22 November 2007

Out of the silence: an address by the Revd Dr Sharon Moughtin-Mumby

This talk was given at "Drenched in Grace" this morning. Because Moughtin-Mumby was unable to be with us, the address was read by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, chair of Inclusive Church.

Moughtin-Mumby, prior to ordination, was Old Testament Lecturer at Ripon College Cuddesdon. Now she is curate at St. Peter's, Walworth in the Diocese of Southwark.

is available. Here follows the full text (uncorrected):

Which biblical texts would we like to exclude from our canon of belief? Which would we prefer to reject? Is there a point at which a biblical text becomes for us so problematic that we must set it to one side, and conclude that it has nothing of God to say to us? There are certainly some who believe so. In the face of the biblical texts I have spent time reading - those concerned with sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible - there are those who have explicitly rejected these texts, insisting we need new language, new metaphors to replace these disturbing images of God. It can be tempting to agree with such voices when confronted with what are for us ‘texts of terror’. But in the process of reading some of the Bible’s more violent and disquieting passages, I have come to believe that these texts can be a real treasure for us: a place where we can hear God speaking quietly, but insistently, if we only have ‘ears to hear’.

What I will not be talking about this morning is how to deproblematize or easily resolve the more difficult texts of the Bible: how to read them in a way that leaves them saying something they are simply not saying. There are plenty who seek to do this, returning to challenging passages of the Bible and taking them apart etymologically, grammatically, historically… using every trick in the book in an attempt somehow to rescue these texts from themselves. Personally, I am uncomfortable with such an approach because I am not sure what it is saying theologically.

When we seek to resolve disquieting passages in the Bible, are we saying that life with God can involve no ambiguities, no times of darkness or absence, no times of difficulty or challenge? Are we suggesting that we would prefer the story of God and God’s people to be a triumphalist narrative of prosperity, where the voiceless and the marginalised have no place, and the abandoned are an embarrassment?

What kind of Christian hermeneutic are we talking about if we say that God cannot be present among the silent, the battered, the rejected; that the voice of God simply cannot be speaking there? Surely, from our collective experience, it is in these places that we should be pricking up our ears and waiting expectantly? In short, I believe it is vital for us to explore a hermeneutic that refuses to skip over the difficult and challenging or awkward passages of the Bible, just as in the Inclusive Church we are hopefully committed to refusing to skip over those who can be made to feel like the difficult, challenging or awkward members of the people of God; a hermeneutic which resists avoiding passages because they are painful for us to hear, just as we are committed to hearing all people’s stories, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us feel.

In reading the disquieting passages of the Bible, the vital question is ‘where is the voice of God in this place?’ And it is important to begin with the recognition that it may not always be straightforward to perceive God’s voice within the pages of the Bible (just as it is not always straightforward to discern God’s voice within life). One of the great modern fallacies proliferating today is that we can assume that God speaks opaquely within the Bible. There is little within tradition to suggest this. As good Anglicans (!), we may be keen to affirm Article VI of the 39 articles: ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation’. But as that important Anglican voice Richard Hooker stresses, affirming this belief does not mean that we must act like those who (quote) ‘grow unto a dangerous extremity as if Scripture did not contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply’. God’s voice will not always be simple to discern within the pages Bible. Indeed, if we are to look at the Bible itself, it suggests nowhere that the ‘voice of God’ will be easy to locate and interpret: rather it frequently suggests the opposite.

Ezekiel can be among the most uncomfortable books to read in the Bible, overflowing with troubling, often violent passages. And so it is intriguing to discover that the reader is given a tip on how to read this book within its own introductory passages. In the wake of that extraordinary vision of God in chapter 1, an unidentified voice speaks in chapter 2, ordering the prophet to swallow whatever is given to him. Before the terrified prophet, appears a scroll, written all over, both front and back: no room remains for dissent, additions, or interpretation. The scroll is filled with (quote) ‘lamentations, mourning, and woe’. Three times Ezekiel is commanded to eat, dramatically capturing the prophet’s appalled hesitation at stomaching such a message on behalf of his people. We can only imagine his bewilderment and relief when on consuming the scroll, it becomes as sweet as honey in his mouth.

