Challenging Stories of Revelation

On Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible

SEVEN STORIES – GENERAL OUTLINE

In 2017, Anthony W. Bartlett publishes a remarkable book, Seven Stories – How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible (Hopetime Press, Great Britain, 2017). It is the result of a lifelong personal engagement with Biblical texts and their existential, spiritual and cultural implications. The book’s title already suggests its multi-layered character.

Seven Stories (Anthony Bartlett)

First of all, the book presents itself as an instrument for individual and communal spiritual reflection. After an introductory chapter on methodology with key concepts and hermeneutical starting points, the reader is invited to reflect on key Biblical texts by following the development of seven stories throughout the Bible. Each chapter starts off with an overview containing a lesson plan, the main learning objectives, the synopsis of the story as a whole and some key words and concepts. This is followed by three lessons on the actual story, each of them containing the necessary information to understand the Biblical texts that are mentioned. Every lesson also ends with an invitation to further explorations (i.e. lesson questions, questions for personal reflection, a glossary, a list of resources and background reading, and some cultural references).

Secondly, content-wise the book lays bare the often hidden challenge represented by the Biblical texts themselves, which is to understand their two-fold revelation. On the one hand, the Biblical texts reveal how human identity is tarnished and generated by violence, resulting in a wrongful understanding of God as violent. On the other hand, the Bible also reveals that God is actually nonviolent: God is a God of love.

The seven stories thus contain, thirdly, an invitation for a transformational journey: from an awareness about our complicity in the world of violence to our participation in a reality that is not dependent on violence – the reality of the God of Jesus. That’s what the “conversion” experience is all about in a Biblical sense. In his introduction Anthony Bartlett explains the aim of the book as follows (p. 9):

“Today we are on the cusp of an enormous shift, from colluding with inherited tropes of violent divinity, to surrendering completely to the dramatic truth revealed through the whole Bible: nothing less than a nonviolent God bringing to birth a nonviolent humanity. We offer this coursebook as a heartfelt contribution to this worldwide movement.”

Bartlett follows three main interpretive principles that allow him and his readers to understand the Bible the way he does:

  • an academic and scholarly background of historical-critical research
  • the anthropology of French-American thinker René Girard (1923-2015) – explained very well in the first chapter
  • a faith relationship with a God of nonviolence – in the author’s case as part of the Wood Hath Hope Christian Community, among others

These principles counter the temptations of Marcionism on the one hand and of fundamentalism on the other. The God of the Old Testament is consistent with the God of the Sermon on the Mount, but this becomes clear through a collection of Biblical texts that contains both the default human understanding of God as violent and the revelation of God as nonviolent. Again from the introduction (p. 9) – emphasis mine:

“If the Bible is anthropological revelation – showing us the violence of human cultural origins – then the Bible must carry within itself a critique of its own theological forms. If on the one hand the Bible tells about human violence and on the other about God, texts about the latter will always be written and read in tension with texts about the former. It is only over the course of development of the whole Bible that resolution will be possible, but the tension must be always kept in mind. […] The whole labor of the text, from Genesis to Revelation, is a journey of decoding the Bible by the Bible.”

To understand the Biblical texts as texts “in travail”, on the way to a more complete revelation of the human and the divine, allows for a non-fundamentalist approach of the Bible’s authority. Anthony Bartlett explains this very well – once again from the introduction (pp. 12-13), emphasis mine:

“In order to get to that final twist we first must have a continuity of narrative which can bring us to that point. In order for the new to arrive there must first be the familiar and the known. Thus Seven Stories includes cycles on the Land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple. These institutions and their symbolic value provided the necessary historical and narrative arc within which the plot of the new could emerge. In the Seven Stories understanding, the Land of Israel and the Jerusalem Temple are the stable rock of ordinary human culture in and through which the stresses of the new show themselves, and finally break through into new creation.

