Audio length: 9:05 minutes
Transcript published: March 21, 2011
Fr. Stephen looks at a common abuse of the Scriptures - as individuals imagine themselves to be characters in the Bible.
Events that receive more than their share of news coverage are not my favorite topics for doing podcasts or writing. Oftentimes those events have too much said about them as it is. However, in the last couple of weeks, revelations of yet one more politician’s infidelity offered one aspect that to me seemed worthy of comment and that’s the use of the Bible, the Scriptures, as a means for reflecting on one’s personal situation in life. It’s certainly the case that the Scriptures are given to us for guidance and for understanding but that same gift to us is very easily abused. In fact, there’s a very long history in Western Civilization of just such abuse.
The settlers who first came to America, for instance—or many of them—read their own situation into the Bible, or the Bible into their own situation, with the result that the White settlers coming from Europe were seen as fulfilling the role of the Israelites in this, the Promised Land, while Native Americans were cast in the role of Canaanites. This was particularly true of those coming to America for religious reasons and seeing themselves somehow or another reenacting the pages of Scripture, made some very confusing and very dangerous conclusions. It happened thus, in our history, that generations of “Joshuas” arose feeling biblically justified in what turned out to be the genocide of America’s native population. Some of that biblical reading continues to echo in the popular imagination to this day. It was bad theology in the 17th century, and it is bad theology today. Stated in the most fundamental way I can think of is simply this: You are not a Bible character.
This past week saw a sitting governor, here in the states, confessing his infidelity to his wife and yet choosing to stay in office and reflecting out loud to his cabinet members about the story of King David—drawing the obvious parallel between himself and the adulterous King. King David was, of course, guilty of adultery. And, if you read carefully the biblical account, that adulterous affair actually cost him the life of a child. It’s a story of great repentance and internal suffering as well as a story of the mercy of God. But it is not a pattern story to which individuals are invited for their own comparisons.
The Old Testament is authoritative Scripture for Christians and has a history of interpretation by the Church. Largely, that interpretation is typological in character. That is, its stories are seen as types and foreshadowings of the truth that is to be revealed in Christ Jesus. It is Jesus who said, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are they which testify of me.” It’s his own statement that the writings of the Old Testament point to Christ—that he, himself, is the meaning of the Scriptures. Thus, Christ is the second Adam. And the opening chapters of Genesis are best read with that fact in mind. Had the early settlers read the Old Testament correctly—that is, in light of the new—they might very well have applied the story of the Promised Land but only as the kingdom of God. Which they might have gently have offered as servants of those to whom they preached.
This indeed is the case when we know the story of St. Herman of Alaska and the early missionary monks in that land. They came and they lived, we are told, seeing themselves as guests in someone else’s home. What a very different way of reading the Scriptures—to see themselves as servants of those whose land they entered, servants of the Gospel, not as those who came to drive the pagans out before them and establish this as a Christian land. Instead, they came as the servants of the Gospel, to preach the Gospel, to minister to those whom they served. Very quickly, in that Russian mission to Alaska, the Gospels and the services were translated into the native languages. Native Americans were trained and ordained to the priesthood so that we have some of our earliest saints—such as St. Peter the Aleut, of native background, already offering himself up as a martyr for that early fledgling church in Alaska. It’s a very very different story than the arrogance and false biblical interpretation of what had happened earlier coming from the east coast in America.
The stories in Scripture do not bless a Christian to violate the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill”. We come to this land and we were not commanded by God. It was a great abuse to take the Scriptures as an excuse to carry out a holy war.
Some years ago, I can remember a story of an Episcopal Priest who abandoned his vocation with a great flourish during the course of a Sunday service. A confusing detail for many in his congregation was he described himself in the midst of his sermon—after which he took off his vestments and left the church—was that he saw himself as Jonah and his church as the sinking ship. Thus, the only way to save the sinking ship was to throw Jonah overboard. Thus, he was leaving the priesthood. It seems not unlikely that, whatever was the case, he needed to resign his position. But the story of Jonah is not about throwing priests overboard to save sinking congregations. It has a different meaning. It is better for a priest with a problem to seek help and repentance and not biblical drama. Situations like that, that I’m describing, are simply drama as delusion.
The problem with such use of biblical imagination is that it has no controlling story. Nothing tells us, for instance, which story to use other than our own imagination—which itself is generally a deluded part of our mind. A governor gets to play King David and—surprise—he should be forgiven and not have to resign his office. A group of White settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women, and children. A priest, in likely need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The Gospel is not preached, souls are not saved, the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.
For all of us, Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook, as in “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense. You and I are not Bible characters other than the one indicated in the New Testament—that is, we are those who have put their faith in Christ and trusted him for their salvation. Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been, but the Damascus road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul. It’s not the model story. The behaviors of pilgrims, priests, and governors should be guided by the same moral teaching that applies to all Christians. There are no special circumstances that, as Bible characters, exempt us from the repentance and responsibility required of all. The word of Christ, addressed to each and everyone, are the same, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If such repentance should cost us a political office, or even a continent, so be it. This is the character we were meant to be.
Glory to God.