The story of the horrified prophet swallowing the scroll appears at the beginning of Ezekiel for a reason. Ezekiel is being presented to us as a vital model for reading this most difficult prophetic book. For the book of Ezekiel is itself a scroll overflowing with ‘lamentations, mourning, and woe’, amongst the most troubling works in the Old Testament. Like the prophet, we readers are carefully advised not only to look at this book’s surface level. For then we might either hesitate to accept its dreadful words, or attempt straightforwardly to translate their complex message into our lives in inappropriate ways - by mimicking its violence for instance. Instead this book challenges to take courage and - even while aware of its dreadful exterior - to receive its words deep within ourselves. For it is only then that we might experience the sweetness of their taste: only then that we might perceive God speaking within us in strange and unforeseen ways. This is no model of simplistic discernment of the ‘voice of God’ speaking within the ‘word of God’.

Turning to the New Testament, within the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’s parables are repeatedly presented as a challenge to be interpreted. Jesus speaks in parables so that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’ (Matthew 13:13; Mark 4:10; Luke 8:12 cf. Isaiah 6:10). The technique of perceiving God’s voice within the parables is something to be learned: it certainly does not involve a ‘simple’ process of reading or hearing. Tom Wright (2002: 164) compares Jesus’ parables to mazes, ‘designed to challenge his listeners to work out for themselves how to get to the heart of things.’ The message is rarely in the straightforward meaning of the parable itself - often far from it! It is more complex to discern. As Jesus himself said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!’ (Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43, Mark 4:9, 4:23, Luke 8:8, 14:35, cf. Mark 8:18). From these and other examples, we see that the Bible itself rarely presents the voice of God or divine meaning as easily located, easily understood. So why should we expect meaning to be provided on a plate when we read biblical texts?

The more difficult texts of the Bible present us with a challenge, but it is a challenge that we should neither be afraid of, nor seek to avoid. Instead, among those texts which involve the silent, the battered, the rejected, the oppressed, perhaps it is here we should be most expectant to hear the voice of God, sharpening our ears so that they might become ‘ears to hear’. One way of doing this, which I would like us to explore this morning, is opening ourselves up to the possibility that, at times, God’s voice is to be heard not in the black print of the Bible’s pages set so clearly before us, but instead in the silences and margins of the text.

The Bible itself hints at this possibility.

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is standing in a cave on Mount Horeb. He is about to encounter God. Before the prophet’s terrified eyes comes a mighty wind ‘so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD’ (19:11). In its aftermath, a powerful earthquake shakes the mountain, then fierce fire blazes all around him (9:11-12). Yet the voice of God is in none of these wonders. This might come as a surprise to the attentive reader. Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Bible will know that God’s traditional herald on a mountain is an earthquake, preferably coupled with fire (Exodus 19:18, 24:17, Deuteronomy 5:4, 5, 22, 23, 9:10, etc.). In the preceding chapter, Elijah himself has just encountered God’s saving action in fire and wind: first, as the flames fell overwhelmingly and miraculously on the sacrifice he has prepared in his famous challenge against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:38); and, second, as powerful gusts of wind blew torrential rains towards Israel to break the drought hanging over the land (1 Kings 18:45). The attentive reader would probably expect God to be found in the wind, the earthquake, the fire. Yet strangely, paradoxically, this time, the voice of God is to be found in ‘the voice of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 18:12).

I believe we should take this story in 1 Kings 19 seriously, particularly in the face of those biblical texts where we encounter devastation, destruction, and silence. Elijah’s experience stresses that these places are not to be feared, but rather to be treasured. For it is in these waste-places and wildernesses that God is to be found. Not necessarily in the thunder, fire and hurricane of these passages as they shout out their sure and certain theology, but at times instead in their empty, desolate places: in the silence of those who have been given little or no opportunity to speak; in the silence that emerges in the devastated aftermath, if we can just tune our ears to hear.

Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible will not be surprised by the idea that God’s voice might sometimes to be heard in silence. The wilderness is the archetypal place of encounter between God and God’s people: that quintessential place of absence, lying on the chaotic margins of life. According to tradition, even the word for wilderness in Hebrew rbdm, midbar, witnesses to the theme that God’s voice is sometimes, paradoxically, heard in silence.

Like most Hebrew words, rbdm, miDBaR comes from a base-word of three letters, rbd, DBR, meaning ‘word’. The m, ‘m’, at the beginning is then traditionally one of two possibilities.

1. The first possibility is that it forms rbd, DBR, into a participle, meaning ‘wording’, ‘speaking’. This possibility calls attention to the wilderness as the place where God engages most clearly in ‘wording’ with God’s people, giving them for instance the crucial ten commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), which in Hebrew are in fact not called the ten commandments, but rather the ten ‘words’, {yrbd, DeBaRym (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 10:4).

2. The second possibility is that the m, ‘m’, is the preposition }m, ‘min’, meaning ‘away from.’ This possibility calls attention to the wilderness as the place ‘away from words’, ‘beyond words’, or ‘without words’: the place of absence and silence.

In the tradition of the Hebrew passion for wordplays, some suggest that these possibilities are to be held together, witnessing to the profound paradox that the wilderness is the place ‘beyond words’ where God most powerfully ‘words’ with God’s people. We are perhaps reminded of the extraordinary paradox that the God who cannot be seen is yet at times ‘seen’ by the prophets in astonishing glory (Exodus 24:10, Isaiah 6:1, Ezekiel 1). Once again, the attentive reader is presented with the possibility that God’s voice might not always be found in the black print of the Bible so clearly visible before us, but rather in the empty places, the wildernesses, absences, and silences of the text.

This tradition of God speaking in silence is not only to be found within the Hebrew Bible. It also appears within the New Testament. Jesus was both to hear and to speak the voice of God in wilderness and silence.

1. It was in the wilderness - for the first time according to some - that Jesus discerned his remarkable mission, hearing the voice of God in that place beyond words (Matthew 4:1f., Mark1:12f., Luke 1:80).

2. In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), it was through silence, that Jesus taught the scribes and Pharisees a most difficult truth when he said nothing, but instead made unknown marks in the sand: leaving the unsettling Gospel message unspoken and yet proclaimed so volubly that the scribes and Pharisees were forced to withdraw.

3. Silence also plays a key role in the astonishing story in which Jesus appears to learn more about his mission from a Gentile woman (Matthew 15:22-8). When the Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus at first ‘did not answer her a word’ (Matthew 15:23). This woman is confronted with silence. It is only in response to pressure from the disciples that Jesus finally says, ‘I have come to the lost sheep of Israel’ … ‘It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.’

And it is at this point that the woman issues her vital challenge, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.’ It is as if, having heard the voice of God in that initial silence, this remarkable woman, like Elijah, is somehow able to discern that God’s voice is not to be found in Jesus’ spoken word, but in the silent place: the place where learning and discernment, both for her and, remarkably, for Jesus, can take place.

4. And of course, there is Jesus’ silence before Pontius Pilate in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:14; Mark 15:5; Luke 23:9), where Jesus took deep into himself the mission of Isaiah’s Servant, who ‘will not cry out or shout, or make his voice heard on the street’ (Isaiah 42:2), who ‘did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7), but was led ‘like a sheep that before his shearers is silent’ (53:7). At trial, Jesus crucially revealed himself as God’s Servant not in words, but in silence.

The darker, more chaotic places of the Bible are not places to be afraid of. These places of silence and desolation are precious, just as the wildernesses within us are precious, sacred, and holy. I often wonder why are we so afraid of silence in biblical interpretation when it is so central to other aspects of Christianity. Indeed, with ‘ears to hear’, there may be some of us who actually begin to find ourselves drawn to those silent places. Because this is where God is to be found: the spaces where God can sometimes speak most powerfully, just as God’s word in the beginning (heard by no-one) created life from whbw wht, tohu wa bohu, ‘waste and devastation’, or ‘chaos’, as it is often translated (Genesis 1:2).

