Wicked Texts

and the Lure of Puritanism

Editorial by Anthony Woollard

from Signs of the Times, No. 34 - Jul 2009

However we as liberal Christians understand the authority of Scripture, we cannot ignore it. Adrian Thatcher's recently published book The Savage Text (Wiley-Blackwell 2008), previewed by his article in a recent edition of this newsletter, certainly takes Scripture extremely seriously as the revelatory story of the interaction between God and God's people at crucial and formative times in history. It also reminds us, however, just how many passages, stories and commandments must be viewed critically because of their "savage" potential. At present, inevitably, the (very few) passages relating to homosexuality come into his and our focus. But they are by no means alone. And it is not just the obviously savage passages, from the treatment of the Amalekites to the sacrifice of Isaac, which need to be interrogated rather sharply. There are others which do not have such an obvious destructive potential but which are nevertheless "wicked" in the sense that they notoriously do not fit in to what we may see as the overall message of the Gospel.

Tim Belben, in his contribution to this edition, reminds us that the Gospel message is first and foremost one of the humility of God. Time after time, in parts of the Old Testament as well as the New, our ideas of "glory" in terms of God as an Oriental super-potentate are radically challenged. For this contributor, as for many Christians (not only liberal ones) down the ages, those challenges put a very large question mark against the language of some of our hymns, the ornateness of our churches and the pomp of our rituals and those who conduct them.

And then we read in the Gospels of the woman who anointed Jesus before his death, using obscenely expensive perfumes. His disciples (specifically Judas, it seems) quite rightly argue that it would be more in accord with the Master's message to give that money to the poor. Jesus "wickedly" contradicts them. Why? Is this a case of the early Church trying to justify the idolatry of its worship, against critics such as the Ebionites for whom poverty and puritanism were central to the Gospel? Maybe. We can usually find suitable text-critical arguments to sideline awkward sayings of Jesus. But this particular story dates from a long, long time before the Church became rich and was able to indulge its tastes for elaborate rituals and ornamentation. Supposing - just supposing - it referred to the memory of Jesus as determinedly anti-puritan even whilst he exercised God's preferential option for the poor?

Of course there is no God who demands to be lavished with gold and jewels. There is no God who pettishly insists on endless praise. Any such God is surely the invention, or the perception, of a much more primitive stage of religion. Today we would say (with William Blake and Philip Pullman amongst many others) that, if such a God existed, that God would be a monster and would need to be destroyed.

But relationships, and the material expressions that confirm them, are complex things. That is true between human beings. To the extent that a lover, let us say, demands endless praise and gold and jewels, that lover's love would be bordering on the pathological. Yet when we love we need to show it materially. If that is so at the human level, then, however we understand the concept of "relationship with God", might it not be true at that level also? Is not the puritan response to the Divine, as to a lover, inherently impoverished and impoverishing however much it is justified by rationality and the option for the poor?

On Good Friday this year our friend Giles Fraser contributed to the Guardian an article attacking the sacrificial language applied to the Cross of Jesus. In a way he was continuing the debate which occupied the pages of the Church press last year between such luminaries as Tom Wright and Jeffrey John. We might all, or most of us, want to agree that the particular use of this language in the doctrine of penal substitution amounts to one of Adrian Thatcher's "savage texts" and needs to be used very critically indeed. But I could not help thinking that Fraser in that article too exhaustively identified the language of sacrifice with the language of penal substitution, and that this was a category mistake. Scripture has a lot more to say about sacrifice than that. A God who demands blood - any blood as long as it is from a pure victim - in payment for human sin is indeed a monster. But there are other ways of looking at sacrifice and at the Cross. Fraser himself, in picking up the scapegoat imagery which has been so influential for Rene Girard, illustrates a different way in which the complex texts can be used. At one level, the life and death of Jesus represent the ultimate offering of thanks and praise, in which we can participate and through which we too can find greater wholeness. (That, surely, is a large part of what the Eucharist has come to be about, whatever its precise origins.) At another, they represent a sacrifice to the "demons of the desert", the hard, bitter and wicked things of creation which (as we all know from daily life) do exact their pound of flesh and which, within the autonomy of the created order, must be permitted to do so even by God, who is as constrained as the Doge in The Merchant of Venice. In this, too, we participate, and by this, too, we are healed. In Isaiah 53 it is the scapegoat imagery, not that of the sin-offering (though it is present), which predominates.

And in that picture of the Suffering Servant we find, with Tim Belben, a picture of "glory" very different from that of the prevailing culture. Here is no richly attired Pope, nor yet a banker dripping with bonuses (or an MP with expenses) or a celebrity wallowing in the attentions of Hello. But does that mean that all riches and beauty are condemned? Does not the same writer also offer a picture of thoroughly material contentment - and, yes, glory - lying beyond the suffering? Is not his vision of God as exalted as any in the whole of Scripture? Does he not suggest that that exaltation is something in which God's people might come to share?

As evidenced before in these pages, liberal Christians are a very varied bunch. I have no doubt that our Annual Conference this year, asking the question "just what is liberal theology?", will highlight that diversity still further. But some quite common characteristics include an anger at the Churches for overlaying the Gospel with doctrinal and material trappings; a desire to rescue the Gospel focus on justice and forgiveness; and hence perhaps a greater ease with the "horizontal" rather than the "vertical" dimension of faith. This may, too, be linked with a difficulty in grasping the traditional expressions of the Christian hope, which go so far beyond what we can conceive in the language and thought-forms of today, and can also be seen as enervating by comparison with the ethical demands of the here and now. All these features of our approaches to faith are likely to predispose us towards certain texts and against others. In this, there is just a risk that we may "miss the many-splendoured thing".

It is worth remembering, if we are tempted to follow a purist and puritan line of rationalism, just what the world would have lost if the great art, architecture and music, inspired by a "false" understanding of glory, of worship and of sacrifice, had never appeared. Yes, it is all too human work, and the need for glory is an all too human need. But it may nonetheless be a valid one and even partake in the Divine. And, had it not been so, the poor themselves would have been impoverished further along with the rest of our human race.

A great deal of theological liberalism descends directly from the mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham and his famous "razor" principle: "Entities are not to be multiplied unnecessarily". If theological or metaphysical statements have no obvious and immediate use, no "cash-value" as more recent linguistic philosophers term it, then strip them away. This process is often purifying and needful. But more than that, to some of us, it is very seductive. Meanwhile the continuing spiritual hunger of our contemporaries feeds all too readily on various forms of fundamentalism (or, as Jonathan Clatworthy notes in his article, other religions and New Age philosophies). Perhaps our greatest task in this generation is to demonstrate to them that a liberal Christian faith is compatible with the full richness and complexity of life and of Christian tradition, and that even the disciples of Ockham can allow themselves to grow luxuriant beards.

Anthony Woollard taught Theology at William Temple College before entering the Civil Service where he spent most of his career in the the Department of Education.