New Lenses for the Text
Curriculum – Lesson Plan #3
Lisle Gwynn Garrity
Texts of Terror
What Do We Do With the “Bad” Texts of the Bible?
Concept: In his response essay, Brown questions whether certain biblical interpretations throughout time and space should be determined more correct or “life-giving” than others. Concerned about how to treat the “bad texts of the Bible,” Brown questions whether reception history treats all interpretations equally, or whether it values certain interpretations as better–or more harmful–than others. Similarly, in her response essay, Junior argues that texts do not escape their own boundaries, but instead are “repurposed, corralled, and coerced into new contexts” (p. 2). Junior cites how texts such as Exodus 21 and Ephesians 6 were used to justify slavery in the United States. In this lesson, participants will study one of these notoriously “bad texts,” and explore ways to interpret it.
Setting: Intended for an adult education class, this lesson is set to run for about 60 minutes, but if time permits, this class would be best if extended for 75-90 minutes in order to show the entirety of a lecture utilized for study. This class is part of a four-part series on biblical interpretation. Participants are encouraged to attend all four sessions.
In this lesson, participants will:
- Discuss how texts can be “coerced” or misused to support oppressive practices.
- Watch and discuss Anna Carter Florence’s lecture on the rape of Tamar.
- Develop interpretive approaches for some of these “bad” texts of the bible.
- Participants are encouraged to read Breed’s lead essay and Brown and Junior’s response essays, though the readings are not required.
- Arrange three tables so that 5-8 people can sit at each table for small group discussion. Arrange the tables so that all can view a powerpoint screen.
- Because participants will be reading and studying a very difficult text, the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13: 1-22), be aware of pastoral concerns that may arise during discussion. If you know of specific participants for whom reading this text may stir up experiences of trauma and pain, you may consider speaking with those people ahead of time and/or amending this lesson to fit your group’s needs.
- Set up a powerpoint projector and screen in order to show Video: Anna Carter Florence’s lecture from the Beecher Lecture Series, Yale Divinity School, Oct. 25th, 2012.
- Print copies of the NRSV translation of 2 Samuel 13: 1-22.
- Place scrap paper and pencils on the three tables.
- Tape or hang the visuals of Amos (from the previous lesson) on a wall so they remain visible to the group.
- Print copies of the excerpts from Brown and Junior’s essays (excerpts below) so that each table has multiple copies.
Opening (3 min):
As people gather, invite them to sit at a different table than where they sat last week. Encourage participants to sit so that all of the tables have equal numbers.
Open with prayer:
Eternal Light, shine into our hearts;
Eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil;
Eternal Power, be our support;
Eternal wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance;
Eternal Pity, have mercy upon us,
that with all our heart and mind and strength
we may seek your face
and be brought by your infinite mercy to your holy presence;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.3
Spend a few minutes recapping the previous lesson to catch-up any new participants. Invite individuals to share what was explored and studied in the previous lesson. Ask the group to define or describe the process of reception history. Refer to the visuals of Amos to reflect and share.
Exploring Part 1 (10 min):
Distribute copies of the following excerpts to each of the table groups. Invite them to read these excerpts together and discuss the following questions.
William P. Brown:
This is what I consider to be the greatest benefit reception theory offers to the exegetical arts: it transforms exegesis from an exercise in application to a process of participation, of participation in the life of the text, enhancing it, diminishing it, enlarging it, or wounding it. Therein, I suspect, lies the key to adjudicating between competing interpretations. I suspect that even for reception theorists not every interpretation is considered equally correct or valid. But here I’d like to hear more from Brennan about how he might go about determining which interpretations are more correct, more life-giving perhaps, than others. Does his hermeneutical theory of relativity result in mere interpretive relativism? In other words, can one determine whether some interpretations do a better job of “making sense” of the text than others, with some even deemed “non-sense”? And what about the bad texts of the Bible—those texts that are inextricably linked to the justification of oppression and violence, the “texts of terror”? How does one counter these texts reception-wise? [Brown p. 5]
Breed’s focus on what texts “do” suggests that texts themselves have agency without acknowledging the interpreters who press texts into service. While I agree with Breed that texts “overrun boundaries,” texts do not cross boundaries or “escape” to move on their own from one context to another. Instead, texts are repurposed, corralled, and coerced into new contexts. Asking “how has this text functioned” is a good question, but to ask “who has (re)used this text, how, and for what purpose” identifies more clearly the particular interpreters and agendas behind these reinterpretations.