My point, of course, is not that God never speaks in words, or in the black print of the text. Clearly Jesus frequently communicated verbally, just as Elijah experienced God, at other times, in hurricane and fire. God’s voice is not to be pinned down within the Bible. My point is simply that we should be open to hearing God speaking not only in those printed words, but also in the silences and margins of the text.

So how do we go about doing this? Preparing ourselves to discern God’s voice in silence?

1. At times, it will involve simply sitting with the silence that comes in the aftermath of the text. Not seeking to lessen it or to resolve it, but letting it be present. Preparation for this involves allowing those most difficult stories and passages within the Bible to be heard just as they are, whatever their implications. This was one of the most important lessons that I learned in moving from academia into the parish. Within the academic world, a common scholarly response to violent or troubling biblical texts is ‘resistant reading’. For instance, in response to the passages where Jerusalem is described as a prostitute and violently punished for her actions, many feminist scholars ‘resistant read’ Jerusalem as a female who actively chooses to live life as a ‘prostitute’ in a business-like manner. Through such a reading, scholars argue that a sense of control is at least returned to the battered female.

On entering parish life and encountering real-life women who had been forced into prostitution or experienced domestic violence, however, the inadequacy of such an approach become starkly apparent to me - at least within the situations of these particular women. Because to ‘resist’ the stories of such women, or to ‘play’ with them in any way, even out of a desire to ‘redeem’ them, was clearly utterly inappropriate.

Instead I found that the greatest challenge was instead to sit and hear those stories - as they are - with all their pain and anger and lack of resolution. Resistant reading had trained me badly for such a task.

Those biblical passages which we find uncomfortable to read challenge us to improve our ability to listen to troubling stories. Not blinkering ourselves to the violence or difficulties that might be present, focusing only on that which we wish to hear; nor continually searching for easy resolution. Instead training ourselves to listen without striving to lessen what is dreadful, or seeking to move too quickly towards answers.

Denise Ackermann has written a short booklet called ‘Tamar’s cry’. It reads the story from 2 Samuel 13 of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon from the perspective of a South African woman living in a place where rape, incest and violence are daily realities for women. It compares Tamar’s experience with those women who have been unwillingly forced into sex and then in the devastating aftermath are perceived as ‘soiled goods’ and ostracised due to contracting the HIV virus. For Ackermann it is vital and a relief that Tamar’s story in the Bible ‘says it as it is’. She explains, ‘There is no prevarication, no avoidance of the horror, no cover up… “Saying it as it is” is the place to begin.’ (p.25); ‘Re-reading the story of Tamar’ she continues ‘I feel affirmed by its truth. It unflinchingly portrays women’s vulnerability to abuse.’ (p.25)

And so Ackermann asks what would happen if the church in South Africa would begin to ‘speak out unambiguously about the reasons for the present scourge of HIV/AIDS’ (p.25), telling the story there as it is, just as is modelled within the Bible. Refusing to move towards resolution with those most difficult biblical texts can be imperative. The Bible’s openness about violence - particularly violence done in the name of God - can make for deeply uncomfortable for us, but it is also a challenge to us.

So often the Church has been seen as a place where physical abuse and violence is covered over. What have been called the ‘texts of terror’ in the Bible model a way for us to name the violence we sadly see taking place within the Church. It emphasizes that life within the Church for some can be and has been a painful experience, and - most importantly - this need not be hidden.

2. Second, listening out for God’s voice within silence is at times about being ready to encounter God in the most unexpected places or in unspoken actions: not necessarily in the thunder, hurricane, and dreadful earthquake of the text and its impact on us. In Hosea chapter 1, a prophet gives three dreadful names to his children. The second is named hmhr )l, Lo Ruhamah, ‘Unloved’ or ‘Not Pitied’ (Hosea 1:6). The message: that God will no longer show love, or mercy to the people of Israel. The child’s mother is Gomer. We hear nothing from her. The task that would normally fall to a mother, to name her children, has been usurped: she remains silent. Yet a Hebrew Bible scholar called Yvonne Sherwood calls attention to Hosea 1:8, a short incidental verse, which simply reads, ‘When she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son.’ The text goes on to name the son. But Sherwood’s attention has been caught by this incidental verse. ‘Gomer weans ‘Unloved’’. Sherwood hears in this silent action another message - a competing discourse - within the book of Hosea. As she writes (1996: 146-7): ‘Weaning implies a prior act of suckling, a gesture of love, that counters the father’s harsh decree… Not Loved, from another perspective, manifestly is loved.’

