The Cabin in the Woods: All War is Class War

[Warning: this post contains spoilers.  I hate to ruin a good movie for others, so I suggest you watch this movie first before reading what follows after the cut.  Seriously.  The movie was tons of fun.  I pretty much never laugh out loud when I watch movies but I did on multiple occasions with this one.  Also, while a lot of clever things happened in this movie in relation to other horror films, and common tropes from the genre, I won’t be touching on that  in this commentary.  Plenty of other folks have done that already.  However, I haven’t found this particular political reading of the film elsewhere — which is not to say that it isn’t already out there! — so that’s going to be my focus.]

You see where this is going, right?

You see where this is going, right?

1. Overview
I’m going to start by giving everything away.  This is your last chance to walk away and watch the movie.  Take it.  Okay, now that you’ve done that, here we go:
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Phil 1.1-30 (rough draft)

To the Philippians
(1.1) Paul and Timothy, slaves of none but the one true representative of God, the State-executed but divinely vindicated and resurrected terrorist, Jesus, to all those who have set themselves apart to join this movement — being in Philippi with an established counter-government.
(1.2) Grace to you and peace from God who now embraces and cares for us all — we, who are rejected by authorities who claim to be our fathers (yet who abandon us to poverty and misery and the laws of the occupiers, all the while telling us that we should be grateful that our so-called immorality has not made our situation worse than it is!) — and the State-executed but resurrected terrorist, Jesus, who is now the one true divinely elected representative of us all.
(1.3) I thank my God with every remembrance of you, and (1.4) always make joyful supplications on your behalf, with every supplication that I make (1.5) in view of your active and ongoing participation in this movement which embodies the good news of Jesus’ victory over all the powers of Sin and Death which are so prominently expressed in the terrain, the laws, the charity, the boundaries, the representatives and the “fathers” of our “fatherlands.”  From the beginning until now you have actively participated in spreading this movement and this good news and (1.6) I am confident that the one who began this good (albeit illegal) work in you will continue to bring it to completion until the day of our representative and liberator, Jesus.
(1.7) It is just and right for me to think this on behalf of you all because you have me in your heart, for you all participate in my grace, both in my bonds — as I am now imprisoned as one who has gone throughout the Empire and established assemblies (what they take to be “terror cells”) in many of the major cities in the East — and in the defense and vindication of the good news.  (1.8) For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the love of the one true divinely elected representative of us all, Jesus.  (1.9) And this I pray, that your love may ever increase in deeper knowledge and all perception, (1.10) so that you may be able to approve superior things — for how we have learned that those things that we have been taught to think of as superior (things like laws and charity and fathers and rulers and philanthropists), are actually inferior and how hard it is to shake this way of thinking now — and that you may be undefiled (by participation in any of those things that the world of the empire takes to be “superior”) and without blame (by refusing to participate in those practices that the world of the empire takes to be “superior”) in the day of our representative and liberator, (1.11) having been filled with the fruit of justice through Jesus our representative and liberator to the glory and praise of God.
(1.12) I want you to know, beloved siblings, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the good news, (1.13) as it has become known throughout the whole entire military-political complex where I am imprisoned and to everyone else that my (State and law sanctioned) imprisonment is for a liberator who was also imprisoned, and even killed, at the behest of both State and law; (1.14) furthermore, many other members of our movement have become confident because of my bonds and are more willing to dare to speak fearlessly about the seditious content of our speech and our lives.
(1.15) Some make this proclamation, a proclamation made be those who act as official heralds of  our representative and liberator (a surprising king over all kings!) out of envy and strife but some make it with good intentions.  (1.16)  These proclaim our representative and liberator out of love, knowing that I have been appointed to defend the counter-imperial and counter-intuitive good news; (1.17) the others make proclamations about our representative and liberator out of a sense of rivalry, not purely (they are defiled by their acceptance of and participation within notions and practices of “superiority” that we have already rejected) hoping to stir up trouble as I am in bonds (perhaps they believe that the authorities will be more eager to execute me if they catch on to the full content of what we are saying and doing and the full scope of our movement?).  (1.18)  But what does it matter?  In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, our representative and liberator is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.
And I will continue to rejoice, (1.19) for I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your supplications and the bountiful supply of the spirit of Jesus, the state-executed by divinely vindicated and resurrected terrorist.  (1.20) It is my earnest expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame but with all courage as always even now our representative and liberator will be magnified in my body, whether through life or through death (which means, of course, that I will continue to embrace shame as honour and the shameful as honourable!).  (1.21) For to me, to live is the representative and liberator — to know him and to imitate him — and to die is gain — for then my imitation will be complete and I will be able to expect the same divine vindication that he received.  (1.22) If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me — continuing to build this movement — and I do not know which I prefer.  (1.23) I am hard pressed from both sides, my desire is to depart and be with our representative and liberator, for that is much better; (1.24) but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you and for the movement as a whole.  (1.25) Since I have been persuaded of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, so that you may progress in joyful faithfulness (even if that is a faithfulness unto death at the hands of the Powers), (1.26) and that you may boast again in Jesus, our representative and liberator, when I am present with you once again.
(1.27) Only live your life in a manner that is worthy of the good news of the victory won by our representative and liberator — which means embodying socioeconomic and theopolitical practices and relationships that are opposed to the practices and relationships that ended up producing the legal execution of our Lord — so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear things concerning you, you are standing firmly in the spirit of solidarity, with one psyche, wrestling and waging war for the embodied content of the good news (1.28) and not being frightened in anything by your opponents (who all too often have wealth and power and even the law on their sides!), for their opposition to you is a proof of their destruction (as enemies of the God who vindicated and raised our representative and liberator, Jesus) and it is also proof of your salvation (as you faithfully follow in the trajectory established by Jesus).  This is God’s doing.  (1.29)  Because to you it was given, on behalf of our representative and liberator, not only to have faith in him, but also to suffer on his behalf  (1.30) since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have — that is to say, since you, too, are now being treated as terrorists and threats the the very grounds of civilization.

Going to Die: On Staging Losing Conflicts with the Powers (A Sermon)

[The following is a Palm Sunday sermon that I preached today at “The Story” in Sarnia, Ontario.]
Introduction: Jesus Predicts his Own Death
Since today is “Palm Sunday,” we are stepping back from Acts and will be looking at Jesus and his arrival in Jerusalem during the Passover. We all know what happens next in the story: the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus which will be the focus next week. However, it’s safe to say that many of the actors involved in the story – from the disciples, to the crowds, to the Sanhedrin, to the Roman governor – didn’t know what was going to happen.
But Jesus did. Three times, in Luke’s account, we see Jesus predicting his own death. Twice in Lk 9 (vv21-27 and again in vv43-45), and then once more when he is on his way to Jerusalem he says this:

See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the nations; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and so on the third day he will rise again” (Lk 18.31-33).

