SATURDAY READING: Can We Go On Together With Suspicious Minds?, by F. Scott Spencer

From Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows 

Doubt and Trust as Both Side of the Hermeneutical “Coin” [excerpt] 

Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  And when she has found it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the piece which I lost!’  Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:8-10)

Elvis didn’t think so.  “We can’t go on together with suspicious minds,” he crooned.  “And we can’t build our dreams on suspicious minds.”  Loving relationships and communities do not thrive in the throes of mistrust, angst, and accusation; indeed, they eventually die, along with their hopes and dreams, under suspicion’s corrosive tyranny.

So it can be in relating to the Bible in interpretive communities of faith, which engage the “Good Book” less as an inanimate object of gaze than as an intimate subject of love – reaching out to its readers, addressing issues that matter to them, and compelling active responses of love, devotion, and obedience.  To sharpen the point theologically, the Bible bears consistent witness to the creative, redemptive character of God, who personally engages and challenges people as loving – and demanding – subject.  And thoroughgoing suspicion of God’s intentions toward us and purposes for us, as mediated in the Bible, scarcely provides a propitious foundation on which to build a healthy relationship with God and God’s word.

The serpent’s opening gambit casts false suspicion on God: “Did God [really] say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  (Genesis 3:1).  (What a cheeky deity to plant all these luscious trees around you and not let you sample any of their delights!)  Of course, God commanded no such thing, as the woman promptly clarifies; but then she springs her own suspicious trap, suggesting wrongly that God had prohibited touching as well as tasting the fruit of a single, exceptional tree; (3:2-3).  Where does this truncated, hyper-fastidious view of God come from – this God who had done nothing but provide human beings with life, companionship, employment, housing, and an abundance of food, minus one lone forbidden tree (“You may freely eat of every tree in the garden [but one!]”? (2:16-17). Suspicion begets disobedience, which in turn begets further suspicion: surely, the first couple supposes, God wants nothing to do with them now – hence, their fig-leaf cover-up and bush-league hideout; (3:7-8).  And who knows what kind of horrible “death sentence” awaits them on this ominous “day” of transgression? (2:17).

Although God is scarcely pleased with the first couple and has good cause to doubt their faithfulness, God in fact seeks them out, confronts them with the consequences of their wrongdoing – including eventual, but not imminent, death – and clothes them with more durable, protective garments; (3:8-21).  The divine-human relationship is unquestionably scarred, but not severed.  For God’s part, grace and love prevail; but on the human side, suspicion still lurks.  Cain’s boiling anger toward his brother is fueled in large measure by suspicion of God’s preferential intentions in accepting Abel’s offering and rejecting Cain’s.  Why, exactly, does the Lord not “regard” Cain’s produce?  The text does not say, leaving a gap for suspicion to erupt and fester.  And the result is disastrous: Cain’s suspicion-sparked anger explodes into Abel’s murder and Cain’s exile.

So from the beginning, the Bible testifies to suspicion’s corrosive effect on healthy relationships among God, God’s people, and God’s world.  But for all its initial suspicion of human suspicion toward God, the Bible soon makes a measure of space for this inquisitive, even inquisitorial, side of human nature.  The unfathomable depth and complexity of God and God’s word unfolding through time to fallible, finite human beings (created in God’s image, but still limited in capacity to comprehend God fully) inevitably call forth human questions, concerns, and suspicions.  Starting from a position of faith does not guarantee twenty-twenty spiritual vision; we often see “in the mirror, dimly,” (1 Corinthians 13:12), “people [that] look like trees, walking,” (Mark 8:24), requiring progress “through faith for faith,” (Romans 1:17), or “faith seeking understanding.” (Anselm, Proslogion)

And this faith journey may well wind through critical paths of lament, laced with doubt and suspicion.  Faithful Abraham suspects God of indiscriminate judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah and tells God so, more or less, (Genesis 18-22:33); likewise, Moses questions God’s intentions to wipe out the whole lot of golden-calf-making Israelites at Sinai, (Exodus 32:11-14); Job accuses God of unnecessary roughness and pleads for an “umpire” to make God play fair, (Job 9:32-33); the psalmist, echoed by Jesus on the cross, wonders in anguish why God has forsaken him in his hour of need, (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34); and Habakkuk laments God’s deaf ear to the cries of God’s suffering people in a violent world, (1:2-17).  In each case suspicion is born of faith: because we believe you are a just, compassionate, gracious, present God, as disclosed through your word, we suspect something is out of kilter when you seem to act differently.  And as faithful human beings express suspicion of God’s acts and aims, God engages them in productive dialogue toward a fuller understanding of God’s will and ways.  Suspicion serves faith by calling God out, as it were, to be true to God’s nature, as we have come to know it, and calling forth richer and deeper modes of knowing and loving this God with whom we have to do.

But while the lament tradition provides a candid and creative nexus for doubt and faith in biblical-theological interpretation, does it sufficiently justify the prevailing practice of a hermeneutic of suspicion in contemporary biblical scholarship?  Does unbridled suspicion not still run the risk of divorcing itself from or directing itself against faith, of crossing the line into scoffing and scorning God, as Proverbs warns?  Such concerns have sparked renewed suspicions, in certain theological quarters, about the ultimate value of suspicion as a principal hermeneutical strategy and its compatibility with faithful response to God’s revelation.