For instance, biblical texts such as Exodus 21 and Ephesians 6 were used to support pro-slavery positions in the U.S. These texts did not “escape” their ancient contexts. Those who supported slavery were very deliberate in their recycling of these biblical texts into new contexts to support chattel slavery. The movement of these texts is not a characteristic of the texts themselves but a choice made by particular interpreters in support of their unique interpretive aims. [Junior p. 1-2]
Given Brown and Junior’s concerns, can we distinguish whether some interpretations are better, or more correct, than others? If so, how do we determine which interpretations are better? How can we safeguard against harmful interpretations that, as Junior asserts, may be used to justify oppressive practices?
If you have time, take 1-2 minutes to open discussion to the whole group so that the table groups can share what they discussed.
Presenting (31 min):
Pass out the printed copies of 2 Samuel 13: 1-22. Tell the group that they will watch part of a lecture given by Anna Carter Florence, Associate Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary. Guided by Florence’s lecture, you will read together a “bad” text, or “text of terror”–the rape of Tamar. You may want to begin by offering the group a few words of caution (Florence does this in the video as well). This is a difficult text and can stir up difficult emotions. But as Florence reminds us, “there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus in this text.”
Before starting the video, begin with prayer:
you are the power behind all things;
behind the energy of the storm,
behind the heat of a million suns.
you are the power behind all minds:
behind the ability to think and reason,
behind all understanding of the truth.
you are the power behind the cross of Christ:
behind the weakness, the torture and the death,
behind unconquerable love. Amen.4
As they watch the lecture, invite participants to:
- Underline, circle, and annotate the scripture text as it is read in the video. Highlight words and phrases that stick out to you.
- On the scrap sheets of paper, jot down notes, thoughts, and questions as they come to you.
- As you listen, keep these questions in the back of your mind (you may want to write these on a white board or graffiti sheet): What is Florence’s interpretive approach? What “worlds” of the text does she explore (thinking back to Ricoeur’s “three worlds”)? Where is God in this text?
Video: “It Could Have Gone Differently”: Repertory Readings of Texts of Terror by Anna Carter Florence. Part of the Beecher Lectures at Yale Divinity School in November, 2012.
For the sake of time, I suggest starting the video at 13 min. 40 sec. and ending at 44 min. 20 sec. If you are able to extend the class for longer than an hour, I encourage you to show the entire video.
Responding (15 min):
Begin by welcoming initial reactions, comments, and questions. Encourage participants to share the notes and questions they wrote down during the video, inviting them to share particular moments in the text and lecture they found especially striking.
Using the following questions, guide the group in a closing discussion:
● What is Florence’s interpretive approach? How does she “enter into” the text? What questions does she ask? What information does she gather?
● Thinking back to Ricoeur’s “three worlds,” what “worlds” of the text does she explore? If you were to continue studying this text, what information would you gather? What historical questions would you want to investigate? If you were to follow this text in other contexts, where would you look?
● Based on our reading of this text and the information we have shared and gathered, how might we prevent this text from being used to support sexual violence? What interpretive approaches or questions can we develop to prevent harmful readings of texts like this one?
● And, finally, where is God in this text?
Closing (2 min):
Close with your own prayer, or pray the following, opening with words from John 1 and closing with a prayer by Maya Angelou:
1-2 The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.
3-5 Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.
(John 1: 1-5, The Message Bible)
Father, Mother, God,
Thank you for your presence
during the hard and mean days.
For then we have you to lean upon.
Thank you for your presence
during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.
And thank you for your presence
during the Holy Days, for then we are able
to celebrate you and our families
and our friends.
For those who have no voice,
we ask you to speak.
For those who feel unworthy,
we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.
For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them
in the river of your healing.
For those who are lonely, we ask
you to keep them company.
For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon them
the light of hope.
Dear Creator, You, the borderless
sea of substance, we ask you to give to all the
world that which we need most—Peace. Amen.5
3. Alcuin of Tours (c. 735-804), in Book of Common Worship: Presbyterian Church (USA), 24-5.
4. Book of Common Worship: Presbyterian Church (USA), 21.
5. “Prayer,” Maya Angelou. World Prayers. The World Prayers Project: http://www.worldprayers.org/archive/prayers/celebrations/father_mother_god_thank_you.html.