Is the Judeo-Christian Path Fundamentally Extreme?

By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

Getting a clear handle on the Bible as the Word, the Book of Books, a necessary guideline to what our existence is all about eludes me.  The Jesus Seminar first worried me as to how much of the Word can be rejected without our (humankind’s) losing our connection to the faith?  If the Bible represents the fundamental truth of where God and Christ stand in relation to humankind and this planet, accepting most of it’s message should be core to remaining part of the big family – no??.  But just by living in Toronto it was clear we’ve got a problem because of the millions of God’s children who don’t go anywhere near the Bible.  They’ve got other holy books.  So there seems to not be a clear handle.  We’re all working it out, if we’re conscious of the world we’re in.

Our existential awareness compounds the questions.  Lots of people don’t question their existence.  But lots of others live on the narrow ledge between;

  • our need for comfort (holding to the familiar, i.e. Church, and to some absolutes, i.e. the existence of Jesus), and
  • the need for being real (for making authentic choices that get closer to what feels grounded and true).

Since leaving my Charismatic community, and particularly since reading Jezebel by Lesley Hazelton (2007) I question whether hanging out on the ledge is honest or rather entirely self-protective. Do I have to jump and land on one side?  This particular ledge is between holding to the Commandment – Thou shalt have no other God before me – and putting first my own sense of truth and reason which allows me to say, “There are many paths to God”, and to cherry-pick the parts of God’s word that seem authentic to my experience and/or intuition.  Kind of like Jezebel.    I’ll review the fundamentals of the book’s argument for those who haven’t read it – please bear with me

Jezebel and Elijah, Revised

Hazelton is deconstructing the story of Jezebel, demonstrating that she had to be demonized because she represented a worldliness, an inclusiveness, an open-ness to negotiation and compromise that didn’t fit with the required exclusive adherance to the one God of Israel.  As a Phoenician she was religious but polytheistic and her husband Ahab’s Hebrew God was perfectly acceptable as part of the pantheon but just not the only member.   But the Hebrew God is a jealous God and Elijah, followed by Elisha, ensured that Israel was brought down, and King Ahab and his Queen Jezebel destroyed – Jezebel in the worst possible fashion (eaten by dogs).

The whole point of the story is betrayal of God versus loyalty.  Whatever the truth may have been about this Queen, the ultimate in wickedness is ascribed to her, the worldly lady, and the ultimate in heroism is attached to the single-minded destroyer of infidels.  Slaying them by the hundreds is good.  Elijah and Moses stand with Jesus at the Transfiguration.  He is a big-time man of God.

Now this is too familiar to not be confusing.  Bin Laden and Elijah seem to have a lot in common.  And Jezebel sounds pretty modern and enlightened.  As a child, I found Elijah fascinating: crazy old prophet with his wild hair and animal skins, lighting water on fire and bringing on the rain, and ending up in the flaming chariot.  In my years of evangelical obedience, he was a model of pure-mindedness. (Ouch – now, of course, I’d call it bloody-mindedness.)

Purpose of Scriptures

Story-telling in the Hebrew Scriptures was subject to continual re-copying for preservation purposes, with ongoing revision that could not be easily corrected because no printed copies were available to create a wide readership.  The purpose of the telling and re-telling wasn’t simply to instruct us about the nature of God and to guide us as to how to live.  I think that we now use the Scriptures, Old and New, with this intention but I think they were written to preserve the culture and for political reasons. And at two levels of politics: (1) those of the religious leaders, to maintain the doctrine they taught and on which their power was built, and also (2) to support the power of the military or royal houses who were most supportive of those religious leaders.

In particular, the doctrine of the one God, as defended by one or another leader, had to be defended with zeal, with hard and fast conviction.  There was no room for those who would ask serious questions that could undermine the defenders of the faith.

Our Existential Questioning

As a Roman Catholic, I am aware of the extent to which the Church as an institution has bent truth and justice to prevent sexual scandal from hurting itself.  Protecting the church as a value higher than justice and compassion seems a departure from the core message of Christ.  But it’s what God expected of Elijah and the other revered prophets.

Another piece of fiction has informed my sense of this.  Chaim Potock,  in In the Beginning (1975) has his hero, a brilliant devout Yeshiva biblical scholar, make the decision to move to a mode of scholarship that permits questioning the veracity and interpretation of those parts of scripture that are contradictory or that attribute correctness to unjust and violent ‘heroic’ actions of God and biblical heroes.  For daring to do this, he faces exile from his family, community, and lifelong friends and supporters.  The institution must preserve itself.

For our generation, emerging from a time when loyalty to King and country was demonstrated by obedience to the call to war, the subsequent social climate encouraged an existential viewpoint that suggested freedom from dogma.  There was relief in this paradigm for anyone feeling bound up by the rules and boxes into which our parents seemed locked.  Rather than living according to the dictates of authority, we had to figure out what was real and true for us.  Authenticity was the holy grail.

If not Scripture, what?

Much in our religious structures represents what is real and true.  But what doesn’t hold up to questioning we may have to discard.  And the fear for those who love the Faith is that we’re chipping away at Faith’s power and meaning.

But not necessarily.  Some of the magic has to go.  But the reward is that I, by taking the power to assess actions taken in defence of God’s omnipotence, can decide if those actions fit what Christ has made clear in my heart.  If the actions seems vicious and unjust – whether done by Christians, Jews, Muslims or Hindus- if they were done in the name of God I can decide it wasn’t God’s agenda but some human’s.  I can reject the extremism enacted against other humans, done in the name of my Faith.  And I can try to summon the courage to speak up among my own.  We can act together.

Nonetheless, Jezebel seems heroic to me but God’s spokespeople hated her.  If the Biblical message remains, that “If you’re like her, you’ll incur my wrath and so will all those you care for”—this can leave a troubling shadow on exercising your own judgement.  Hmm.

We’ve been writing about this a lot and I think it’s because it’s so important to figure it out as best we can.  The discussion is hardly over!

 

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Is the Judeo-Christian Path Fundamentally Extreme?

  1. Mel Hoskyn

    Hi Rosemary,

    Thanks for writing. It’s most interesting to read your thoughts. I am just getting interested in blogging and have come to your site through my wife, Jill, who is a friend of Joy Connelly.

    You write about the Hebrew Scriptures being subject to “continual re-copying for preservation purposes, with ongoing revision that could not be easily corrected.” I beg to differ.

    The scribes who copied the Scriptures were (almost?) fanatical in their zeal to keep the Word of God exactly the same. They counted the exact number of letters in the books they had copied and made sure they were the same as the original. If they found mistakes they would destroy the copy and start again.

    The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls was important for many reasons, but the primary one was that suddenly we had manuscripts 800 years older than the oldest we knew before. We discovered that the text had been preserved fundamentally unchanged. Of course, small mistakes or variations had crept in but they were only the tiniest percentage of the whole and generally fell into categories of understandable mistakes (e.g. repeating or omitting a section between two identical words). You will find any significant ones in the footnotes of any modern translation of the Bible.

    I hope that clarifies things a little. It doesn’t solve any of the challenges that life throws at us but perhaps gives us a little more solid rock to cling to.

    You’ve got me thinking, that’s for sure. Way to go!

    Thanks,

    Mel Hoskyn

    • Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

      Thank you, Mel, for writing. I think you are more familiar with the study of the emergence of Hebrew sacred writings than am I, and you thus raise a question into which I have to look a little more deeply: how much were the Hebrew Scriptures subject to revision? I will return to the sources that gave me my understanding of the alterations and/or additions through the centuries and see where I may have seriously erred. Meanwhile, I haven’t invented my sense of the scriptures having important historical political influences, but rather have received this from several teachers. So you’ve sent me to my homework. Thank you again! Rosemary

  2. John

    Interesting article, but I disagree.
    It’s a stretch to say that either Elijah or the Bible are more about protecting the church than about compassion and justice. If anything both are an indictment against the institution of church or nation to pursue either its own comfort or preservation at the expense of the poor.
    Jezebel, whether considered through the eyes of Old Testament law or New Testament grace is equally condemned. What more evidence do we need of the propensity of those in power to oppress the poor and marginalized? Aren’t there Jezebels in every society and in every generation, doing their utmost to ramp up injustice against the defenseless?
    The issue I have with the Jesus Seminar repeats itself here. The problem with deconstruction is that it takes what is straightforward and reconstructs it so only a precious few can really understand what the true meaning of the scripture is. Allowing that there are some parts that are hard to understand, most of it is as easy to understand as a stop sign.
    One doesn’t have to deconstruct or read between the lines of the Bible to find the harshest condemnations against the institution of the church, the excesses of the greedy, oppressive regimes or our tendency to seek comfort in the pew. They are in the words themselves.

    • Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

      Thank you, John, for your argument. I will tackle your specific arguments after stating what remains the central problem for me. Our sacred book teaches intolerance toward those who do not worship the God of Israel. And I don’t know what to do with that. For years I decided to ignore that problem. Too much other wonderful instruction and truth. But it’s arisen again and again – as it must, because the history of Jesus’ people – whose beliefs Jesus said he did not intend to challenge – was based on not just on the emergence of monotheism but on name of the one God. Yahweh could not be worshiped under other names. In 2010 many Christians say “there are many paths to God” and we are willing to not condemn those worshipping the God of other cultures, with other names. But that’s violating the purity of purpose for which thousands and thousands have been killed in the name of God and celebrated in the Bible.

      Jezebel was condemned for her polytheism, not her lack of charity or autocratic rule. She was a person of faith. It was just a different one. She isn’t a good symbol for betrayal and unjustice.