For Sherwood, Gomer’s ‘silent dissident gesture' - the actions of breastfeeding and weaning - ‘quietly reasserts the voice of reason’, as this mother responds to this baby ‘in the expected manner.’ Sherwood’s interest is in the voice of reason in Hosea, but we might wonder where is the ‘voice of God’. Using our discernment and what we know about God from the Bible, from tradition, and from our experience, is the voice of God more likely to be in those dreadful written words in which the prophet speaks of God utterly abandoning his people without pity? Or in the silent gesture of Gomer, acting out a message of quiet and gentle love to the unloved? We know within our daily life that God is not always to be found among those who shout the loudest, who speak most articulately and confidently, those who claim to be the authoritative voice, who claim to be able to pin down the essence of God. God can also at times be found in the margins, among the voiceless, in the silent small actions of those we might call ‘others’. This is also worth remembering as we read the Bible.

3. Third, preparing ourselves to hear God’s voice in silence can mean at times being ready to actively explore and question the Bible’s silent and wilderness places; opening these silences up to scrutiny as we search the text: even giving these silences voice. For centuries, the Jewish aggadic midrashic tradition has modelled what it can mean to approach the Bible in this way. This tradition takes the silent voices and empty places of the Bible very seriously. Here the black print of the text is not the final authority, but God speaks to the reader in rather more complex ways as the reader struggles and wrestles with the text, entering into relationship with it: interrogating it, probing and penetrating it, particularly where it remains staunchly silent, and exploring its various multiple potentialities and hidden dimensions.
In Genesis 22 - the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac - for instance, many midrashic readings commit themselves to exploring the deafening silence reverberating through the second verse, in God’s dreadful command. God says to Abraham, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering’ (22:2). ‘Take your only son.’ Abraham doesn’t have just one son: he has two! What has happened to Ishmael - his first born? Midrashic readings pick up this absence, hearing within God’s string of commands a silent questioning from Abraham, which recognizes that Ishmael is another precious gift of a child given to him.

(The biblical text is given in bold, Abraham’s articulated silence in italics.)
God: ‘Take now thy son.’
Abraham: ‘I have two sons, and I do not know which of them Thou commandest me to take.’
God: ‘Thine only son.’
Abraham: ‘The one is the only son of his mother, and the other is the only son of his mother.’
God: ‘Whom thou lovest.’
Abraham: I love this one and I love that one.’
God: ‘Even Isaac.’
The silence surrounding Ishmael in Genesis 22 is brought sharply to our attention as the midrash imagines a voice for Abraham. And so another perspective to this narrative is brought into focus: an interfaith perspective. In the silence of the biblical narrative we suddenly begin to perceive the echoes of centuries of misunderstanding and absence of dialogue between the Jewish children of Isaac and the Muslim children of Ishmael. Probing and exploring this silence challenges us to wonder ourselves whether we in our daily lives are reinforcing this silence, which still resonates today, or whether we are committed to speaking and hearing dialogue within it.

It is perhaps significant that when this story appears within the Quran (Surah 37:100-12), the son remains unnamed throughout. Islamic tradition generally assumes that the child that God commands Abraham to sacrifice is his first-born, Ishmael, and not Isaac: there is another silence that could perhaps do with exploring and probing further.

In questioning whether the ‘voice of God’ speaking to us is to be found within the disquieting printed words of the text, which have the power to shatter Abraham’s calling with the force of an earthquake, or in that still silent voice heard echoing in the wildernesses between those words, midrashic readings challenge us about how we read the Bible. Nor is this only a Jewish way of reading. Instances of such a dynamic and interactive approach to Scripture can also be found within Early Christianity. An ancient song attributed to the fourth century Archimandrite, Ephrem the Syrian, to be sung during the Orthodox Easter liturgy, imagines Abraham questioning God’s terrible command.