The upshot of all this is a very clear understanding of the authority of the text. To claim authority for scripture does not depend on an abstract notion of inerrancy, so that somehow every single statement in its literal and grammatical form has the weight of a courtroom statement by or about God. To assert this is to create nothing more than a weapon of authority where the authority is more important than the story, than the transformation wrought by the stories. No, the authority of scripture is much more consistent with a God of creative love, and of loving creation. Its authority lies within the transformative process itself, within its slow, gentle but unfailing agency to bring creation to perfection in peace and love. Is this not a much more credible notion of authority, represented in the slow patient progression of Biblical texts and their final realization in the person of Jesus? Rather than a rock falling from the sky the Bible is a seed sprouting from the earth. Whatever is consistent with this generative process has authority. Everything else is the rock of human culture against which the seed is slowly but irresistibly straining.

[…]

The Bible is always in discussion with itself and the informed student will see and feel this at every point. Genesis is in discussion with Exodus-through-Kings, Job with Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes with Proverbs, Jonah with Nahum, Ruth with Nehemiah, Song of Songs with Genesis, and Daniel with almost all of the above. For a Christian the point where the discussion is resolved is with Jesus. And so the persona and teaching of Jesus always constitute the third lesson in each cycle, folding into his story the transformative changes detected in his scriptural tradition. He is also mentioned freely in the course of the Old Testament lessons, because he is indeed the final interpretive lens, the final twist that makes sense of everything.”

SEVEN STORIES – CONCRETE EXAMPLE

A concrete example from the book shows how rich and enriching the above described approach truly is. The first of the seven stories bears the title Oppression to Justice and deals with the Hebrews as Hapiru – a class of dispossessed people from different ethnic backgrounds –, their Exodus experience and the interpretation of that experience by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The end of the second lesson, on the Exodus experience, combines all the different layers present in Bartlett’s book. It is but one of many superb examples of how historical-critical research, combined with Girard’s anthropology and an overall interdisciplinary approach open up well-known Biblical texts as if for the first time, allowing for personal and communal spiritual growth in unexpected ways (pp. 59-60) – emphasis mine:

“The Law’s justice includes reciprocal violence. For example, Ex. 21.29-30 (if an ox kills someone then the ox and owner must be killed). This acts as a deterrent to breaking the law – a fear of retributive violence. It also attempts to be commensurate, not excessive. Nevertheless, it remains the effect of generative violence.

This reciprocity is at work in the death of the first born, the ultimate violent act of God to free the Hebrews. How can we reconcile the story with a nonviolent God? The answer lies in how the Exodus Hebrews produced an interpretation of real events. The Bible reveals as much about us as it does about God. If we explain the narrative of the ten plagues as a cultural lens by which those who told the story saw God then it becomes simply a layer of text which points beyond itself. The ten plagues can be explained from a factual point of view: natural events which are then constructed as divine violence.

For example, the Ten Plagues theory of Dr John Marr (epidemiologist) and Curtis Malloy (medical researcher) understands the plagues as a series of closely linked natural events.

At http://www.nytimes.com/1996/04/04/garden/biblical-plagues-a-novel-theory.html .

The basic point is there is a plausible natural explanation for disasters which then, in the tradition, are read as a direct effect of divine action. But it is the root change in human perspective that counts and which is the work of revelation – God is on the side of the oppressed and is creating a new people based in this relationship.

From a Girardian-anthropological point of view, the Egyptians could also see the plagues as caused by a cursed people who actually had to be expelled (cf. Ex. 11.1). Egyptian historians from the 3rd century BCE in fact report this viewpoint – the Exodus Hebrews were diseased and expelled. (See The Bible, Violence and the Sacred, by James G. Williams.)