Jesus knows that he is going to Jerusalem to die. Stop and ask: how does Jesus know this? Don’t give yourself an easy way out and go with the Sarah Silverman answer that Joe mentioned a few weeks ago: “Jesus is magic.” Think harder. “How does Jesus know he is going to die?”
Another question that might help you answer that one is this: “Why did Jesus die?” Want to know what the wrong answer is? “For the sins of the world.” Nobody who was involved in killing Jesus had that on their minds. It’s not like the Sanhedrin, Pilate, and the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross all thought: “Well, gotta kill this guy to save the world from its sin – thanks ever so much for agreeing to do this. Sorry about the nails and all that.” So, why did they kill Jesus?
The answers to these questions can be seen especially clearly in the material we are looking at today: Lk 19.28-48. This passage can be broken into three episodes: the first is when Jesus proceeds from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem and the so-called “triumphal entry” takes place. The second is the short observation that Jesus weeps for Jerusalem and its coming destruction, and the third is the so-called “cleansing of the temple.” I think all of these stories are pretty well known to anybody who grew up going to church, but I think we are mostly taught how to misunderstand them. We tend to read the “triumphal entry” as the story of Jesus coming as a king to Jerusalem, we read Jesus weeping over Jerusalem as an anti-Semitic judgment on the Jews for not being Christians, and we read the “cleansing of the temple” as some sort of religious ritual, which Jesus has exclusive permission to perform because, you know, he’s God. Jesus is magic!
However, when we read these stories in context, very different things come to our attention and after we look at them in more detail, we’ll already be able to know what is going to happen to Jesus – even if we had never read the rest of the story – these verses let us know that Jesus is going to die and why he is going to die.
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I was talking with Gallio the other day about some of the latest rumours that are spreading throughout the Empire. Strangely enough, there seems to be some sort of “movement” establishing occupations in various central cities in the Eastern provinces. However, it seems that some of the members of the movement are objecting to the language of “occupation” – they seem to think that the land is already undergoing an occupation by us, the Roman people, which is pretty laughable left-wing nutbar material if you ask me – we are the agents of peace and security, salvation, civilization, prosperity and the Golden Age, how can we be viewed as some sort of negative occupation?
Anyway, as far as I can tell, this “movment” started in the Middle East in the Spring with #OccupyJerusalem, and then spread to all sorts of other places – #OccupyAntioch, #OccupyTessalonika, #OccupyGalatia (although people are uncertain if that is happening in the North or South of the province) and so on. There are even rumours that one of the more active members of this movement is hoping to set up an occupation (or perhaps help develop an occupation that has already taken place unbeknownst to us?) in Rome itself before moving on to the Western provinces.
Anyway, my curiosity got the better of me and so I thought I would go and check out the occupation that is taking place here in Corinth. After all, the rumours suggest that these people want some sort of “revolution” and they seem to be claiming that some fellow who died as a state-executed terrorist is actually the agent of peace and security and salvation—they seem to want to refer to this person in the same way as we refer to our Lord, Caesar (blessed be) and they seem to think this fellow established some sort of economy that runs counter to our own. How mad… and maddening, really. Don’t these people know what a gift we have given them with our law and order? For, as the divine Augustus once said: the slave-based economy of Roman imperialism is the worst of all the possible options… except for all the other ones! Besides, our economists know that slavery is a necessary growing pain of any recently developed economy and, really, its a far better option than a good many of the choices available to those barbarians. Ungrateful bastards—when the tide rises, all boats rise (and the divine Caesars are, of course, lords of the sea, ever since Pompey liberated the world from pirates).
So, perhaps there would be some money in it for me if I went to visit #OccupyCorinth. If there really was anything seditious going on there, I might make some money by being the first to turn them over to the authorities.
You can’t imagine my disappointment when I got there. What a joke of a “movement.” I couldn’t even make out what their objectives are. They are incoherent and divided. Various factions have arisen. I could identify those of Paul, of Apollos, of Cephas, and of someone called Christ, and, as far as I can tell, they all have different models by which they seek to pursue some sort of change.
This is all pretty humourous for a movement that claims to be leaderless – or, rather, claims that their leader is some immaterial Spirit and some poor dead, uneducated Jew who they think underwent an apotheosis (more like an apocolocyntosis… I should tell Seneca about that play on words, he would appreciate it, I think). Of course, even these supposed “leaders” of “the leaderless” appear to be the dregs of all things. I saw one of them speaking at their General Assembly (they meet weekly for this and so for the civic administration has turned a blind eye to this, even though it is illegal for them to assemble in this way). He was poorly clothed, apparently homeless, seemed to have marks from beatings, coarse hands from hard work (how shameful!) and appeared to be hungry, foolish, weak, disreputable and altogether rubbish. I mean, who can take people who look like this seriously?
They make their own clothes (if you even want to call those eclectic rags “clothes”)? Egad. What do they have to tell us about anything?
Not only that, but they appear to be a profoundly immoral group. While visiting the occupation, I learned that one fellow is having sex with his father’s wife! Can you imagine! Even the most licentious of us Romans would never consider such a thing. Of course, the supporters of #OccupyCorinth have tried to tell me that such a person is a rare exception to the rule – and that we should not judge a whole movement based upon one bad apple – but I think we all know that they are just trying to hide the fact that they are all probably incestuous.
Not only incestuous, but also atheists. They reject our gods – the very same gods who gave us our economic values, who raised the standard of living of all throughout the empire, and provided us with the family values we admire and protect (the divine Augustus worked harder than any other to restore the dignity of the family, did he not?). So, while they claim to talk in some sort of religious language, we should not be fooled: these are atheists and, literally, motherfuckers.