      Again, so glad you wrote. Rosemary

  3. John

    Jezebel was condemned for her lack of charity and injustice (see 1 Kings 21). The judgment made of her being devoured by dogs came after she by falsehood, usurped the property of another to satisfy the greed of her husband the king.
    As to her polytheism being of some virtue, it’s like praising a polygamist for being indiscriminate.
    It seems part of the territory despite the misgivings you so articulately outline, that if Jesus believed in only one God, we do well to only believe in one as well.
    None of us can answer for the atrocities for our respective faith communities – regardless of which faith we belong. But it doesn’t invalidate the possibility of there only being only one God, nor the possibility of his becoming one of us filled with ‘grace and truth’, at the expense of making all other notions of God not nearly as true, if not outright false.
    By the example of Jesus, even the God of the Old Testament seems ‘not nearly as true’ given Christ’s command to love our enemies, a dictate not evident in the Old.
    I agree with you there is much to learn from people of faiths other than Christian. And like you I believe in a God who rescues far more than just those who share what we believe. As Jesus said repeatedly, there will be many at his table we would never expect to be there. How they get there is his business.
    All he asks of us who now call him Lord, is we not hinder them by failing to love them as he does, nor denying them the truth which makes for real liberty.

    • Thanks Rosemary for your insights into the Elijah – Jezebel story. This is what i love about scripture – how it can put on its head – and a new truth falls out.
      I loved the line about how Elijah is like Osama bin laden. Ha! You’re right! (and i’m a big fan of Elijah – he’s a real kook and he does all the miracles Jesus does later)

      The intolerance of our religion is part of what i believe GOD is tearing away from this generation. There is a new, higher consciousness arriving that will see Jesus returning to tell us – guess what – Christians have got no dibs on heaven! Wake up and see how i love humans and not only one kind. In fact, GOD doesn’t love humans any more than SHE loves caterpillars.

      There is alot in Elijah that is just funny. And there is alot that is just horrible. And so – we have to tear away at it in humility – listening to the living wisdom between the extremes – alive and beyond dogma’s reach in the kind of challenging reading you offer us.

      Thanks again.

  4. Richard Hopton

    Hi Rosemary,
    Thanks for initiating a discussion that is near and dear to my heart. I was a devout Christian for over 30 years, ( I just turned 47), but I always continually questioned why I believed and asked the ‘hard’ questions about various parts of the bible to ensure that I was being honest with myself and , as you aptly say, was continually pursuing the holy grail of truth.

    Roughly a year ago, after a very gradual but consistent change in my perspective, I had to stop attending church. I simply couldn’t take it any more. I was physically uncomfortable listening to what was being said. It drove me crazy every Sunday because it seemed to me that so much of it was half-truths, and not wanting to seriously contemplate the real life stuff, and the ‘difficult bible passages’ that don’t fit. For example, one week a gentleman shared emtionally how his son, on charges of Assault with a weapon, had had the charges stayed on the day of trial. The gentlemen went on to say “If any of you have any doubts about the goodness of God, talk to me.” It just so happened to be the same weekend that the news broke about a terrible tragedy in Mexico, where a fire at a daycare claimed the lives of 30 or more children. And I sorely wanted to ask the gentlemen, “okay, but what if I asked the parents of one of those children, what would they say?”

    Please don’t misundersand me. My questions are not about the suffering that goes on in the world every day. My frustration is with the cult-like statements about the perfection of the God of the bible. The real God probably is perfect, but the God of the bible seems decidedly less so.

    For example:

    1. The flood. What did it accomplish? Humanity appears to be just as sinful after as before. Think about the horrific deaths of innocent babies and children, and all the animals. And for what? Why does God get a free pass for doing things that if a man or woman did them, we would consider them a monster.
    2. When you factor in the threat and possibility of hell, how can anyone say that God has given people the free choice to love and follow Him? Please tell me how that differs from the salesman holding a gun to the customers head and saying “it is your choice whether to sign the contract or not.”

    3. Why should we be thankful to God for saving us from Himself. To say that people “choose” hell is just ridiculous to me. The God of the bible is the Judge and He sends people to hell or welcomes them to heaven. With my current perspective, in my limited-but-this-is all-I’ve-got-and-this-is-what-God-has-given-me human understanding, I do NOT agree that people deserve eternal punishment for not being able to do the impossible ( Romans 7:18-20), or for not believing, since Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8.) I find the idea of God sending people to hell, (whatever hell may actually be, it is portrayed as a place of suffering), as repulsive as stuff Saddam Hussein did, or Stalin or Hitler or any other person who ‘tortures’ another person. The same goes for stoning. How could a God of love and grace and mercy command stoning. To me, It just doesn’t fit. You can’t have it both ways.

    4. If God created absolutely everything, and nothing exits apart from God, doesn’t that logically have to include evil. And, boy, what a, literal, Pandora’s box of complications that brings.

    I am not ready to turn my back on Christianity forever. But, for the present, even thought I still believe that it possibly may all be true, the gospel of Jesus does not sound like good news to me.

    I like your question “if not scripture,what?” I’d give anything to know.

    P.S. I confess I don’t get your appreciation for Jezebel. If the library has a copy I will take a look at that book, but re-reading the biblical accout, she seems to be a cruel, greedy, murderer.

    Richard

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