Troubling Texts: Understanding the mess

art by julian raven

We wondered last time if ALL scripture truly is useful and profitable, and I provided a brief explanation about how I think we can address those troubling texts we’d rather just gloss over. I suggest that it’s:


1). important to take the text on its own terms — understanding its context, place in history, audience, and so on 

2). important to place the text as part of the larger arc of scripture — the story the Bible is telling from beginning to end. 


So before we can address these individual passages that make us want to throw our Bible across the room and put our head under a pillow, we have to come up with a framework for understanding what the Bible is all about. We can do that in one blog post right??! 😉 


While the Bible is made up of many different books with their own distinct characteristics like genre, author, style, audience, and history, I think we can point to larger themes that come up over and over and help tell the story of what God is up to in the world. 


Chaos to order — and participation


This theme emerges early on, in the creation story, where we see a God who moves the world from the chaos of nothingness to the order of creation. The author of this story is helping us understand an important message that recurs throughout scripture: humanity is continually taking matters into their own hands and God is continually creating grace and beauty from would-be disaster.


God covers Adam and Eve and sends them into the world; God makes a nation of Ishmael after Abraham and Sarah distrust the covenant; God liberates Israel after they are forced into slavery; God sends prophets to liberate when the people become oppressive; God anoints kings when Israel refuses divine leadership; God raises up the faithful during exile in Babylon; Jesus heals brokenness in the world; Christ rises from the dead after the crowds crucify him. 


But that’s not all. Humanity is invited to participate in this process, as is evidenced in each of these examples and many more. And that’s true of each of the remaining themes as well. 


Love IS the law


God’s movement of chaos to order is just one way that God demonstrates a deep, unconditional love for humanity. And many, many times scripture calls us to love, as God has first poured out that love for us. We are explicitly reminded of this in Deut. 6:4-5: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Jesus expands on this when tells us to: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you: this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12)


Scripture is telling the story of God’s love for us, giving us a roadmap for loving God, and expecting an outpouring of that love to the world. 


Justice for the oppressed


The scriptural theme of justice is almost a subset of the previous two themes: chaos to order, and the law of love. But it’s so prevalent throughout the Bible that it deserves its own discussion. 


To me, the most powerful example of this is Christ’s declaration on the cross: My God, my God why have you forsaken me?? Startling though it may be, this expression that God is always with us, even in moments of our deepest God-forsakeness: suffering, oppression, injustice, pain. 


Jesus has come so the work of justice might begin: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18). 


This liberating message is embodied by Jesus, but it was built into the DNA of God’s people much earlier. In fact, justice is often the order that God brings to the chaos of the world. AND it is the refusal to be set apart for this work of justice that eventually leads Israel into captivity at the hands of Babylon. The Bible is woven richly with God’s care for “the least of these.” 


Real salvation and renewal


As a result, salvation from the systems that create these cycles of oppression and injustice is also a prevalent theme throughout scriptures. We are saved from ourselves, our own brokenness, and the brokenness of the world into a belief that there is something more than this.


We are saved into an expectation that there is and will be a literal, tangible renewal we can see and experience — one we are called to work toward so that we can bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. 


What I’m not trying to do


These above themes lend themselves to their own mode of theological development. Ever heard of liberation theology? Or feminist theology? Or atonement theology? These individual ways of understanding God and scripture are born of a deep dive into the larger themes above. And they can be helpful for our first task: taking the text on its own terms.


But I’m not trying to drill down into these theologies to come up with the perfect ways for understanding troubling texts. I’m trying to pull back to a high-level view and remember our second task: placing these stories in the overarching narrative. 


I’m also not trying to explain these stories away. Sometimes the texts that we’ll encounter are just … troubling. Full stop. By utilizing contextual tools and specific modes of theology we can get a better grasp on what they’re about. And looking at the larger story of scripture will help us get perspective. But sometimes the best way to honor a story is to let it be what it is, to sit with it in our discomfort, and to allow God into those spaces of resistance. 


I DO think all scripture is profitable, but I think that sometimes the profit comes from our own spiritual quest, not from our ability to clean up the mess and tie things up with a nice, neat bow. 


Next week we bring this framework to some messy, troubling texts - specifically stories of divine violence. I hope you’ll join me!