Things only became even more of a joke, when I learned that some of the occupiers were using our legal and judicial system in order to resolve conflicts that occurred within the occupation. These people claim to be embodying some sort of alternative kingdom, centred around the Spirit of new life and the revaluation of values but as soon as the going gets tough, they appeal right back to systems that any true revolutionary would see as opposed to their goals. What a bunch of poseurs and hypocrites.
I could go on and on, but I’ll just mention three more things. First, the occupation can’t even figure out their eating arrangements. Some are meat-eaters, some are vegans, some only eat “free range” meat or something like that (is that what “kosher” means?), and they can’t sort out how to address everybody’s needs without getting into fights with each other. How pathetic. Not only that, but for all their talk about being a new society of brothers and sisters, when they do get together to eat, it seems like those who have higher status (which, let’s be honest, is only relatively higher status, since they are all a bunch of beggars and inbreds) appear to be taking the better portions of food and eating more than others. So much for loving one another in new ways. This isn’t the sort of concrete and material mutualism that we Romans practice with our siblings.
Second, they seem to be permitting women to run around acting in roles that should only be reserved for men. I would feel entirely emasculated if a woman told me what to do, yet there are some women who seem to be acting as “leaders” (in a “leaderless” movement). Now, obviously we Romans value women, but everybody knows that they are to play a different role in society. I would never follow a leader I could beat in a fight (something Senator Marcus Driscolius once said about those barbarians who were revolting up north under the authority of a woman). Women, obviously, are made to bear children and care for the home. This does not mean they are any less human than men, but it means their role is different.
Third, a good portion of those at #OccupyCorinth appear to be either high or in psychosis. Some are walking around speaking in tongues that nobody can recognize, some claim to be able to heal the sick with alternative medicine (or simply by touching them while speaking certain words!), some claim to be able to prophesy the future, and some even claim to be able perform vaguely defined “works of power.” What a bunch of crazies. Seriously, I would expect this sort of madness from the Gauls and other barbarians (damn tribal people, they would probably have drum circles… yuck!) but I expect more from Greeks.
That said, despite their obvious beggarly nature, despite their juvenile behaviour, despite their immorality, incompetence, and incoherence, there still were some very troubling and destructive messages being proclaimed. If anybody started taking them seriously, we could be in trouble – indeed, given the way this Occupy Together thing is spreading, the Empire itself could be in trouble. Not because something better is coming along, but because these people seem to proponents of chaos and anarchy and ways of structuring life together that are proven failures.
For example, one of their leaders-but-not-really-leaders, is trying to encourage them to share their resources and money with one another in some sort of “Collection,” and is trying to network the occupations throughout the Empire so that, even though they are all poor, there will always be enough for everybody. This sort of utopian economic theory is the sort of thing we might expect from the barbarians in East Germania and beyond, but it has obviously proven false and was thoroughly refuted at the fall of wall of Alesia (and the defeat of Vercingetorix). Not only is it wrong from an economic angle, it is wrong from a moral angle. It refuses to respect the divine laws of private property and disregards the fact that people have earned what they have and deserve to keep it (whether that be a little or a lot). Yet, these atheists refer to these divine laws as idolatry. Perhaps we have spoiled our colonies a little too much and now some are responding by acting like ungrateful children. Spare the fasces, spoil the child.
Not only that but, as an aside, we should note that it probably isn’t good for the Empire to have various members of vanquished nations interacting with each other in this way, apart from some sort of Roman intermediary. Given that this movement likes to imitate our political ways of structuring life together – both by forming local assemblies (“occupations”), establishing its own law courts (and claiming that they are beyond or above the law because of grace and love – a fuller expression of anarchy has never been heard before!), and using political metaphors (referring to their groups as a single body, when really we know that the political community is the true body) – we should note how this might end up creating a transnational alternative to what we offer… that is, if these incompetent, immoral fools can get their act together.
There are other heretical and seditious views proclaimed by some members of this “movement.” Thus, perhaps in a moment of megalomania, I heard one of them proclaim that: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” I might be tempted to respond: “Okay, buddy. Keep telling yourself that and living in your fantasy land,” but this is a dangerous fantasy. I heard the same person say, that the “rulers of this age are doomed to perish,” in part, I think, because they are said to have “crucified the Lord of glory.” This same Lord will, supposedly, hand our empire over to his God who will “destroy every ruler and every authority and every power” and will put “all his enemies [including us, I suppose, since we crucified their “Lord”] under his feet.”
This is rebellious talk and should not be tolerated. We all know that crucifixion is a form of death reserved only for the worst members of society. Thus, to say that some crucified person is Lord, while proclaiming doom upon the rulers, is an offense that should not go unpunished… and should be punished severely. Of course, this same fellow who said those words, also described our judicial system as “unrighteous” and “unjust” so there may be no hope of reforming him (given the scars on his body, he may not have been hyperbolic when he described himself as “sentenced to death” and being “in danger every hour”).
I went back to Gallio and told him about these things but he said I’m getting a little worked up over nothing. Obviously, we are dealing with a bunch of juvenile, immoral (probably high), ignorant, and hypocritical wannabes who like to throw around some provocative rhetoric but who won’t make it through the first winter. Gallio assured me that, while they are monitoring the situation, the main thing to do is to present a benevolent face to the public. Lord Caesar knows, it wasn’t that long ago that we completely destroyed Corinth so, even though these people are beyond ungrateful for the grace we have shown them since then, violence might not be the answer yet. These people will implode upon themselves or fall apart before they can offer anything serious to the city. In a year, I reckon that this “movement” will be completely dead and gone.
A Roman Citizen and friend of Liberty, Property, and the Rule of Law

