that, before he is blessed and named Israel, Jacob is portrayed as physically wrestling with God. For hours. And he gets his hip broken in the process. True change doesn’t happen without wrestling and pain.

So maybe we are looking at large pieces of the Bible in the wrong way. In the third Liturgists podcast Peter Enns talks about one of his Jewish professors at Harvard. The professor told him that historically, for Jews, the bible is a problem to be debated, not a message to be delivered. You find God in the struggling with the text, in the reconciling of contradictions. And there are different people who do it differently. And they may both be good.

“In the Talmud, the great collection of Jewish tradition in talking about the Bible and Jewish life,” says Enns, “They’re forever going back and forth, debating how to understand this stuff and what to do with it. And the debate is canonised. It’s the debate that’s there for people to read and look at… The debate is the way that union with God is fostered.”

We can even see this conversation happening in the Bible: in the changing way that God is viewed and portrayed. They were moving, growing, getting beter at understanding God.

Maybe the reason getting to final conclusions on the Bible is so difficult is because that was never the point. What if the Bible is a tool, rather than just a text? What if it points to Jesus in more than just words, but in difficult stories and changed hearts? Is it possible that all those inconsistencies might actually make this book MORE authoritative, MORE inspired?

We Christians have made accuracy into an artform, dissecting the Bible so that we may find the exact true meaning of every verse and then take an inflexible stand on your interpretation. Maybe it’s not the answer that’s important, but the honest wrestling with the text in search of the answer. Because that is the only way we will ever truly embody the message of the Bible.

People living out the agonising beauty of love and self-sacrifice, taking part in the very nature of God. If I had to write a holy book, that would be a much better result than a set of rules. It isn’t called the living word for nothing.


Calling Names: The Words that Shape Our World

It was a few years ago and I was speechless (which doesn’t happen often). The man had just called himself a fundamentalist. I would obviously have laughed at the joke, but for the sincerity beaming from his face. He was a fundamentalist, yes, I would have readily agreed. The strange thing was that he seemed proud of the fact.

Up to that point, fundamentalist was a derogatory word used to describe believers who refused to think about their faith. In my mind it stood for stupidity, intolerance, close-mindedness offensiveness. But this man obviously didn’t use it in the same way. We were at a fundamental impasse.

The words we use ring true in our minds. Each one has its own special timbre and connotations that we experience as self-evidently part of its meaning. Except that everyone’s words might not sound the same when struck. recently had a series of guest posts called Learning The Words. These posts each focused on a specific word and its meaning within many super-fundamentalist contexts. They detail how the worldview of the people on the inside of these groups is shaped by the meanings that are given to specific words. Words like liberal, worldly, sensual, and pure were given spins that suited the people in control. The words had such strong connotations of right or wrong and what they entailed, that the people in the churches never even thought of questioning the validity of their definitions. Phrases like “that’s what liberals say” got the power to end discussions, because nobody wants to be like THEM.

I recently heard a similar phrase, using capitalist almost as a swearword. In its context it denoted greed, selfishness and lack of empathy. This is not new to me, but for the first time ever it had been directed at me. In my immediate reaction, I realised that I started thinking about certain words in the same way, which brought me to a jarring conclusion:
Whenever we make a noun or an adjective a pejorative term, we’re guilty of abuse. We have turned something that should classify a whole range of standpoints into a collection of the worst opinions we can fit into its definition. This, in turn, destroys the possibility of meaningful discourse. Reducing a well-intentioned argument to the views of a dirty capitalist/fundamentalist/eco terrorist makes us feel more secure in our opinions, without actually engaging with what is being said. Our characterisations become almost comically distorted which makes it easier to win, since the opinions of caricatures are always a bit ridiculous.

We are not pushed towards introspection and sophistication in our opinions and arguments. You see, the more we caricature others, the more we become caricatures ourselves.