Saturday, January 15, 2011
I've been reading more of Brian McLaren lately -- his first book, The Church on the Other Side, and his most recent, A New Kind of Christianity. A lot of the ideas he presents as "new ideas" "new ways of thinking" about Christianity have seemed a little self-evident to me. But I think I've figured out why now. I read the Bible the same way he does, the same way Verna Dozier does, the way literary critics like Northrop Frye or poets like David Jones do -- as a work of literature, of poetry, a work that tells a story of who "God" is and wants to be -- and what it has meant for people of different eras to be "the people of God." I was excited a number of years ago to begin learning a little about the Jewish tradition of "midrash" which reads the whole Torah, and the whole tradition of interpretation, as ALL part of God's revelation -- and sees the process of reading and rereading the story, generation to generation, as a religious activity. In fact I've run across some literary criticism that connects the practice of midrash to postmodern ways of reading, where we understand that a text is a "construct" of words and ideas and cultural frames. There is not "one way" to read a text. I think the difference between the deconstructionist critics I encountered in grad school and the rabbis as I've encountered them, reading about midrash, is the purpose of reading: If we are people of faith, seeking to know God, then we read in order to find out how the tradition has experienced the divine presence and expressed that. If we are focused on "deconstructing" one paradigm of faith (the "western tradition" - target of deconstructionist criticism in the 1970's), then we'll be looking for ways that texts that claim absolute authority seem to undercut themselves.
But I'm feeling energized, authorized, by finding that many of the readers of Scripture I find most congenial are alert to the Biblical text as a literary text. That makes it possible to appreciate patterns and symbols, and ideas that get changed and reinterpreted even within the unfolding of the Biblical story over thousands of years, reflected in the text we have. I've just been reflecting, for example, on the phrase "Lamb of God" - which is in this Sunday's gospel reading: John 1:29 where John the Baptist calls Jesus the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world". So much in that phrase: there's the evocation of the really gory practice, in ancient Israel, of blood sacrifice to consecrate the priests and make atonement for the sins of the people (Exodus 29: 38-46). But in John it's not "sins", its the "sin of the world" -- and we've just read earlier in John 1 that with the coming of Christ, the "word made flesh" there is a victory of light over the darkness of the world. It's a whole new symbol structure, more Greek than Hebrew - but bringing the traditions together in a new way. "The sin of the world" suggests this is not so much about individual "sins" of the people as about a cosmic overcoming of evil, at the heart of everything -- this is poetry, mystery, challenging and beautiful stuff. And then the "Lamb of God" in John also looks forward to the really wild imagery in Revelation 5 of the lamb slaughtered (so evoking those early blood-sacrifice rites), with 7 horns, representing the 7 churches of the time, whose slaying (in a culture that still knows about blood-sacrifice) brings a victory that is both cosmic and political -- the spiritual victory of the persecuted churches over the empire of Rome. (And of course inevitably for me echoes of Handel's grand final chorus based on this text" Worthy is the lamb that was slain" -- but what does that mean. Then there's also the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah, whose willingness to give himself for the people is compared to the meekness of a lamb, taking on everyone's sins (Isaiah 53:7 "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent he did not open his mouth." Even so, the phrase "lamb of God," which is familiar -- used in liturgy -- seems more puzzling and also "fuller.
Poets have reworked and re-presented this image at various times. The study guide we're using at church points us to what I think is actually a very important poem o the 20th century, Denise Levertov's "Mass for the day of St. Thomas Didymas," whose last movement is called "Agnus Dei." Here she uses the lamb to get us back to the Incarnation -- the lamb who is both sweet and attractive but also reminds us (as do the bloody sacrificed lambs) of muck and mortality: she wonders if the idea of the Lamb of God demands something of us:
is it implied that we
must protect this perversely weak
animal, whose muzzles nudgings
suppose there is milk to be found in us?
Must hold to our icy hearts
a shivering God? (you can find the whole poem, "Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymas," in Levertov's volume Candles in Babylon. This poem is also excerpted in the anthology The Stream and the Sapphire.
Much to ponder here: but the question isn't "what is the one true interpretation of this symbol?" Nor is it really "can I believe in this idea"? It is "what is here"? What's the mystery being presented, for us to sit with, ponder. It shows us that the mystery of the Holy among us -- that mystery that we call the Incarnation -- is huge -- and connected to many other parts of the story -- and invites us to ponder, to reflect, to pray.