The New Testament and Violence. Part Two: The Nonviolence of Paul

[This is the second part of my ongoing series.  For Part One, see here.  I will turn to the Sectarianism of John in my next section, before offering some concluding remarks in a final post.]
The Nonviolence of Paul
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the assembly of God and was ravaging it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many contemporaries in my nation, being far more of a zealot for my ancestral traditions ~ Gal 1.13-14.
The turn from Jesus to Paul leads to what some may consider to be an unexpected reversal. Having noted the violence of Jesus, it is interesting to note how Paul develops the Jesus tradition in a more thoroughly nonviolent, or pacifist, manner. Just as our assumptions about “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” have been challenged, so also our assumptions about Paul, the man blamed for legitimizing the sword of the State along with a host of others evils, end up being reworked in light of what the texts actually do and do not say.
Of course, like Jesus, Paul has not entirely escaped from the ideologies of the triumphant that seek to impose “legitimate” violence upon one’s enemies. Like Jesus, Paul sometimes speaks of a coming moment of cataclysmic divine violence and judgment (cf., for example, Ro 2.5-11; 2 Cor 5.10; Gal 1.8-9; Phil 3.18-19; 1 Thess 1.9-10, 2.16). Also like Jesus, he is not beyond verbally abusing his opponents – even wishing that some of his opponents in Galatia would go ahead and castrate themselves (Gal 5.12 – Paul refers to a comparable group as “dogs” in Phil 3.2)! However, it is worth noting that in relation to both of these areas, Paul seems to exhibit more grace than Jesus. In relation to violent divine judgment, Paul focuses God’s wrath upon the here-and-now, with God’s wrath simply being God’s refusal to intervene and prevent the inevitably tragic end result of a people’s self-chosen sinful activities. When speaking of final judgment, however, Paul does not have a lot to say and, in fact, he refuses to cast any sort of judgment upon either those outside of the assemblies of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 5.9-13) or the enemies of those assemblies (cf. Ro 12.14-21). Even when Paul does find it necessary to pronounce an exceedingly harsh judgment upon another Jesus-follower, something he describes as handing a person “over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” Paul still limits this judgment to the temporal realm, so that the spirit of this man “may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5.5; see also 1 Cor 3.12-15). Finally, not only does Paul limit his reflections upon some final divine act of violence, but he also leaves the door open for a great final act of universal salvation. Thus, he writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15.22) and again, “just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Ro 5.18 – some tantalizing results are also produced when Phil 2.10-11 is read in conjunction with Ro 10.9!).
Turning to the second parallel, having noted that Paul sometimes loses his temper and verbally abuses his opponents, it is still worth noting that Paul is much more focused upon redefining enemies as non-human structural, cosmic and spiritual Powers. Again, in this regard, it seems to me that Paul demonstrates more grace than Jesus – not only holding out the possibility of final salvation for the worst offenders and for his opponents, but also shifting the focus of one’s warfare or hatred to the non-human realm. This emphasis comes through especially strongly in the Deutero-Pauline epistles of Colossians and Ephesians (which remain much more faithful to Paul than the Pastorals), but it is already found in the non-contested Pauline letters. Thus, in Ro 13.12, Paul calls the Jesus-followers to put on armor, not of metal in order to battle other people, but of light in order to battle darkness and the vices of the flesh (a metaphor further developed in Eph 6.10-17). Thus, while some of our contemporary bourgeois pacifists may express discomfort with Paul’s usage of warfare imagery here or elsewhere, the point is that Paul has shifted the terrain of the war from the personal to the spiritual and structural realms.
Therefore, when we compare Paul’s rhetorical violence to that of Jesus, we discover a Paul who is much more gentle, meek, and mild than Jesus. This difference is only heightened when we compare Paul’s actual actions to those of Jesus. For, unlike Jesus, we are hard pressed to find any sort of violent action employed by Paul as God’s ambassador to the nations.
However, it is important to note that this refusal of violence comes after Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. Prior to that apocalyptic event, both Paul and Luke claim that Paul was engaged in violent actions – arresting and imprisoning some, seizing property, and even assisting in the executions of others. Here Paul’s references to his allegiance to “Judaism” (a term coined to express opposition to “Hellenism” and highlight separation from other nations), to being a “Pharisee” (meaning a “separated one”), combined with the mention of his “zeal,” all lead to the hypothesis that Paul, before his encounter with Christ, was a member of a Pharisaic group that modeled itself after the likes of Phinehas and the other “heroes of zeal” in the Hebrew Scriptures—people whose unconditional commitment to the distinctiveness of Israel was exhibited in a willingness to use violence, even against other Judaeans. For Paul and other zealots (i.e. others who were “zealous” for Israel), zeal was “something you did with a knife” (to borrow the words of N. T. Wright).
Therefore, one of the ways in which Paul’s call produces a significant conversion in his work post-Damascus is the way in which it moves him from violent to non-violent actions. Instead of violently purging the people of God, Paul embraces non-violence in order to suffer with Christ and extend the offer of the peace of God to the members of all the nations. Paul’s zealous violence has given way to zealous love which now manifests itself, not in the willingness to kill but in the willingness to die. Of course, Paul does not completely break with his old behaviours – in Acts 13.6-12, for example, we read of Paul temporarily blinding a sorcerer named Elymas – but the transition is a very significant one.
Does this mean that Paul understands the conflict between that which is life-giving and that which is death-dealing in a different way than Jesus? Do his different tactics reflect a different agenda? I do not think so. It seems to me that Paul is just as deeply committed to the pursuit of life, and the worship of the God of Life, over against Death and the death-dealing Powers of his day. Paul’s embodied proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ lordship, still runs completely against imperial modes of domination. Thus, Paul urges economic mutuality, along with the emancipation of slaves, and the equal status of all – men and women, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, within the assemblies of Jesus. Yet almost nowhere does he engage in the same sort of violence against private property exhibited by Jesus. I can only think of one example of Paul engaging in an illegal action of that nature.1 While in Philippi, Paul and Silas encounter a female slave who is possessed by a pythonic fortune-telling spirit. This slave, Luke tells us, made a great deal of money for her masters. However, Paul ends up casting this spirit out of her, thereby enraging the owners who end up getting Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, flogged and imprisoned by the magistrates (cf. Acts 16.16-24). By casting out the spirit, Paul has damaged the value of the slave-owners property (the female slave was legally considered a thing, not a person). Thus, he destroys “property” in the service of life. Of course, Luke frames this act as though is arose spontaneously on Paul’s part (Paul became too “annoyed” to properly control himself), but it actually fits in rather well with Paul’s entire trajectory regarding slavery, wherein slaves were to be treated as people, as equals, as siblings, as citizens of heaven, and as children and heirs of God.
This is just one area that demonstrates Paul’s desire to create alternative communities of life within central places of the Empire. For Paul, this is such a crucial and dangerous task that he tries to “fly under the radar” rather than jeopardize his mission in any other way (indeed, even without any outright actions of violence against property, Paul is still executed by the Roman imperial powers, an observation that demonstrates the degree of risk involved in his work). Therefore, what we see when we compare Jesus and Paul are different tactics employed in the pursuit of the same goal. While it is tempting to psychologize the differences between the two – perhaps by suggesting that Jesus was better equipped to ably employ violence whereas Paul needed to more wholeheartedly avoid this realm of possible actions due to the violent nature of his past – I do not wish to press that point. I simply want to observe that the tactics of both are different but legitimate options available to those who seek to follow Jesus and imitate Paul.

1There is one great act of Christian property destruction in Acts, when the sorcerers at Ephesus burn their books, which had a combined approximate value of 50,000 drachmas – however, while this fits into the general trajectory of supporting the destruction of property that is idolatrous and death-dealing, it was a voluntary action performed by the owners of the property and so no crime was committed. Cf. Acts 19.17-20.