The Hebrews fleeing Egypt perceive that God is on their side in terms of generative violence, while the Egyptians see the same events based on the same generative violence, but in terms of a cursed group. Both parties interpret the events according to the default human frame of meaning. Nevertheless, in the overall Biblical narrative something amazing is happening: a God of human transformation is being revealed. From the anthropological perspective the Exodus picture of divine violence is an interpretation of natural events, but the underlying truth is God’s intervention on behalf of a group of oppressed people, laying the foundation of a transformative divine and human journey. This is the true work of the Biblical God, changing our human perspective progressively and continually, including our perception of God as violent. In the following cycle we will see how the book of Genesis prefaces the book of Exodus with a profound critique of human violence. So, a deeper change of meaning (semiotic shift) is already set up in the Bible text before we even get to read Exodus! In our next lesson we will see how Jesus reinterprets the Law, reading its radical intent, and teaches us the full revelation of a God of nonviolence.”

Readers who are by now eager to know what more liberating spiritual treasures await them can purchase Seven Stories on Amazon. I cannot recommend it enough.

SEVEN STORIES – THE BROADER MOVEMENT

Anthony Bartlett is but one of those scholars whose theological reflections are deeply inspired by the work of the late René Girard. Not only is Girard’s work very interesting for people who embrace a vastly interdisciplinary approach to social sciences and cultural studies, but it also enables an understanding of theology and Biblical studies as anthropological resources – as resources that give a clear picture of what it means to be human (pointing out humanity’s limitations, pitfalls and possibilities).

Apart from Anthony Bartlett, I would like to take the opportunity to mention a few others (out of many scholars) who adopt a similar approach to theology and Biblical studies, and who are part of a broader movement of contemporary theology that is inspired by the work of René Girard: the late Jesuit Raymund Schwager (1935-2004), Paul Nuechterlein (editor of the highly informative and inspiring Girardian Lectionary), the people from The Raven Foundation and, last but not least, James Alison.

A couple of years ago, in 2013, James Alison in cooperation with The Raven Foundation and Imitatio produced Jesus the Forgiving Victim series (a series of videos, books and a website). In the second book of the series, God, not one of the gods (Doers Publishing, Glenview, 2013), Alison highlights a transformative reading of Joshua 7, in the same vein as Bartlett reads Biblical texts.

Joshua 7 is basically the story of the people of Israel behaving as a lynch mob, blaming a certain Achan for loosing a battle against the Amorites. The story of the stoning of Achan is told from the perspective of people who believe that God demands such a stoning. James Alison shows what a transformative reading of this story looks like by using the Emmaus story in Luke as a reference – thus, in the words of Anthony Bartlett, “the Bible decodes the Bible” (pp. 109-117); emphasis mine:

In the Joshua passage the voice of the victimized one [can] not be heard. But in the Emmaus story we [find] ourselves in the presence of one who is telling the account of a lynching from the perspective of the person who was lynched. This was a voice that had not been heard before, as indeed it is not heard in the Achan story. It is as though at last, Achan’s version of events is beginning to pour out through the cracks between the stones which had covered him over. What I want to suggest is that when it says of Jesus on the road to Emmaus ‘… He opened up to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ what we are getting is the crucified victim telling the story from Achan’s point of view. The story of how a gang of people needed to find an enemy within and set it up so that one was found, and this was what happened to him. The dead man talking would be Achan giving Achan’s account of his lynching. And indeed you can imagine many other similar stories where someone who is hated without cause can begin to tell their version of events.

What I wanted to bring out is that the two stories, the Achan story and the Emmaus story, are structurally identical stories, but told from opposite perspectives. There is the top-down version, the version told by the successful organizers of group togetherness, the persecutors’ account, and then there is the bottom-up version of the same story, told by the victim from under the stones, on the cross, or in the pit. All the elements of both accounts are the same: rivalry leading to a collapse of morale and structure, leaders trying to find a way to recreate morale, managing to do so by setting up a way of getting everyone together against someone else, and when this finally works, and the ‘someone else’ is got rid of, unanimity, peace, is restored, order is born again, and everyone is telling the same story.

