Texts of Terror
June 22, 2017—The Bible is full of beautiful passages that nourish the soul and inspire our faith. There are parables about hidden treasures and forgiven sons. There are psalms that give voice to unfettered praise and joyful thanks. There are prophets that exhort us to peace and justice. And there are epistles that speak about the fruits of the Spirit and the promise of salvation. These are the sorts of texts that we memorize as kids, ponder in our devotions, and teach in our Sunday School classes.
But the Bible contains other passages, too – ones that seem less beautiful, less obviously useful to our spiritual formation. These texts talk about violence and holy war, child sacrifice and domestic abuse, gendered hierarchy and the mistreatment of outsiders. What are we do to with these so-called “texts of terror”? In what sense should we consider them holy and authoritative? Can we – or how can we – come to experience the living God in the midst of such difficult topics?
In my experience, Christians tend to respond to texts of terror in one of two characteristic ways.
On the one hand there is uncritical acceptance. Reflecting the mantra “the Bible says it, that settles it,” this response assumes that no matter how ethically and theologically problematic a passage might seem, the only faithful response is to consent to what the Bible says without question. Don’t let women speak in the church? If you say so. Drive out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness? There’s gotta be a moral lesson in there somewhere, right? While rooted in a high regard for biblical authority, this type of response tends to whitewash difficult texts in Scripture, or worse still, to see them as mandates for the church today.
On the other hand there is public silencing. Convinced that certain biblical texts are out of step with Jesus’ teaching about love and justice, the folks in this camp simply stop about talking about difficult passages. They aren’t preached on or taught in Sunday School. They are left out of hymnals and are never cited in the Revised Common Lectionary. Public silencing is a strategy of containment that assumes if we pretend difficult texts don’t exist, they’ll cease being a problem. While this response is driven by pastoral concerns, it is not an effective long term strategy. Not only does it end up creating a canon within a canon, it also fails to take responsibility for the difficult things the Bible has to say.
Though uncritical acceptance and public silencing seem to represent contrasting responses to texts of terror, they are inadequate for the same exact reason: namely, they both fail to thoughtfully engage Scripture. Uncritical acceptance comes up short by not raising questions; public silencing comes up short by not entering the conversation. Either way, these common responses to texts of terror deprive believers of a chance to mature in their faith by avoiding honest reflection and open inquiry.
What is needed is a third way. We need to learn how to wrestle with difficult passages in a manner that is honest and authentic. We need an interpretive approach that is critical, yet aims to be charitable and constructive at the same time. We need to stay in conversation with Scripture, even when – or especially when – it presents us with topics that make us uncomfortable. Doing so has the potential to transform not only how we think about specific texts of terror but also how we relate to the Bible, and one another, in the midst of difficult topics.
Ryan Bonfiglio is Lecturer in Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary. Research for Dr. Bonfiglio focuses on theories and methods of iconographic exegesis, an interpretive method that studies biblical literature in light of ancient art and visual culture. He is also interested in Israelite religion, the Prophets, metaphor theory, contextual hermeneutics, and biblical theology. He is the Stembler Scholar in Residence, First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta.
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