The New Testament and Violence. Part One: The Violence of Jesus

[What follows is my submission to the series on “Violence and Christian Holy Writ” that has been running for the last number of weeks over at the blog of Cynthia Nielsen.  Up until today, I was under the impression that my post had been accepted but Cynthia has since notified me that (for reasons I won’t go into here) my submission has been rejected.  Therefore, I thought I would post it here because I am genuinely interested in what others might think of this topic.  I envision three follow-up posts exploring this theme in the New Testament — the nonviolence of Paul, the sectarianism of John, and a concluding post on the importance of respecting and employing the diversity of tactics we encounter in the NT.]
The Violence of Jesus
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places – Eph 6.12
In what follows, I will argue that some Christians should embrace a certain kind of violent action in order to faithfully follow Jesus within our present context. By making this argument, I will be situating myself within an uncomfortable ideological location – rejecting the (often imperialistic and murderous) Niebuhrian position on violence as a “necessary evil,” and standing outside of the (often superficial and self-serving) pacifism of Anabaptist-inspired Christians, there is every chance that both parties will be ill-equipped to hear what I am saying.
This is why it is essential to examine the words and actions of Jesus before we embrace any ideology related to non/violence. Rather than asking, “Is violence (whatever that is) right or wrong?” it is better to ask “How did Jesus act and what might it mean to faithfully follow Jesus today?” Pursuing this question, helps us to escape from ingrained theological or cultural perspectives that have prevented us from recognizing what the Gospels actually say on this subject.
When studying Jesus, a few important points stand out. First, although Jesus sometimes verbally abuses others – referring to Peter as “Satan” (Mk 8.33), calling a Gentile woman a “dog” (Mk 7.27), and saying a whole host of nasty things about the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law (cf., for example, Mt 23.1-33) – and although he seems to expect some sort of future divine violence to be enacted against people, in part, because of the way they treat him (Mt 11.20-24, 23.35-38, 25.1-46, 26.24, etc.) – Jesus never engages in any act of physical violence against another person. Furthermore, when people do engage in what could be legitimate forms of violence against others, Jesus is quick to counteract their actions (as when he heals the fellow whose ear is lopped off by one of the disciples [cf. Lk 22.49-51]).
The concomitant of this rejection of acting violently against others is Jesus’ ongoing action to heal, forgive, accept, and touch others – especially, the poor, the sick, the sinners, and the ostracized. Thus, while some may be fated for the experience of divinely-imposed violence in the future, at the moment of Jesus’ ministry all people are offered God’s gift of new and abundant life.
Here we get to one of the fundamental points of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus was acting in the service of the God of Life, offering life to all, and thereby also actively resisting all the Powers that acted in the service of Death (Powers that included demons, sin, sickness, loneliness, deprivation, and the theopolitical authority of Rome and Jerusalem). This is why, despite his sometimes violent rhetoric and his threatening scare-tactics, Jesus cannot act in a way that harms anybody else. To be in the service of life for all, means that one cannot physically harm anybody else. One must love even one’s enemies, and loving one’s enemies means that one cannot harm them, even if they seek to harm you. Here, the Anabaptist-inspired Christians are right, and the Niebuhrians and the “just war” theorists are wrong. Physically harming any other person falls outside of the range of actions appropriate to contemporary followers of Jesus.
However, that is not the end of Jesus’ engagement with violence, and this is where the Anabaptist-inspired Christians tend to get things wrong. What is almost universally neglected in Christian conversations regarding non/violence, are Jesus’ actions of violence against private property. This is the second point that needs to be highlighted (indeed, that this point is neglected by both sides of the debate demonstrates that both parties tend to share a common class interest and bias – i.e. people on both sides tend to hoard a great deal of private property).
The most obvious example of this type of violence is the “direct action” Jesus takes in the Jerusalem temple (John 2.13-16; cf. Mk 11.15-17; Mt 21.12-3; Lk 11.45-46). This event is interesting because it is the closest Jesus comes to employing physical violence against others. Indeed, the reason why the buyers and sellers fled the temple was because of the perception that physical violence might be employed against them. However, the texts seem to suggest that violence was only actualized against property. Here, property is not only damaged, it is probably also stolen, and violence is used to facilitate that theft (to imagine the scattered coins being left for the money changers to gather is a bit implausible).
Two points are usually overlooked here: first, although a detailed exegesis is employed in order to demonstrate the likelihood that Jesus’ violence was restricted to property and not people, the point that Jesus actually does engage in an act of violence against private property is not appropriately emphasized. Secondly, this passage tends to be cited as the only example of Jesus engaging in a physically violent act, but this overlooks other passages demonstrating Jesus’ willingness to destroy private property or approve of others doing so.
To choose a second example, one can also recall the healing of a certain demon-possessed man (cf. Mk 5.1-20; Mt 8.28-34; Lk 8.26-39). In this action, Jesus casts a “Legion” of demons into a herd of about two thousand pigs (the pig, it should be remembered, was a symbol of one of the Roman legions that destroyed Jerusalem in 70CE). These pigs rush into a lake and are drowned. This prompts the locals to plead with Jesus to depart from their region. This response is a bit puzzling until one remembers that Jesus had just destroyed an expensive herd belonging to a wealthy but absent land-owner. This land-owner had entrusted his herd to the locals and would be furious at his loss. Therefore, the locals likely wanted Jesus to leave before he could do any more damage and further threaten their safety.
As a third example, we can recall Jesus’ tacit approval of those who damaged the roof of a private home in order to have their paralyzed friend healed by him (cf. Mk 2.1-5; Lk 5.18-26).
Again, the clash between serving life and confronting that which is death-dealing is at the core of Jesus’ actions in these three cases. When private property is linked to that which is death-dealing or prevents that which is life-giving, Jesus is not afraid to destroy it – regardless of the laws that exist to protect it.
This carries some important implications for those who seek to follow Jesus today and pushes us in an interesting direction. Instead of asking, “Is violence right or wrong?” followers of Jesus should be asking, “What is life-giving and what are the death-dealing things that stand in the way of abundant life for all?” Answering this question requires us to move beyond theory to action, perhaps even militant action. What we may need is a Christian militancy that is willing to destroy idolatrous and death-dealing private property (an enemy not of blood and flesh), while simultaneously holding out the offer of abundant life to all people.
Exploring two partially flawed Canadian examples may stimulate our imaginations in this regard (note: no people were harmed in both cases). First, recall the “Heart Attack” protest that occurred in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympics (cf. here for video of that protest and for information on why the Olympic Games are death-dealing – although you should read Helen Lenskyj or watch this documentary for more detailed analysis). During that protest, some windows of a Hudson’s Bay Company store were smashed (the HBC has a long history of brutality against the Canadian aboriginal peoples, and Vancouver exists on unceded and stolen Coast Salish land). Although I questioned the tactical value of smashing those windows – and raised those questions not from a distance but as one of the thirteen arrested that day – the smashing of those windows did not strike me as immoral. It may very well have been a Christ-like action.
Second, we can recall how an anarchist group (two fifty year olds and one thirty-five year old) firebombed a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada in Ottawa (our capital) prior to this year’s G8/G20 Summits (cf. here for footage and a glimpse into RBC’s brutal history). This may very well be a contemporary example of what it looks like to overturn the tables of the money changers.
This helps to clarify the true “cost of discipleship.” It reminds us that bearing the brand-marks of Christ on our bodies means living with bodies that are scarred by the disciplinary actions of the authorities who operate in the service of Death. We can no longer fool ourselves: our commitment to abundant life for all might lead us to be condemned with a terrorist (lestes) on either side of us. Only then will we be able to journey no further into union with the crucified Christ.
Fire on Babylon. Lord, have mercy.