The only trouble is that the moment that the victim’s story can be heard, it reveals that the other story is untrue. It is a lie. Its perpetrators need to believe it for it to work. They need to believe that they’ve really got the bad guy, and indeed in their account the bad guy even agrees with them. These are two entirely different perspectives on exactly the same story. The perspective of the survivors and those who have benefitted from the lynching, which is a lie, and the perspective which is never normally heard, and starts to emerge into our world thanks to the crucified and risen Lord, the perspective which tells the truth and which reveals the official perspective to be a lie. The survivors needed to believe the lie because they thought it would bring them together. But in fact it won’t. In fact they’ll soon be at each other’s throats about something else, and will need to go through this all over again and get someone else in the neck.

I hope you now see why I [refer] to the Emmaus story as not just a story but a paradigm, or model, of interpretation. The structure of how the New Testament operates is that it brings alive the same old story, but told from underneath, and it is this that is the fulfilment of Scripture.

[…]

I want to suggest to you why the Hebrew Scriptures, even a passage like [Joshua 7], are an enormous advance on the world of mythology. I’m going to do so by describing what I call two equal and opposite mistakes regarding the reading of Scripture. One I’m going to label the Marcionite error, in honour of an early Christian interpreter of the Scriptures called Marcion. In a nutshell, Marcion, faced with texts like the one we’ve just seen from the Hebrew Scriptures, said something to the effect of “These are awful stories – it cannot be the same god as the God of Jesus that is at work in them. It’s got to be another god altogether. ” So he proposed ditching the Hebrew Scriptures, as something to do with another god, and in fact he found himself pruning much of the New Testament as well, and ended up making a sort of compendium of the Gospels based on Luke, which he found to be nicer than the rest, making other things fit into it. Church authority, on the other hand, said ‘No! The Scriptures are one, and we receive both Testaments as making sense of each other.’ So Marcion’s view was rejected. Nevertheless, typically, in the modern world, it is Catholics who are tempted to his mistake.

The reverse of this, which is the mistake to which Protestants are more tempted in the modern world, is a fundamentalistic reading of Scripture. The fundamentalist position would be to say that, far from it being the case that there are two different gods in the different Testaments, there is in fact one God, and this God is the same at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. So where the Old Testament says ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’ it means exactly the same as the God of Jesus Christ. Well, if you think like this, then when you are faced with a text like our Joshua text, you are going to have to come up with a complicated account of how God did in fact organize the sacrifice of Achan, but only so as to show in advance by what means he planned to undo the whole sacrificial system later, through the sacrifice of his Son. You can imagine the sort of rigorous mental gymnastics by which people seek to justify the word ‘God’ in the Joshua text, where it manifestly refers to the organizer of a lottery. How do you disentangle the sort of God who does that from doing nasty things to his Son in the crucifixion? You can see why a certain reading of Jesus’ death as being demanded by his Father, with the Father punishing the Son for the sins of others, is so popular. It fits in exactly with the need to say ‘It’s the same God.’

What is difficult for both parties to understand is quite how the New Testament works as interpretative key opening up the Hebrew Scriptures. What the New Testament does is allow us to see how, slowly and inexorably, the one true God, who was always making Godself known in and through the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures, was always coming into the world. And in the degree to which God comes into the world, in the degree to which the revelation of Godself as simultaneously God and Victim comes into clearer and clearer focus, so what is being done by us in the human world of victimizing gets clearer and clearer, harder not to see as obvious, before our eyes. It is the growing clarity from the self-revealing victim coming into the world that leads to the stories surrounding victimary happenings getting nastier and nastier, since they are ever less successful in ‘covering up’ and ‘making things nice’.

