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!