Becoming shrewd readers and good listeners

Back when I was young, full of spit and fury, I relished the New Testament book of James. It is so didactic and ethical and uncompromising, and I loved it the way I might have loved a fist-in-the-air protest speech. Still today, there is much I find engaging in James’ appeal to economic justice, the embodiment of faith in acts of kindness and unflinching ethical review of oneself and one’s tribe, toward the worthy goal of deepening love.

But as with many scriptures, I now find it riddled with tripping hazards. This is what I’ve come to call those bits of scripture sticking out like slabs of concrete displaced by aging elm roots: “tripping hazards.” We stumble over these bits, gradually learning to step around them to get where we’re going—in the case of scripture, to get at the gems of our tradition. Gems like James 3:8: “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace”—a tidbit of scripture I have long loved, as I love the truth it encapsulates, truth that appears more reliable to me with each passing year, each time hard-working love and forgiveness do wonders of transformation in situations up-close and personal.

But is it worth the work to get to the gems? I believe it is, as I am also convinced some of the best walks are strewn with serious tripping hazards: forest pathways crosshatched with lacy roots of old-growth; pebble beaches interrupted by bulbous humps of basalt; broad beaches littered with random iridescent jelly fishes, smelly, decomposing sea birds, and dog leavings. We step over these hazards because the terrain itself is, mostly, lovely, and the surrounding outlook transcendent.

This time reading James, it was the three-tiered language that tripped me up: “Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show his works by a good life in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and lie about it. Wisdom of this kind does not come down from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic” (James 3:13-15; Italics added). This kind of language made sense when God was enthroned in some other realm “up above,” only to “come down” on occasion to our middling “earthly” realm, which hovered just slightly above the underworld, the “demonic.” But such language doesn’t speak to me.

The fact is many people of faith no longer conceive of the world in these terms. For us, the spirit is encountered within the earthly, the material, the experiential, and God is closer than our own breath. Likewise, evil is not something down there. It permeates the daily news and taints our own behavior, often sidling up close to our noblest actions. Can we, then, find value in texts like James that are full of tripping hazards—not only three-tiered language, but harsh insider/outsider language, and more priggish and self-righteousness zealotry than we could stomach in a beloved cousin on Facebook, let alone a stranger?

Almost every repository of ancient wisdom is replete with tripping hazards—as with scripture. We must become learned and shrewd readers, as hikers must be wide-awake and shrewd. To dismiss ancient writings because they don’t comport with all of our present-day understandings would be anything but shrewd. It would simply be arrogance—and many postmoderns are guilty of this. It is arrogance to dismiss the words of the ancients. The vetted old ways of those writers, whose words have in so many ways stood time’s tests, save us from our shortsightedness. Yes, we can dialogue with them and take issue with their blind-spots, their prejudices (for example, as we would when reading Shakespeare from a feminist perspective). But as in all conversation, we must also be good listeners—willing to have them expose our own blind-spots and prejudices.

Compared with our noisy, overstimulated lives, the earthy, quiet ways of ancient writers, particularly those who are indigenous, or close to the indigenous, hold wisdom that could help us become better communitarians, more thoughtful inhabitants of this planet, more forgiving partners. Indeed, they could wrest us from the brink of all-out extinction, if we would listen. The book of James speaks of a radical generosity, a carefulness with our neighbors, a keen open-heartedness to those who are the most invisible among us, a reprimand against the wealthy who extort the poor (to which, in our day, he would likely add the Earth, the animals). All of this, we need to hear. It is wisdom for a time when some claim God’s blessing as they loot the common good to enrich a few. As it was in the first-century, so it is today. We need these texts to remind us that economic justice is a timeless concern; and that a correction often follows the looting.

The Gospel of John exemplifies a text that is simultaneously a trove of ancient wisdom and treacherous tripping hazards. No doubt, a remarkable book—both as literature and theology. The prologue itself is among the most profound, forward-thinking tidbits of theology we have. I like Richard Rohr’s suggestion that the best translation of “Word” in John’s prologue, the translation that best elucidates the meaning among first-century Jews, is the word “blueprint.” In the wider context of the passage, the author clearly infers the blueprint is the Christ—the incarnation of God throughout creation (not only Jesus, but those who become “one” with the blueprint). Thus, John 1:1-5:

“In the beginning was the Blueprint, and the Blueprint was with God, and the Blueprint was God. It was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through it, and without it nothing came to be. What came to be through it was life, and this life was the light of humanity; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

John’s prologue has a timeless, archetypal feel. It resonates with what we now call “evolutionary theology,” as if the writer understood the moment of explosion when God enfolded Godself into creation, only to unfold out again over billions of years of evolution—dawning, building complexity, the blossoming subtlety of energy and Spirit. Like so much of John, the prologue is brilliant and beautiful. John’s literary structure is likewise brilliant and beautiful—the astute use of irony and plot, and the rich, literary characterizations of people like Nicodemus, Mary of Magdala, and Pilate. The mounting, groundbreaking claims of unmediated access to God in Spirit; God no longer mediated by an institution.

And yet the book of John is chock full of tripping hazards. Many of the strict exclusivist claims of fundamentalist Christians go back to John, where Jesus often states he is the “only” way to God. In John, Jesus makes the most grandiose claims for himself, in sayings rather out of the step with the other gospels, and which most scholars agree were not on the lips of the historical Jesus. And by far the most troubling issue: no New Testament book has contributed more to Christian anti-Semitism. After all, the community that gave us the book of John was comprised of Jews in a bitter internecine rivalry with their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters, struggling to make a way for themselves outside of the synagogue. Many of the words in John are fighting words, and the way the author uses the Greek word “Ioudaoi” (translated: Jews) teeters near vengeful, or worse. If ever there were tripping hazards in scripture, the Gospel of John is replete with them—hazards that helped precipitate genocide. We have to keep our eyes peeled as we read that gospel, not ignoring or failing to see its significant pitfalls, pointing out and stepping over words that have so perverted the thinking of our Christian forebears—while at the same time appreciating the stunningly remarkable literary and theological landscape.

Many people give up on reading the Bible because they don’t like the tripping hazards. But in simply giving up on ancient texts, we deprive ourselves of so much wisdom and perspective—both of which we need today. Perhaps a “middle way” to the scriptures can be reading trusted modern authors reflecting on ancient texts, serving as interpreters. Judaism has a long tradition of this practice, directing people to rabbinic writings that contextualize and interpret the scriptures, making them more accessible. Today, I frequently read Christian authors bringing biblical texts to life for me, illuminating them in new ways, amplifying their wisdom and strength and calling out themes that ring with astounding present-day resonance—authors like Barbara Brown Taylor, Brian McLaren, Cynthia Bourgeault, Rob Bell, and Richard Rohr.

Encountering the stunning landscape that is scripture, engaging with the timeless insights and sometimes breathtaking details, is worth braving the tripping hazards. It could even change your life.



Image: public domain, Creative Commons

Past Posts