On So-Called 'High' and 'Low' Views of Scripture

When a person crosses ideological boundaries in order to engage in discussions about Jesus, Paul, or any other aspect of biblical theology, it seems as though the more seriously one takes the context of the biblical authors, the ‘lower’ one’s view of Scripture is said to be.  Conversely, the more one favours a ‘plain reading’ of the texts at hand, the ‘higher’ one’s view of Scripture is said to be.  Not surprisingly, it is usually those who favour this ‘plain reading’ who tend to make this sort of statement.
Imagine, for example, the following discussion.
Party A wishes to suggest that Paul as a human person, is not simply an unbiased conduit of the divine Word of God but is, at times, influenced by other political or cultural factors (after all, what human person is not so influenced?).  In order to illustrate this point, Party A points to 1 Cor 11.14-16, wherein Paul argues that ‘nature’ teaches us that it is disgraceful for men to have long hair or for women to have short hair.  Surely, Party A says, this is not God’s general and eternal rule for how we wear our hair; rather, in this passage Paul is revealing one of the ways in which he has been influenced by his own historical context.  Therefore, Party A concludes that there are times when properly respecting Paul means not applying what he has said to our contemporary context.
At this point Party B objects.  No, Party B says, Scripture — whether written by Paul or anybody else — is the divine Word of God and means the same thing for us as it meant at the time it was written.  If Paul makes a statement to one of his churches regarding the length of hair worn by men and women, then this statement must apply equally to us today.  To do otherwise, Party B asserts, is to diminish the authority of Scripture — as though we can pick and choose which commandments to follow!  Therefore, Party B concludes that Party A must have a ‘low view’ of Scripture, whereas Party B holds to a ‘high view’.
Now this conclusion is problematical for at least three reasons.
First, comments regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ views of Scripture tend to actually operate as (veiled?) ad hominum attacks upon the other Party engaging in this discussion.  The implication is that those who have a ‘high’ view treat Scripture with more reverence or respect than those accused of having a ‘low’ view.  In my own experience, this has never been the case.  What is at stake are two differing hermeneutical methodologies and not the reverence or respect with which Scripture is treated.  Indeed, one cannot even say that those who claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture allow Scripture to operate with more authority in their lives.  Once again, what one finds is that both of the parties are trying to live lives that accord with Scripture — it’s just that the parties differ over which elements of Scripture operate authoritatively.  Thus, while members of Party A may not give much contemporary weight to what Paul writes about hair (based upon cultural and contextual grounds), they might give a whole lot more contemporary weight to Jesus’ injunction to the rich young ruler in Mk 10.21.  Similarly, while members of Party B might disregard what Jesus says to the rich young ruler (based upon literary and contextual grounds), they might continue to affirm what Paul says about hair.  Thus, the question is not who treats Scripture as a greater authority, the question is who treats what parts of Scripture as authoritative and why.
This points to the second problem with the conclusion drawn by Party B — it is fundamentally inconsistent with the way in which members of Party B tend to treat all the texts contained within the Canon.  While members of Party B often want to defend a ‘plain’ reading of almost every sentence found within the Pauline and deutero-Pauline epistles, they most certainly do not apply the same rule to every other passage, observation, or injunction found within the Bible.  Thus, while a member of Party B may choose to follow Paul’s advice regarding hair, that member likely won’t follow the Deuteronomic command to stone disobedient children (cf. Deut 21.18-21).  This is not because the New Testament ever tells us that the command to stone disobedient children has been revoked (which is often the rational used by members of Party B to disregard other passages in the Old Testament — largely those related to food, circumcision, purity, and cultic acts).  Rather, it is because members of Party B can see the ways in which the violent patiarchalism of the Ancient Near East (often reflected in the Old Testament) is not something worth applying within our contemporary context.
Or, to take a second example, let us look at Prov 26.4 and Prov 26.5.  The first verse tells us not to answer a fool according to that person’s folly lest we become like the fool ourselves.  The second verse tells us to answer a fool according to that person’s folly so that the fool does not become wise in his or her own eyes.  What are we to do with this glaring contradiction?  Well, I suspect that members of both Parties A and B would tell us that Proverbs belong to a certain genre of Wisdom literature wherein general but not universally applicable aphorisms are suggested.  Thus, it is up to the person with wisdom to discern which aphorism applies to which context.  What is clear (to both Parties, I think) is that both Prov 26.4 and Prov 26.5 cannot be equally applied at the same time in the same way.
Therefore, it actually looks like members of Party A and of Party B hold strikingly similar views of Scripture as a whole, but disagree on how this view is applied to certain passages.  Given that this is the case, it seems like a cheap effort to gain power over the opposing Party by claiming a ‘high’ view of Scripture, or by charging the opposing Party with a ‘low’ view. (Or it could simply be a way of avoiding addressing the issue more substantially — i.e. by saying that a person’s view can be rejected, a priori, because that view belongs to a ‘lower’ view of Scripture.)
Third, and finally, claiming a high view Scripture is problematical because it is often a means of masking what is actually a rather disrespectful approach to Scripture.  To illustrate this point take the way in which Mary is treated within the Roman Catholic Church.  The Roman Catholic hierarchy can point to its veneration of Mary in order to suggest that it has a high view of women… and this then becomes one of the ways in which that hierarchy masks the way it oppresses and marginalizes women within the historical Church itself!   Similarly, those who claim a ‘high’ view of Scripture often (intentionally or not) end up using this as a way of masking the ways in which they abuse Scripture by disregarding its contexts, its various genres, and so on.  Sadly, the rhetoric of a ‘high’ view of Scripture is all too often employed to defend superficial readings that actually abuse the texts at hand.  Thus, the language of ‘high’ and ‘low’ views becomes a propaganda tool and a means of deception.
Therefore, in light of these things, I suggest that we abandon this language altogether.