For ‘who would not have remonstrated with [God]’, the song sensibly asks, giving voice to Abraham’s inexplicable silence:
‘Why, Master, have you ordered these things to be?
Why have you uttered these unwelcome words?
Was it for this you wished to make me a father,
that you might all at once make me a child murderer? […]
Am I to become a child murderer? Is this what you order,
and is it in such sacrifices that you take you delight?
Do you command me to slay my most dear son,
by whom I had hoped with Sarah to be buried?...

Many might be relieved by the silent Sarah also thus being given a part in this story. Abraham does not ask such questions in the biblical narrative, however: Ephrem’s song concludes with wonder, ‘But the just man did not give any such answers.’ Yet in exploring what might have been said, in opening up the silence and exploring it, this song calls sharp attention to the reality that Abraham could have questioned God, indeed might have been expected to. After all, he questions God forcefully at other times, bargaining with God for the lives of those living in Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, just four chapters earlier in Genesis 18. Why was he not willing to bargain for the life of his son, Isaac?

We begin to interpret the silence ourselves here. Was Abraham silent because, like many of us, he is more able to believe in the sanctity and faithfulness of God’s promise to others, than in the sanctity and faithfulness of God’s promise to himself or to his family? When do we do this ourselves? Ephrem the Syrian’s song is a poignant example from within Christian tradition of when the Bible was still engaged with as a living text, with hidden dimensions to be opened up. We might wonder when within Christianity we lost this tradition of interacting with the text, faithfully exploring its possibilities, rather than closing down its options and pinning down God’s voice.

There are strong challenges to us within the silences of these biblical texts when we call attention to them and give them voice.

The importance of articulating these silences is something that feminist readers have known for quite some time now, as there are plenty of examples of silent women in the Bible whose voices and perspectives are ripe for exploring: Bathsheba, Tamar, Jephthah’s daughter, to name just a few. And of course Sarah, mother of Isaac - incidentally the only one in Genesis 22 for whom Isaac is an ‘only beloved son’.

What did Sarah say when she learned what Abraham had done? What were her feelings about God’s command? Jewish midrashim believe it is no coincidence that Sarah dies in Genesis 23 - in the chapter following that terrible story - they say of shock and horror. There is fertile ground within Genesis 22 for articulating another perspective on God’s command to Abraham: one which many feminist authors have focused on and in all sorts of different ways. To name just one example, Phyllis Trible has famously renamed the story ‘the sacrifice of Sarah’ - after all she is the only one is dead in its aftermath. It is not only feminist scholarship that is gathering interest in exploring the silent characters of the Bible, however. This is also becoming an area of increasing interest within Hebrew Bible mainstream scholarship.

The historian Philip Davies’, for instance, recently edited a collection called First Person Essays in Biblical Autobiography, where Jezebel, Delilah, Gomer, and Haman from the story of Esther, among others are given voice by a number of respected academics.

In his introduction, Davies writes, ‘I wish the reader of this book much joy, expect some dismay, and issue an invitation to “go and do likewise”. For I think it is by far the most rewarding, potentially subtle and readable form of biblical scholarship I have yet engaged in, whether as author, editor or reader.’ It seems there is significant scope in all sorts of ways in engaging with and exploring the Bible’s silences.

We ourselves are not simply talking about an intellectual exercise, however. We are exploring how we might hear God’s voice speaking to us when we read the Bible. We might wonder then, does this mean that we can attribute anything to the voice of God? Does this give us a carte blanche? One way which I have found helpful in thinking around this question draws on what the literary theorist Wolfgang Iser believes is going on when we read any text. Iser introduced the phrase Leerstellen (‘empty places’), arguing that these empty places exist within all texts, as the places where meaning is created. For Iser (2000:193), it is the existence of these ‘empty places’ within texts that explains why different interpretations are created even when readers are confronted with the same text because individual readers ‘fill in the gaps’ in the text their ‘own way’. In reading, they make their ‘own decision as to how the gap is to be filled’, creating often astonishingly different interpretations. A related way in which Iser explained what happens when we read is particularly helpful for our purposes. He spoke of every text having ‘fixed points’, or ‘stars’: the immovable points of the narrative or poetry, that cannot simply be ignored or wished away. We might portray the ‘fixed points’ of Genesis 22, for instance, like this:

It is these ‘stars’ that make this individual text unique. At the same time, it is for the reader to understand just how these ‘fixed points’ relate to each other. In reading, we thus begin to ‘join up the dots’ of Genesis 22 to create a ‘constellation’ - our interpretation.

