Saturday, 27 February 2010

Velvet Elvis, Movement Two: Yoke

This chapter concentrates on the problem of the authority and reliability of the Bible. Simply put, the problem is that the Bible was written by people, and was assembled into a canon by synod vote much later than the events described in the texts, and yet it is considered to be the authoritative Word of God. This kind of construction leads to a Bible that is neither complete nor self-consistent, and that treating it as absolute will cause problems. What, then, does Bell have to say about this?

He begins, as always, with a story. This story takes the form of a love story, in which he did not set out to love the thing he encountered (preaching the Bible) but once he'd been on a first date (his first sermon) he couldn't tear himself away. It became his lifelong passion. However, he quickly points out that the Bible is a difficult book, and is consequently misused by well-meaning Christians. Typical problems are misquoting a verse in isolation, using selections as proof-texts to justify evil, and so on. Other problems arise from the inconsistencies between the character of Jesus and the character of the vengeful God of the Old Testament.

Bell's solution to this problem is twofold. First, the Bible should be read and interpreted using Jesus' reference to Scriptures as a touchstone. In other words, we should use the Old Testament as Jesus used it. Second, the Bible must be interpreted rather than read at face value, and we should trust authoritative figures to approve interpretations. He argues for this by citing a rabbinic tradition that one rabbi would derive authority from the rabbi who taught them, each one pursuing a hermeneutic purity.
The rabbi was driven by a desire to get as close as possible to what God originally intended in the command at hand. (47)
Jesus is incorporated into this rabbinic tradition by the authority of his own teaching, and also because he came to fulfill the law rather than abolish it. Jesus' life shows "what it looks like when the Torah is lived out perfectly, right down to the smallest punctuation marks." (48)

This rabbinic tradition has continued from Jesus to the disciples and onwards, allowing Christians today to make new interpretations of Scriptures. This ought to produce an "endless process of deciding what it means to actually live the Scriptures" (50), from the Jerusalem Council onwards. Christians are expected to acknowledge that the canon is God's Word without confining themselves to sola scriptura. This acknowledgement should lead to "wrestling" with the text, just as Jacob wrestled with Yahweh. It should be a struggle, and leave the Christian with a limp as a sign of the struggle.

Bell gets top marks here for pushing the case that Christians should interpret the Bible and not have some naive view that it can be read at face value. I couldn't agree more, and I'd like to see this turn into genuine and thoughtful engagement with the Bible. Caught up in this approach, however, is the danger of heterodoxy and the sectarian squabbles likely to ensue. The usual Church structures shudder at the thought of allowing (encouraging!) people to disagree with the pastor. Ultimately, Bell can do no more than let people interpret, but within the bounds of canon. Swim between the flags, people.

I've long been skeptical of the origins of canon, and the origins of texts. Although I like that Bell brings up the human origins of the texts, I'm not convinced that the vote at Hippo was entirely about marking the truth as it was about suppressing broadening heterodoxy. This idea that the vote was somehow divinely-inspired seems flawed, leaving out the insight available from other Christian thinkers of the first few centuries. Bell also performs his usual acrobatics in this chapter, alternating between "written by Man" and "God spoke" without ever resolving it. We're left with the feeling that he regards both statements as true or identical, rather than allowing them to be complementary or differentiating.

So his answer is interpretation that gets us as close as possible to what God intended. This kind of interpretation comes, not from peers, but from rabbis. Bell's model of authority is inherited, and seems a little like the Greek idea that the older generations were closer to the gods and were therefore closer to divine wisdom. Or perhaps he advocates an Hegelian approach, in which we will eventually synthesise our way to divine truth. This is a step in the right direction, but I don't think he takes it far enough. If we combine his ideas of heterodoxy, discussion and a Christological hermeneutic, I think we find our way to authentically lived Christian theology. Rather than trying to inherit a sense of "what God intended" from the rabbis, the discussion should be grounded in Christ. That is, after all, the key identifier of the Christian.

Christ as the definition, not the exemplar. This puts paid to the idea that Jesus was the only one to perfectly and completely obey Torah. The problem of "fulfill, not abolish" isn't resolved by a Jesus who obeyed every clause of Torah, but by the definition of a positive law, rather than a negative law. Yes, this is Badiou through and through, but more importantly it's how the problem was resolved by both Jesus and Paul. Jesus' "perfection" is not "full ethical compliance" but an inversion of a flawed and incomplete negative. Once again, Bell posits Jesus as an extension of Torah and the laws of the cosmos, rather than an interruption to nature. If Christ is foundational at all, then Torah should be read in light of Jesus, rather than the other way around. Bell grasps at this, but by this stage of the book is yet to completely commit to the idea.

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