How I Understand the Bible

(1) Rooted, as I am, within the Christian tradition, I believe that it is best to understand the Bible as a partial but privileged witness to the history of God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general, and humanity in particular.
(1.1) I use the the term partial here because the Bible is not an exhaustive account of all the ways in which God’s life-giving engagement occurs.  Indeed, the Bible itself frequently suggests that there are many other unknown ways in which God is engaging the world.  For example, in the Old Testament, we meet mysterious characters like Melchizedek, or we hear of God’s plans and involvement with nations and peoples outside of Israel.  Thus, the Bible only accounts for one particular trajectory within God’s life-giving interactions with us.
(1.2) However, within the Christian tradition, this is a privileged trajectory — hence my use of that term here.  For Christians, the history of God’s life-giving engagement with creation culminates in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.  Thus, the Bible is a Christocentric text, bearing witness to God in Jesus Christ.  This is not to say that every single text within the Bible must be taken as referring to Jesus; rather, it is to assert that the general trajectory of the Bible, prior to Jesus’ coming, points forward to him, and that the general trajectory of the Bible, after Jesus’ coming, refers back to him.
(1.3) Thus, as a partial and privileged witness the Bible is understood as a text that reveals something beyond itself — God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general, and humanity in particular.  Therefore, Christians treat the Bible as a sacred text, not because the text itself is sacred (or infallible, for that matter), but because the text points beyond itself to the revelation of the God of Life.  As Karl Barth has said, the Bible is not the Word of God, but a witness to the Word of God — Jesus Christ.
(1.4) I should also explicate what I mean by speaking of the history of God’s life-giving engagement with the world.  Essentially, I am asserting that God understood as the God of Life, is the central thread running through the entire biblical narrative and all its disparate parts.  Thus, God is first presented as the Creator of all other forms of life — plants, animals, and humans who are formed from the dust of the earth — the Sustainer of all life — causing the sun to rise and the rain to fall — and the Renewer of life — ultimately even restoring life to the dead in the new creation of all things.  All of these things are things that God does in relation to creation in general, and humanity in particular.  Thus, the Bible is neither an anthropocentric text, nor is it a text that treats humans the same as all other creatures.  Rather, while not denying all of the ways in which God engages the cosmos, it focuses upon God’s interaction with us because this is what we need to know in order to live within creation.  Or, as C. S. Lewis might say, this is ‘our story’, but that we have this story does not mean that there are several other stories being told alongside of it.
(2) However, lest we become confused and reduce this notion to some sort of ‘cosmology of life’, spanning from creation to new creation, I must emphasise that, within biblical history, God’s life-giving engagement with us is primarily revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peace.
(2.1) Therefore, it is essential for us to realise that there is a fundamental conflict occurring within biblical history.  The God of Life is constantly waging war on Death, and all the ways Death finds expression within creation and within our common life together.  Of course, by speaking of this fundamental conflict, I am not seeking to restore some sort of dualism, as though Life and Death, good and evil, or light and darkness, are locked into some sort of eternal struggle.  Rather, Death has entered into creation as an alien intrusion and will one day be done away with.  The God of Life is Sovereign and has conquered Death on the cross of Jesus, and will one day completely abolish Death and its reign.
(2.2) However, until the day of Death’s total abolition, Death still operates within history through the forces of sin (which is that which brings death into the world; i.e. sin is anything that is death-dealing): notably, bondage, sickness, division, and violence.  Consequently, God is understood as the great Liberator — bringing about such events as the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt — as the great Healer — offering sight to the blind, wholeness to the broken, and new life to the dead — and as the Reconciler and Peacemaker — restoring humanity to relationship with God, restoring the socially marginalised into the community of abundant life, and bringing together various nationalities, ethnicities, genders, and members of diverse social locations into the form of fellowship that Robert Jewett has described as ‘agapaic-communalism’.
(3) Therefore, given what I have said thus far, we may also understand the Bible as a text possessing coherence, contradictions, and cultural conditioning.
(3.1) We can speak of coherence within the Bible, because the broad theme of God’s life-giving engagement, which is focused upon Jesus of Nazareth, and regularly revealed in acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking, in conflict with Death and its lackeys,  can be traced throughout the various biblical texts.
(3.2) However, we can also speak of contradictions and cultural conditioning within the Bible because this history of God’s life-giving engagement with us, is a history recorded by particular authors (and editors), from particular places, at particular moments.  These authors are not infallible voices, but they do their best to understand what God is doing, and what this means for them, even as they impart certain other culturally conditioned paradigms onto God and their experiences of God.  Thus, we should not be afraid to acknowledge that certain voices within the Bible stand in tension, and sometimes in total opposition, to certain other voices (say, for example, the tension between what Walter Brueggemann has referred to as the ‘justice tradition’, and the ‘holiness tradition’ in the Old Testament; or, to provide a further example, the contradiction between the imperial Davidic theology found within some Psalms and Proverbs, and the anti-imperial prophetic theology, found within the Prophets and the Gospels).  Further, we should also have no issue with other contradictions and scribal errors within the Bible (say, for example, the different accounts of who killed Goliath, found in 1 Sam 17.50 & 2 Sam 21.19).  All of these things are to be expected when humans, with all their limitations, try to bear witness to God — and none of these things take away from the fundamental coherence of the Bible, which we have mentioned above.
(4) Therefore, the task of the contemporary reader of the Bible is to learn how to negotiate this coherence, contradiction, and cultural conditioning in order to witness to, and participate within, God’s life-giving engagement with creation in general and humanity in particular.

(4.1) This, then, leads me to reject some other contemporary ways of reading the Bible.  Most notably, I am led to reject the more standard Conservative reading of Scripture which tends to favour a supposedly ‘plain reading’ of Scripture, and which tends to assert that we must accept everything said by the Bible — or by a certain voice within the Bible (usually Paul) — to be universally true and binding.
(4.1.1) Thus, to pick a fairly straight-forward example, on the one hand, we can see how Paul’s emphasis upon the ways in which Christ and the Spirit abolish various hierarchies within the community of faith (cf., for example, Gal 3.26-29), coheres well with the broader trajectory of Scripture; but, on the other hand, we can also see how Paul writes as a culturally-conditioned person, when he asserts that ‘nature teaches us’ that it is shameful for men to have long hair, and for women to have short hair (cf. 1 Cor 11.14-16).
(4.1.2) However, this rapidly becomes more complicated and we can begin to postulate that other assertions have more to do with the cultural conditioning of the biblical authors than they have to do with the revelation of the God of Life.  Take, for example, New Testament references to hell and the punishment of those who fall outside of the community of faith.  It is clear that some New Testament authors believed in the future torment and damnation of their enemies and oppressors (this is likely true of the author of John’s Apocalypse), but one wonders how much this belief accords with the revelatory history of God’s life-giving, liberating, healing, reconciling, and peacemaking character and actions.  It is quite possible that the affirmation of hell is simply an element of the cultural conditioning of some biblical authors whose understanding of God is still constrained by then contemporary notions of power, sovereignty, and judgment and who then read those notions into their experiences of God in history (this is what Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is talking about when she criticises the so-called ‘kyriarchical’ approach taken by Paul in some epistles).
(4.2) Of course, we are negotiating a rather slippery slope, and the immediate objection to what I am saying here is that I, an equally culturally conditioned person, am setting myself up as an authority over the Bible (instead of affirming the Bible as an authority over me) and allowing my own subjective preferences to determine which parts of the Bible cohere with the big picture of God’s life-giving engagement with us, and which parts are simply reflections of the various authors cultural conditioning.  However, this is not the case, and I also reject other, more liberal and postmodern readings of the Bible that treat it in this way.  At the very least, my approach need not be any more subjective and arbitrary than any other approach to the Bible.  After all, we must recall that all approaches are subjective and arbitrary, at least to the degree that we all subjectively choose which approach we are going to take to the Bible, and to the degree that every approach affirms some things the Bible says as universally binding (say that worship of the God of the Bible is related to living fully human lives) and denies other things this significance (say certain Old Testament food laws, or what Paul says about hair).  Again, I am doing no different than every other exegete who recognises some injunctions within the Bible as authoritative, and some injunctions within the Bible as no longer authoritative.  Furthermore, my approach does require the reader to recognise the authority of the biblical witness to God’s life-giving engagement with us, with all the subplots and implications that come alongside of this leitmotif.
(4.3) One of these implications is that readers of the Bible must not be content to simply hear about, or observe, what the God of Life has done within history.  Rather, we must also go on to participate within God’s ongoing life-giving engagement with creation and with us.  To properly read the Bible is to learn to embody and proclaim the witness of the Bible in both word and deed.  To read this witness is to be transformed into martyrs fully engaged in life-giving acts of liberation, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking, in opposition to the power of Death, which finds expression in contemporary structures of sin, bondage, sickness, division and violence.  Submitting to this implication is a hard thing to do, as it requires nothing less than everything from us, so it comes as no surprise to me that others might be tempted to flee into more Conservative readings of the Bible (which present the reader with a list of requirements, but requirements that are decidedly more manageable than this call to martyrdom) or into more Liberal and postmodern readings of the Bible (which present the reader with a lot more freedom to pick and choose which demands are made authoritative).
(5) Thus, we can conclude that reading the Bible is a difficult task that precludes any simple or straight-forward way of achieving understanding — so beware of any hermeneutical model that offers you these things!  Reading the Bible is something we can only do with a good deal of trepidation, and a good deal of assistance from the community of faith, the world at large, and the Paraclete.