This, for instance, is one possible interpretation of the text. All the fixed points have been taken into account. The reader has understood them to relate in a certain way, reading into the ‘empty places’ of the text certain meanings, which makes sense of these stars. At the same time, this is not the only possible constellation, or interpretation of the text. A different reader, on encountering the same text, but adopting a different reading strategy might create this.

Once again, all the ‘fixed points’ have been taken account of, but they have been understood to relate in a different way as the reader has interpreted the ‘empty places’ of the text.

Iser’s understanding of what happens when we read any text is helpful for our reflections on how we might seek to hear the ‘voice of God’ in the ‘empty places’ and silences of the Bible. In adopting such a reading strategy, we are simply calling particularly sharp attention to the empty places that inevitably exist in the Bible. We are not suggesting that any statement about the text is acceptable. We are not talking about moving the fixed points in the text, or pretending that they do not exist. Nor are we talking about adding other fixed points, to make the text more palatable, or useful, for our purposes. Instead we are seeking to call sharp attention to the ‘empty places’ that inevitably exist within the biblical texts as they have been handed down to us: not becoming frustrated by the absences and silences of certain characters or perspectives; nor being diverted away from their significance by the ‘fixed points’, even when these are disquieting or troubling; instead, committing ourselves to remain open to hearing God’s voice speaking within those ‘empty, wilderness places’, and to be willing to explore different possibilities.

Such an approach is, of course, open to a certain amount of risk, just as every reading strategy carries with it its own dangers. All of us are extremely adept, whatever hermeneutic we adopt, at attributing to God that which we would like to hear. This is the case whether we adopt an historical-critical method, a liberation perspective, a hermeneutic of suspicion, or a sola Scriptura approach. In seeking to hear God in silence we must, as always, guard carefully against only hearing our own echo in the ‘voice of God’.

As readers, we are not presented in this method with a carte blanche. There are clear guidelines within which we are to work, as we trace the paths of our readings. For the ‘fixed points’ of the text are nonnegotiable: they are there to be taken seriously, even if we are turning the focus of our attention to the ‘empty places’ and ‘wildernesses’ of the text as the place where meaning might be created, where the ‘voice of God’ might also be speaking to us.

A final word. This is not about a search for the text’s ultimate meaning. It is not about solving the more difficult or troubling texts of the Bible, or about deproblematizing them so that we can set them safely to one side. It is about opening them up, facing their terrors, naming them, giving voice to them, and thus discovering their complexities and multidimensional character. It is about taking them deep inside us, despite their disquieting exterior meaning, so that we can discover the sweetness of God’s voice within them where we least expect it. Or as one definition of midrash puts it, it is about ‘searching out the fullness’ of what is spoken by the Divine Voice.

1 comment:

John said...

An excellent essay/sermon. But, I would caution against filling in the silence and/or inventing voices to counteract what the text is saying (which is what is couseled several times in this essay, despite an explicit claim to the contrary). I'm also surprised that the fact that the father in a patriarchal culture is in charge of naming children is unknown to the writer/speaker.

I'm very happy to see us recommended to read and learn from everything. I find it a scandal that in my province (TEC), all of Romans is appointed to be read in the service at one time or another EXCEPT for two verses. (No points for guessing which ones!) Same for 1 Corinthians. The irony that the proponents of inclusion in TEC started their march to power by excluding unwelcome Bible verses is a sorry spectacle.

The "eat it" hermenutic recommended for Ezekiel is very well described, and echoes the Collect which charges us to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Holy Scriptures. Eating something makes us vulnerable to its power. In doing so, "digesting Scripture" opens us up to questioning our presuppositions, be they "inclusive" or "orthodox". I think that's why so many want to cut things out of our Scriptural diet.