The first reading is often though not always from what we smug Christians tend to refer to as the “Old Testament”. It also gets called the “Hebrew Scriptures” which is less dismissive in a way but can ignore the significance of these scriptures to “us” and the fact that they are not just about our past but are an ongoing part of our journey.
At times instead of the Hebrew Scriptures, we have a first reading from Acts of the Apostles or occasionally I think one of the epistles which is not classified as Paul (or Paul’s copycats). With Acts we tend to do almost the opposite of what we do to the OT, we take it overly seriously and uncritically accept its Utopian claims. In the time of Facebook we ought to view Acts pretty much like we might view someone’s Honeymoon pictures on social media. Not as “untrue” but as an idealised performance of “happily ever after” before the real and ongoing shit of life has stepped back in.
When I was a baby-feminist, which was my phase immediately after my wide-eyed pious believer stage I began to realise how much violence, misogyny and generally yucky events and opinions can be found in the scriptures (this is not unusual) and like many Christians I attempted to locate all the violence and misogyny in the “Old Testament” in a pre-Christ reality which of course Christ challenged and overturned. It has taken me years to unpick that overly simplistic way of “sewing up” the problems in the text/s. The fact is there is plenty of problematic ideology in the “New Testament” also as well as gaps and silencings of all but the most privileged voices (and some subversive remnants of “other” voices too). Equally Christs (incomplete) challenging and overturning of oppressive structures is rooted in his Jewish tradition: in the work of Sophia/Wisdom who transgresses human order to call everyone to deeper knowing and more joyful being, in the more radical mutterings of some of the anti-establishment prophets (Micah immediately springs to mind since he is my favourite) and in some of the historical figures who stepped outside their social class (David) or their gender (Miriam) or their age (Hannah), culture (Ruth), xenophobic society (Pharaoh’s daughter) etc, etc, etc.
I don’t want all this richness to be “cancelled out” by a shiny Christus Rex that shows us Emperor Constantine more than a fisherman of dubious parentage from Nazareth who embodied subversive Wisdom. Nor in the apparent idealism of the Acts of the Apostles do I want to lose the invisible Apostles who cooked and cleaned and cuddled babies and were told to cover their heads and shut up (despite the fact that Wisdom who moved them is a disobedient and immodestly opinionated woman who goes about the town as she pleases). There are crumbs there anyway. Who was Dorcas really? Or Lydia? And anyway how do we know about the first appearances of Jesus if the women were commanded to never speak?
But rather than dismiss the patriarchal text wholesale (or go back to the idolatry of seeing in it “Truth” rather than a series of partial and biased truths) I think of it as a photo album. We like to think that a photograph cannot lie, but we forget that nor does it show us everything. Someone stood there and chose and angle and a framing for the photo- they might have chosen it for technical reasons, ideological reasons or sometimes perhaps by accident but someone chose what to show us and from what standing-point. Outside the frame of the camera there is a lot we will never see. We see the pretty girls dressed up to go to their school formal, but we may not see which one had to borrow a dress because she has no money, and which one is secretly a lesbian, and which one will get drunk and disgrace herself at an unpictured part of the evening (or maybe family stories do tell us some of these details). We see a mother with her three sons but we may not see that this is the first time she has seen one of them in two years or that one of them thinks he has cancer or what any of them look like when they take away their “best clothes” and stop celebrating and just get on with life. We also don;t see that while they were having their picture taken the cat managed to steal half their lunch or the phone was ringing but they didn’t hear it or the person taking the photo was in love with one of them.
Which is not to say that family photo albums are misleading or “false” just that it is impossible to record every detail of even one of the people in it, and we tend to get an edited view- especially over generations as people forget more and more details. Something may be written down, but it is not possible that everything would be and so people make decisions about what is important or about what is evidence for what I am trying to show. This is true of the bible as well. Over the centuries the literate and the relatively powerful were able to make decisions about what to write down, which writings to preserve, which of the saved writings to edit or privilege. Those with the leisure and literacy to do this, and the influence to have their choices accepted by society were generally men- free and relatively wealthy men.
When you think of it this way then the traces of critical perspectives and the social justice agendas that come through cannot be taken for granted. In human and historical terms the fact that kings and battles and patriarchs are the “stars” of so many bible stories are not surprising at all- what is surprising is the reoccurring of so many calls to treat the poor with justice (rather than mere charity) and so many instances of women characters who call into question the gender order. If I was going to believe in divine inspiration, this would be the evidence for it- not the expected material but the unexpected liberative flashes (for all that at times we have to search hard for them). But that’s Wisdom too- she is elusive and difficult to track down but she crops up where you don’t expect her and undermines the foolishness of human structures.
For me this blog has been an opportunity to try to come to terms with some of the “photos” from the album of our shared faith journey as Christians grounded in a Jewish history. Like any deconstructive reader, my interpretations are to some degree personal and shifting- no more “right” than the official or “common-sense” interpretation. My hope for any reader is not that I will convince them to my way of seeing but that they will enter into the dance of interpretation with me, celebrating some of my observations perhaps and rejecting others.
If we avoid the idolatry of seeing the text itself as infallible”Truth” (that for women and many others has often been privileged in a way that erases the equal validity of our own experiences) but instead see the truths of the text and of our own bodies, relationships and each others perspectives all as entry points. Then we can weave and unpick and reweave all these different partial truths in ways that create beauty and understanding, all in order to dance with the joy of living. And the real Truth (Godde/Love) will not be pinned down, but will find us where we dance.
Let us find in this day and each other the Living Word of Godde
Thanks be to Godde.