The Inescapable Subjectivity of Hermeneutics. Part 1: Posing the Problem

In any serious study of the biblical texts, one inevitably comes across many different and even contradictory positions both on (a) what the texts actually say; and (b) what we are to do with those texts.  Pick any number of biblical passages — even passages that many of us assume are obvious or straight-forward — and it is possible to find a great host of very intelligent, well-intentioned people in complete disagreement about what is said and what it might mean (for us today).
Upon first recognising this dilemma, a common reaction is to turn to questions of methodology.  Yet, what one finds is that there are a good many ways of reading Scripture — utilising everything from lectio divina, literary, and canonical approaches, to studies of rhetoric, of redaction, of social sciences, of theology, of narrative, of tradition, of linguistics, and so on — and there is no clarity on which methods to combine with which other methods, or which approaches to privilege above others.  Furthermore, although one may be tempted to try to master all of these approaches (and treat them all equally), one will quickly find that there is so much research to study and so much fruit to be found, in each approach, that one must inevitable choose to focus more in one area, and less in another.
Yet there is no clear or universally compelling criteria for selecting an hermeneutical methodology (if there were, one would not be confronted with this dilemma).  Consequently, no matter how internally consistent and logical any hermeneutical method might be, once one enters into it, one must still make the uncomfortably subjective choice to enter into that method and privilege it.  Thus, those who privilege rhetorical criticism find arguments based upon lexical studies to be compelling, but those who privilege a reading based upon the history of the Christian tradition might find such arguments to be less compelling, and those who privilege a reading in the style of the lectio divina might think such studies are entirely worthless.
Of course, most people will accept some arguments and reject other arguments from each of the methods represented and (despite each person’s protestations to the contrary) this is also a fairly subjective endeavour.  What might appear to be a logical process of selection to one person, will look illogical to another.
Now some might want to suggest that the dilemma I am mapping out is related to the ‘rampant individualism’ of our Western culture.  This, they might say, is what happens when individuals prioritise their own thoughts above the authority of the magisterium or the authority of the Church, or the authority of the early ecumenical councils, or the authority of the Reformers, or the authority of the Church Mothers and Fathers, or the authority of tradition, or… do you see where I am going with this?  Those who raise this sort of objection have made the equally subjective decision to prioritise one (or some combination) of these things as an authoritative guide to hermeneutics.  So, this dilemma is not so easily brushed aside; it is  one that confronts all of us.
Furthermore, this dilemma isn’t subsumed or brushed aside by the (increasingly) standard hermeneutical resolution of the poles of objectivity and subjectivity within ‘critical realism’ (or some derivative thereof).  While this is an handy general approach to recognising both our own internal subjectivity and an historical reality external to us (which we can know, at least, in part) it doesn’t, itself, map out how we gain access to historical knowledge or to what is said and meant by any given text.  ‘Critical realism’ provides those who accept it with some comfort that something can be known about that which we believe exists outside of ourselves, but it doesn’t tell us much about how that something can be known.
If this isn’t bad enough, we are also confronted with the observation that none of us comes to hermeneutics as a blank slate.  We are all inescapably shaped and molded by the people around us, and by the environment into which we are born.  Of course, we are usually blind to the extent of these influences — we tend to think that we are simply following ‘common sense’ and thereby forget that this form of ‘sense’ is only common to certain people in certain places at certain times.
The result of this is that any of our attempts to determine what a text says, and means, is never as objective or logical as we think it is, or want it to be.  More often then not, it is these cultural influences which determine which readings we prioritise, which methods we prefer, and which examples of other methods we accept or reject.
We are, therefore, confronted with the inescapable subjectivity of hermeneutics, and of all of our efforts to read, understand, and apply Scripture.  The question, then, is where we go from here.  Once we accept this, how do we go about determining what Scripture says, and what it means (for us today)?

On Genuinely Encountering Scripture

I recently came across this line: “Always make time to read authors with whom you know you will profoundly disagree.” This, I think, is a good dictum, and one I have attempted to follow in my so-called scholarly pursuits.
However, I think that this dictum is especially apropos within contemporary Christian circles. In particular, I would suggest that Christians should spend a little more time carefully reading the bible; for they might find that this book, more than most others, contains that which they will find profoundly disagreeable. More often than not, this book doesn’t say what we think it says, and it doesn’t confirm what we want it to say.
Thus, to genuinely encounter this text is to be confronted with the necessity of conversion. And conversion, well, that’s frequently a messy and painful (but oh-so-glorious!) thing.
In many ways the conversion that this text offers us, is like the salvation Aslan offers to Eustace-the-dragon. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Eustace is converted into a dragon and Aslan comes to him to change him back into a human. In order to accomplish this transformation, Aslan tells Eustace to undress and get into a pool of water. This is how Eustace describes the event:
I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully… But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this under skin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped… But the same thing happened again… [and then again]… Then the lion said — but I don’t know if it spoke — “you will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”
I imagine we must go through a similar process to truly encounter this text. It takes many readings to strip away all that we have imposed upon it and, although the first few readings might not be all that painful, the deeper we go, the more we feel the claws — “sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb 4.12).
Let the reader be so warned.