Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bible Stories You Won't Learn in Children's Church

This is the title for our upcoming Lenten series. The church traditionally holds Wednesday night soup suppers with a pastor-led program afterwards. This year we'll be studying some of the more dark and disturbing passages in the Bible and raise questions about their value, both then and now. Here's a brief overview, to be expanded each week through Lent according to which text is that week's focus.

Genesis 38 - Judah, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, has three sons. His firstborn, Er, marries a woman named Tamar. Er dies without them bearing a son. Er's brother Onan does not fulfill his brotherly duty and dies as well. Judah keeps his third son Shelah from meeting the same fate, so Tamar resorts to other measures to conceive: she disguises herself as a prostitute and sleeps with Judah. The whole thing reads like something off of Passions, though I'm sure it would be much better acted.

Psalm 137 - The people of Israel are exiled in Babylon and can't bring themselves to sing. They long for the day of retribution when they can dash the heads of the Babylonians' babies against rocks. We'll question the fruitfulness of such a reaction and talk about revenge vs. justice.

Judges 19 - A Levite stays as a guest in Gibeah. The men of the town eventually show up at the door demanding that the Levite come out to them so that they can rape him. Instead, the Levite's concubine is thrown to them, and she is found on the doorstep the next morning beaten, raped, and dead. We'll talk about the view and treatment of women in the Bible and how the concubine might even speak for women today.

2 Kings 2:19-25 - Elisha is taunted by some 'small boys,' and Elisha responds by having two bears maul them. We may explore issues similar to the Psalm, and ask about the God revealed in this story.

A Yet-to-be-Decided Text from Joshua Where a Whole City is Wiped Out on God's Command - There are a few to choose from.

These are subject to change, as I don't want to necessarily focus on the same question of 'What kind of God is depicted in this overly violent text?' Genesis and Judges will be unique's the other three with which I'm not totally satisfied. Joshua might provide a good springboard into the topic of war.

What I'm trying to prepare myself for is what I see as one inevitable response: 'Well, that's just how God wanted it to be.' I want people to look past that. If God wanted an entire people wiped out, what sort of God is that? If one of God's prophets is allowed to sic bears on small children, what sort of God is that? Then may come, 'We can't understand God's ways.' These are non-responses given in order to avoid the question. The purpose of this study is to acknowledge the incredible amount of sex and violence in the Bible, and to deal with it rather than piously gloss over it. A modern example of the above responses would be to look at pictures from war and shrug it off with some trite saying like 'War is hell' or 'You can't make an omelette...'

Simply giving God the benefit of the doubt in these stories comes from a particular reading that assumes God's supreme authorship of scripture. Who might we be to question the annihilation of a city so that the Israelites can have their promised land? God wanted it to happen and that should be good enough. The Bible is short on details, so we don't see the corpses littering the streets, mothers and children, youth and elderly. We don't feel the stillness of death, we can't smell the blood. It's easier when there is less detail provided and a purported divine blessing covering it all. This study will try to fill in some details and wonder about the blessing. For some it is a dangerous place to go because it is depressing and spiritually taxing. For others it is a new and exciting way to read scripture.

I must be clear that this is not meant to tear faith down, but to deepen it. It is not meant to discredit the Bible, but to enhance people's understanding of it. Laypeople in churches statistically don't have a lot of knowledge about the Bible outside of what the pastor tells them on Sunday morning. This is meant to engage that 90 degrees out from beginner's courses that no one will show up to. It's a way to provoke further study, and a way to get people to provoke scripture.

The past few days have not been bright here at POC. I'll try to lighten it up soon.