18th February, 2018


Well we’re finally back into the swing of things after a long, hot and fairly damp summer break. I hope you’ve all enjoyed time of resting and relaxing and generally replenishing your energy for the new year. For many of us part of the recovery process is catching up with a bit of summer reading. Sadly at this point in time I don’t manage to knock off quite as many books as I did before we had children, but I’ve still managed to get through a few things.

What sort of books do you opt for over the summer period? Something off the Whitcoulls top 100? Maybe a penguin classic or two? Maybe a biography…or perhaps something really trashy which doesn’t require much thought but is entertaining none the less?

My recreational reading tends to be a mix of fiction, tending towards fantasy and science fiction. I know that many of you won’t quite see the attraction. “Fantasy?” you may ask.

To be honest it is not the fantastic elements of such books that draw me in, although this is part of it. More often than not I like such stories because while they may take place in a time and place that doesn’t actually exist, these stories always have a human element that is compelling. Human interaction can become more sophisticated and surprising when placed into a world where we don’t quite know all the rules. But beyond that, many of these books also contain many spiritual elements that also resonate with me. Whereas mainstream fiction often takes a very negative view where religion is concerned, fantasy often has the courage to walk into this area of life in a far more explorative way. And if you’re not persuaded by any of that justification, that’s fine, I’m still going to read what I like to read.

Now without wanting to get too much into what I read over the holidays I do want to mention that aside from fantasy and science fiction I also read a biography and an autobiography. The biography about a religious person was a light read but had some interesting insights. The autobiography was written by a musician, and while he was attempting to tell his story in an open and honest way I personally found that he lacked insight into his own behaviour and the great amount of harm he had caused other people over the course of his life. By the end of that book I found myself wishing that I hadn’t bothered as I now find it difficult to enjoy the music he has produced.

One of the great literary devices used by many authors is known as the unreliable narrator. What this means is that the person telling the story may not be telling the truth to you as the reader. This feature is most commonly found as a device in fictional stories, but in reality biography and autobiography can also be guilty of unreliable narration. A biographer may have a particular agenda and may skew a story in a particular direction, or they may simply not be in possession of all the facts. Similarly in an autobiography the writer may wish to gloss over stories that paint them in a poor light, or they may simply have gaps in their memory.

To think about the reliability of a narrator is to engage our critical thinking in regards to a text. It allows us to think about the time and context in which a story is being told, as well as the motivations and agendas of the author. These are all critical lenses that we can apply to the reading of scripture.

Scripture is a strange mixture of fact and fiction, of profound truth and dare I say half-truths. In our tradition we often speak of scripture as being divinely inspired. I understand this description as expressing that scripture is something of a response to different experiences of the divine/human relationship. To say scripture is divinely inspired to acknowledge that scripture is the work of human hands.

It is another thing altogether to claim that scripture is without blemish, that it exists entirely as God desired. If one was to make such a claim my first question would be, just what bible are you talking about? The eastern and western churches all assent to a slightly different collection of texts. In fact even the Anglican and Roman Catholic denominations are not in full agreement about just what books to include in the canon of scripture. That’s before we even get to which translation of the bible is the one God really wants us to read.

I have heard some describe the bible as being the biography of God. Firstly I’m glad that they call it a biography rather than an autobiography for reasons I have already mentioned. In one sense the description of biography is reasonable in that it suggests that people are trying to write something about God’s personal history. It is fairly easy to grab a handful of biblical passages to back up this idea. After all we have the creation stories, different histories and a range of different events where God is credited with various actions. My problem with this idea, is that if the bible is meant to be a biography of God, then it is a very poorly written one. For a start, many of the narrators of this story turn out to be extremely unreliable.

To make this point a little clearer, let’s consider this morning’s reading from the book of Genesis. Hopefully you recognised the small extract from the story of Noah. I would be surprised if you didn’t because the story of Noah, the arc and the flood, is one of the best known stories of scripture. It always amazes me how often it is reproduced, primarily as a children’s story. Something about all those animals getting packed into a boat seems to make us think this is a child friendly story.

A few years ago we based a family service around Noah’s arc. It turned out to be really difficult because the more Emily and I explored the story and what we might do in the service, the more we realised what a problematic story it is. What’s the problem? The problem is that while we can talk about God caring for Noah and his family, and how Noah was faithful and laboured to save all the animals and of course speculate on how the heck they got all the animals in the boat in the first place…the sticking point is that this is a story of divine violence.

The entire reason the story occurs is because God has become so disenchanted with humanity that God opts to hit the reset button by wiping almost everyone out. I don’t like to say that God is in favour of genocide, but a literal reading of this story can only leave us with that distasteful conclusion.

In his book How to read the Bible & still be a Christian, John Dominic Crossan wrestles with the problem of divine violence within the bible. He accepts that at a glance God is certainly portrayed as both violent and non-violent. In fact as he analyses particular passages he sees that God is almost bi-polar in swinging between these different modes of being. In the story of Noah, God may destroy the world but then promises to never do it again. A violent act is followed by a promise to never repeat it.

It is only when we begin to consider who wrote the story, when it was written and what purpose it served that we begin to see that this is a story that asks deeper questions of who God is and what God is really like. It is not a story stating what God’s intentions were, but rather one trying to make sense of a calamity.

Crossan also suggests that the tensions within the bible also arise because while the experience of the divine was of a non-violent God, this non-violent God was being experienced by humans living in a violent world. I can’t help but think of the Parihaka incident where imperial soldiers were confronted by peaceful protest. While we are gaining a better understanding of the Parihaka side of that story, I can’t help but wonder how those soldiers made sense of that time. I suspect at least some of them would have convinced themselves that God was on their side, even when they were the ones who perpetrated the violence.

For Crossan the real solution to the violent passages of scripture is to consider the very nature of Jesus. Crossan argues that it is Jesus who reveals the intention of God far more than any other part of the bible. He believes that Jesus was distinctly non-violent in his ministry.

Today I do not have enough time to go deeper into that topic. I simply want to raise the issue of divine violence as a thought to carry in to your Lenten journey this year. To state that more clearly, here are some questions for lent. What if Jesus lived a non-violent life in order to show us the love of a non-violent God? What might that mean for us? How might we enter into this season of reflection differently if we really think that God never acts in ways that cause harm to anyone? If that was actually true, how might such an understanding change the way we speak about lent, repentance, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and most specifically the death of Jesus. Can we walk this journey this year believing in a non-violent God?

– Reverend Richard Bonifant