I recently finished a thought-provoking and challenging book by one of my former seminary professors, Dr. Daniel Hawk, called The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith. Dr. Hawk teaches at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, OH. I highly recommend this book if you want to dig deeper into the narrative and presentation of God’s violence as seen in scripture, and how people who follow the Prince of Peace are to understand the God of the Old Testament. Rejecting Marcionism, Hawk doesn’t try and defend or make excuses for God, nor does he try and allegorize God and dismiss the violence of the Old Testament (something that is rising in popularity today). Rather, he faithfully enters the canonical texts to see the ways in which God’s violence is manifested, and, over time, how God’s violence changes depending on the historical context and situation.
While the book is phenomenally done, and for me, it raised more questions than gave answers (a sign of a good read), toward the end of the book, Hawk struck a deep chord within me. He discusses the need for robust dialogue among opposing views and interpretations of scripture in order to provide a more thorough view of the texts itself. He admits that he was not trying to articulate the most faithful interpretation, but one that adds to important and needed theological conversation.
First of all, I think this takes humility for a biblical scholar to admit. This shows Hawk’s Christian character. This is how I knew him to be as a professor, and it is refreshing to see his character does not change in his academic writing.
A section tucked into the last chapter resonated deeply within me considering the plight my denomination, the United Methodist Church, finds itself in today. (As a caveat, Dr. Hawk and I are from the same ecclesiological tribe, as he too is ordained in the United Methodist Church). My ecclesiastical family is on the verge of a split of some kind. No one knows what it will look like, but we are pulling even further apart. In February, delegates from all over the world gathered for a special General Conference to discern if there was a way forward together as a denomination, whether the denomination should exist in some new arrangement and configuration, or whether some or all of us simply should go our separate ways. Instead of opting for a way forward, the denomination passed what is called the Traditional Plan, adding to the rift that already divides my denomination. The issue at hand, homosexuality, is what most denominations and churches are wrestling with, be it within the institutional structures of a denomination or parishioners sitting in the pews. It is, and will be for some time, the topic of continued theological debate.
Returning to Hawk’s work, he calls for scripture to be seen as multivalent, and the need for diverse views to help with interpretation. He writes,
The Bible calls for a community committed not so much to winning principled arguments as to hearing opposing perspectives and discerning together how God is at work within the mess to make all things new. Click To Tweet
The Bible can be conceived as the testimony of a great cloud of witnesses, bound by covenant and devotion to the one true God, who nevertheless do not see things the same way and whose perspectives sometimes markedly disagree. Inspiration does not necessarily mean uniformity, as is amply demonstrated in church council meetings today when Spirit-filled servants of Christ experience strident disagreement over important decisions! The biblical canon reflects the church and urges faithful readers past the binary categorization and totalizing that characterize modern thinking and into dialogue with faithful readers of various locations and commitments. It calls for a community committed not so much to winning principled arguments as to hearing opposing perspectives and discerning together how God is at work within the mess to make all things new. [1. L. Daniel Hawk, The Violence of the Biblical God: Canonical Narrative and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019), 201.]
Drawing from literary critic Edward Said’s idea of contrapuntal reading (yes, like contrapuntal music), Hawk reminds us that “interpretation of literary texts in Western society is an exercise in power, which privileges dominant voices and suppresses others.” Said, and by extension Hawk, seek to move us toward dialogue in which “ensembles move interpretation away from a right/wrong polarity in which individual interpreters strive to win arguments and toward a process that sees interpretation as a conversation oriented toward maintaining relationship.”
Weakening the Witness
This section had me jumping out of my seat because this, I believe, is what is weakening the witness of the church in today’s culture. Pastoring within a tradition that has too closely mirrored the political climate of Western society, we have isolated ourselves into theological and hermeneutical camps that resonate with our already preconceived ideas of “the right” biblical interpretation. In doing this, we have told those who are skeptical already about religion that if they do not sign a contractual agreement that they will align perfectly within our theological enclave, they cannot belong. Even worse, we have deemed those who do not agree with our interpretation as not even belonging to the same family of God to which we see ourselves belonging. We have elevated our interpretation above our need to be in communal relationship with each other, especially with those whom we disagree.
When we push “those liberals” or “those fundamentalists” away, we accept a narrow, stodgy, and limited scripture that most often says what we want it to say. It doesn’t challenge us, rebuke us, or shed light into the darker places of our thinking. When our book shelves are lined with theologians, scholars, or practitioners who think like we already do or are of the same gender or race as we are, we fail to see the complexity of scripture and church history as a beautiful tapestry of diverse voices seeking to reveal the mysteries of God. Scripture simply repeats back to us what we already want to hear. When our book shelves are lined with authors who look and think just like us, we fail to see scripture and church history as a beautiful tapestry of diverse voices seeking to reveal the mysteries of God. Click To Tweet
Within my own ecclesiastical family, we are not on the verge of restructuring Wesleyanism as some are saying. We are on the verge of silencing the divergent voices within Wesleyanism that have existed since John and Charles Wesley had their own disagreements. We are on the verge of moving even further into our camps, to protect our viewpoints, and to limit the voices that force us to wrestle with our own idolatrous interpretations. Idolatrous may sound harsh, but it’s far too easy to worship our interpretation of scripture more than the God who is revealed through the grand-narrative of scripture.
This is what I fear most in my tradition. I fear the silencing of needed voices, especially coming from minority communities. If interpretation is about power, which I believe it is, then it will be too easy to assume that the dominant voice(s) speaking for our theological camp is always right. If we go our separate ways, who will challenge us in our thinking and reading? Who will expose our limited understandings and provide fresh expressions and views? There will be no one, I assume, because divergent voices will not even be allowed to speak.
Returning to Said’s contrapuntal reading, Hawk notes, “strongly held convictions may be fervently expressed, not as a means of bending other voices to a single, agreed-upon melody, but rather as an expression of distinct voices in a complex conversation that becomes greater than the sum of its parts.” In order for such a community to exist, humility must be the dominant value and practice. Humility to recognize that I may be wrong. Humility to recognize that minority voices and experiences are equally of value and worth. Humility to recognize that we actually need each other, that “spurring one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24), was not a suggestion but necessary for Christian growth and maturity.
So, as my denomination continues to figure it’s way through our valley, I am not worried about whether our structure will change. I am not worried about preserving or changing the institution of the church. I am, however, worried about ignoring the diversity of expression, interpretation, and experience. I am worried about limiting the voices necessary to help us discover the vastness of God. I am worried about the witness of the Gospel that gathered a ragtag group of people and called them the ecclesia, the gathering of God’s family.
I worry that the songs coming from my denomination, and others that will follow a narrowing and isolating posture, will be one instrument, one melody, playing to one beat. We will lose the symphonic artfulness of diverse instruments, playing differing lines of music, creating a beautiful sound that resonates deep within the human spirit. I worry that we will even silence the composer who wrote the music in the first place. In order for true ecclesia to exist, humility must be the dominant value and practice. Humility to recognize that I may be wrong. Humility to recognize that minority voices and experiences are equally of value and worth. Click To Tweet