The Joshua text we’ve looked at is a particularly good example of this just because it seems so nasty. It would be easy for us to say ‘But this text is the exact opposite of the New Testament. Marcion could scarcely have asked for a better example of what he’s talking about.’ And that, as I see it, is the mistake. If the Emmaus living interpretative principle I have suggested to you is true, than what you would expect is that as it gets closer and closer to becoming clear that it is the victim who is telling the true story, what you can also expect is that it will become clearer and clearer in the texts what is really going on in the movement towards the lynching. Therefore the texts will look nastier.

You can imagine earlier texts, and we have plenty of such texts in mythic literature, in which it is gods who organize things, gather people together, and produce expulsions or sacrifices, and the people take no responsibility at all. Whereas in the text we listened to, from Joshua, the word ‘God’ is very easily switched on or off, but what remains absolutely clear whether it’s on or off is the anthropological dimension of what’s going on. Everything is set out in anthropological terms, without responsibility being displaced onto the gods. You can tell exactly what’s going on here. The text is teetering on the brink of giving itself away. So when we read it, our Gospel-inspired skepticism takes us over the brink. Our skepticism which is provided for us by the gift of faith. If you believe that Jesus, the crucified victim, is God, you stop believing in the gods, you stop believing in weird forces revealing who is ‘really’ to blame, and you get closer and closer to seeing things as they really, humanly, are.

What I’m bringing out here is an understanding of progressive revelation. How it is that as the truth emerges more and more richly in our midst we cannot expect the textual effects of that emergence to get nicer and nicer. You would expect them to get nastier and nastier, but clearer and clearer. And finally you see exactly the same story being told from exactly the inverse perspective, so that there are no longer even the remains of any mythical bits at work. It requires no great imagination to think either ‘The Old Testament is bad and the New Testament is good’ or ‘All word values are the same in both Testaments.’ It requires rather more subtlety to imagine a process in which, as the self-manifestation of the innocent victim becomes clearer and clearer, so the understanding of how humans typically are inclined to behave becomes darker and darker, but more and more realistic.

Compare this with, say, the story of Oedipus, which is essentially the same story as the one we saw in Joshua. There is a plague and social problems in Thebes, and a conveniently slightly deformed outsider, who has provoked jealousy by marrying a prominent heiress, is forced to agree that he was really responsible for certain things that he almost certainly didn’t do, and even if he had done them, they wouldn’t have caused a plague. He is accused of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, while not knowing that this was what he was doing. He succumbs to confessing to this. And then he is expelled, sent off to exile so that the city can return to peace. Now this story is much nicer than the Hebrew story. The townsfolk were not responsible for a violent expulsion, they were victims of a horrible plague, and were confirmed in their horrible suspicions regarding their interloper, and the guilty one got his just reward. The Greek version remains mired in self-delusion. However, the Hebrew version of the same dynamic is radically more truthful, because it is on the point of giving away what was really going on.

Even the editor of the text in the Book of Joshua clearly has doubts about this story – the little hints of skepticism about what’s going on are one of the wonders of the Hebrew Scriptures. The editor starts by saying ‘But the people of Israel broke faith in regard to the devoted things.’ So, it starts with a plural and then moves to a singular: ‘For Achan, son of Cami…’ and so on. And then you have the oddity of God’s behaviour. Although he might be expected to know everything, he appears to need a lottery to help find out ‘who did it’. And in fact, God tells Joshua that it is the people of Israel, in the plural, who have disobeyed him, before giving the instructions for the lottery that will find a singular victim. As you can imagine, an ancient rabbinical storyteller telling this story in a liturgical context, using this text as his Expositor’s Notes – which is very probably how such texts were handled in the ancient world – would have a good deal of fun wondering aloud about these things with his audience.”

There is much more to discover from authors like Anthony Bartlett and James Alison. I hope readers already enjoyed the above mentioned challenging and inspirational ideas.

Happy discovery!

P.S. The RavenCast did a series on Seven Stories that can be watched on YouTube. Here is one of the episodes – Adam Ericksen and Lindsey Paris-Lopez are joined by Linda and Tony Bartlett: