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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Rant in B minor

Liberal theological views (which take account of the context of contemporary life and knowledge, and which approach faith in unseen things from a questioning point of view) appear to have absolute limits at my college. For a Unitarian, this is disappointing.

All my classes are utterly Bibliocentric, focussing and founding themselves on ONE cultural expression of humanity's grapple with the meaning of existence--that happy-hunting ground for scholars, the Bible. Apparently, this magic book is supracontextual, was not written by particular people in a particular time and place, for particular needs and out of a particular understanding of the world. Or if it is admitted that it DOES have a specific context, that context is somehow SPECIAL because these people wrote this amazing stuff then.

And that's just the stuff we KNOW of...

Many admirable, robust, and highly intelligent scholars here can unpack it endlessly, using historical analysis, textual/literary analysis, postmodern analysis, anthropological analysis, and so on ad infinitum, but never ask themselves why all this energy, unabated over millenia, should be directed at this single source. Or that a more fertile avenue might be to stand back from this single source (complex and rich though it is, but so is Shakespeare), and see it in relation to the vast and ever-unfolding web of sources from other cultures and contexts, from the sciences, from literature and art, etc., the better to see the Bible in something like a fuller perspective on the human engagement with the fundamental mystery of our existence.

Today for example, I spent most of the working day in the library, poring over two exhaustive critical analyses, one on the Book of Esther and one on Paul's letter to the Galatians. The scholars who write these are amazing minds at work--in both the detail of their historical and textual knowledge of the books and in their acute application of a range of sophisticated modern and post-modern theory.

And I caught myself thinking: "If these gargantuan and laser-like minds had been trained on something actually USEFUL TO ACTUAL HUMAN LIFE, the world could not help but be a better place".

Minds like these could easily be evolving new economic policies to undo the brutality and banality of globalised corporate capitalism, which has reduced the majority of humanity to soul-crushing, debt-laden serfdom. They could have perfected photovoltaic cell technology and given us free energy forever. Maybe they could even have evolved new ideas about the nature of reality and our place in it, because really, look around and tell me--is THIS the best we can do?

Each one of them with hopes and dreams and an endless inner life just like you
 But no, a better use of this mental energy is clearly to atomize, re-frame, and construct new shades of meaning from a story thrust by circumstance into history's limelight.

I mean--someone please tell me--what is the point? The feminist/historical/structuralist analysis of the Book of Esther, revealing that the tale of the Jewish wife of Xerxes subverting male power is actually an analogue for the way God works in the world through the chosen people of Israel, prefiguring the revolution of vulnerability in the person of Christ. For Pete's sake, this is a fairy tale from preliterate middle eastern hill folk who thought the world was flat and the sun circled the earth! And the promulgation throughout 3000 years that the state of Israel is somehow SPECIAL is responsible for, oh, about 75% of the political instability, terrorism and genocide of the past 60 years or so. Get over it already.

And do NOT get me started on Paul's letters! Every time I try to digest one of these, I realize that if I met this bore today I would cross a busy motorway to avoid this pewling, kvetching, bullying, egomaniac. Forever bitching at all the early churches like a stage parent to their confused tutued 5-year-old: "You're doing it wrong! Do it like I TOLD ya!"

Higher! Higher! God's watching!!

It's so clear to me that he's one of history's first marketing/PR experts. He's found a nice little wheeze--a huge untapped market of the miserably oppressed and this new drug he's hot for them to use, like crack cocaine. Enslaved? Forlorn? Impotent? Existentially lost? Teeth falling out? Short life expectancy? Here, take this. You'll forget all about the pain of living in a world you didn't make or ask to be born into, but there's a slight catch. You're going to need to keep seeing me, or one of my confederates, regularly for the really GOOD stuff. Accept no substitutes.

PUT THIS BOOK DOWN AND STEP AWAY FROM IT! Put it on the shelf with the other stuff no-one of consequence actually reads and leave it alone! Try a but of Proust or something, ANYTHING else for a while.Your OBSESSION with it (for that is what it is) is...just...DISPROPORTIONATE!

The worst part is the thought that one of my tutors or colleagues or fellow theology students will read this, shake their head, pity me, and pray that the Holy Spirit will enter my heart and open my eyes to my own folly.

"That's right, Rob. This is how God works in the world through you. You just don't see it yet. Struggling with these thoughts and feelings IS how God engages us. He lives IN YOU, right now. He is the struggle."

(Cue beatific, knowing smile.)



  1. Rob: I SO agree with you about Paul; I'm studying with Baptist ministry students at Regent's Park College in Oxford, and they and the lecturers all think that Paul is the dog's b*ll*cks. the last section of your post from "and do not get me started" made me laugh and laugh - it's just how I feel. Last year we did Romans, and this year we're doing 1st & 2nd Corinthians. I find him tedious, obscure and self-important, among other things.
    But I'm finding the Bible increasingly fascinating. I've discovered this company called The Great Courses which does lectures on CD, including religious topics, all done by amazing American professors who can Actually Lecture in an Interesting Way! I've done the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Historical Jesus, the Lost Christianites, and am now doing The Apostle Paul. Really would recommend them as an antidote to Christian lecturers in college www.thegreatcourses.co.uk
    Sue x

  2. Hi Sue:

    Glad you liked the stuff about Paul. He was also no friend of women, I believe...

    I too find the Bible fascinating, yes, endlessly so, and that's the trap. I also know people who do nothing but parse Shakespeare all their working lives and claim they'll never get to the bottom.

    "All things in moderation"--come to think of it Aristotle's not a bad read either. :)

    x R