Suspecting and Suspending Suspicion

As David Jasper sketches in broad terms, biblical hermeneutics since the Enlightenment has consistently coursed through dual currents of faith and suspicion – not, however, always flowing in the same direction or in healthy tension with each other.  Indeed, the suspicion of early scientific rationalists gravely undermined the historical veracity of biblical miracles and other supposed supernatural phenomena, prompting spirited apologetic rejoinders from Bible “believers.”  Later ideological critics, led by the so-called triumvirate “maters of suspicion” – Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud – unmasked oppressive and repressive tendencies of religion and other sociopolitical establishments serving elite interests; in the process, they left little room for faithful engagement with or salutary submission to the Bible as God’s authoritative word.

Newer methods of biblical analysis have adopted a “hermeneutics of suspicion” platform with fresh vigor.  Feminist criticism, in particular, typically approaches the Bible with all due caution as a text written by (dominant) men for men – that is, from a thoroughly androcentric (male-centered), patriarchal (father-ruled), and kyriarchal (master-dominated) perspective.  Let women and other “others” beware!  Post-Holocaust investigation of the NT trains a wary eagle eye on harsh statements about “the Jews” and Jewish unbelief and hypocritical practice, suspecting Christian polemical propaganda and supersessionist ideology.  Recent ecological hermeneutics suspects and resists the Bible’s largely anthropocentric (human-oriented) perspective of the world, which tends to neglect, distort, and exploit the wider interest of creation and “Earth” as living subject.  Apart from the problematic language of the biblical text itself, suspicion has also been fueled by two millennia of accumulated interpretive record, including (mis)use of the text to support so-called holy wars and ethnic “cleansings,” subordination and even battering of women, pogroms against Jews, enslavement of African laborers, and exploitation of the environment.  For some concerned critics, the Bible’s deleterious rhetoric and history of interpretation are enough to merit it a stark label, Warning: Dangerous to Your Health.  Read at Your Own Risk.  Even the prominent Lutheran bishop and biblical theological, Krister Stendahl, classified the Bible as a major “public health” hazard in its – and its interpreters’ – often-toxic treatment of women and Jews and spoke of “increasingly. . . moving my teaching situation to what you might call the Public Health Department of biblical studies.”

But come on now.  Warning labels and public health alerts?  Putting the Bible on a par with cigarettes and smallpox?  Isn’t that pushing suspicion too far – from healthy, faithful lament to harmful, foolish paranoia?  Conceding, even confessing as sin (on biblical grounds), the sad history of (ab)using the Bible for violent, oppressive purposes does not abrogate the witness of millions through the ages to the Bible’s life-giving, liberating power.  So enough already with this dour drumbeat of hermeneutical suspicion!  Is it not high time to return dispositions of faith, trust, and submission to the hermeneutical throne, with suspicion, if present at all, firmly relegated to footstool (and footnote) status?  An increasing scholarly chorus has been calling for greater integration between biblical and theological disciplines around the “rule of faith,” which not merely suspends disbelief (suspicion) in God’s revealed word, but actively affirms orthodox faith and practice.  A cynical hermeneutics of suspicion must give way to a more civil and congenial hermeneutics of trust and consent.

For example, in his collection of detailed literary and historical studies of key women in the Gospels, Richard Bauckham takes a cautious (suspicious) stance toward feminist biblical criticism.  Although applauding its “considerable achievements” in uncovering significant women characters in the Bible, largely neglected in the history of interpretation, and in “discovering,” in certain cases, hopeful “possibilities of the text as possibilities for a new living today.”  Bauckham expresses grave concerns over feminist criticism’s typical employment of the hermeneutics of suspicion.  The “proper use” of this hermeneutic, he argues, should be limited to exposing both the rather banal fact that men and women occupied different social positions in biblical society, with men mostly on top, and also the more provocative reality that texts, not least biblical texts, “are not ideologically neutral” but rather serve a variety of social and political interests.  However, Bauckham worries that feminist criticism too readily succumbs to a “blinkered use” of suspicion as “the only exegetical took” in the service of a “one-issue” obsession.

[T]he issue of patriarchal oppression of women is the only interest the exegete brings to the text and therefore the feminist hermeneutic of suspicion is the only exegetical tool that is employed.  It is hard to attend fairly and openly to a text unless one is genuinely interested in all that the text is about, and unless one takes the trouble to approach it with the rich resources of interpretation available in the form of historical and literary methods that are designed to open up the text for its own sake and not just for ideological illustration.

Bauckham further laments a hermeneutic of suspicion’s tone deafness to “genuinely gynocentric” counterstrains in otherwise male-dominated biblical literature.  He draws a sharp methodological line in the sand: “Unlike many feminist biblical critics I do not regard the canon of Scripture as a hopelessly patriarchal construction.”  The book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible and the Mary-Elizabeth exchange in Luke 1 represent banner examples, in Bauckham’s judgment, offering “Authentically women’s perspectives” on biblical events (even if written by a man) and allowing feminist critics positively to read “with the grain” of the text, if they just would.  He pushes his case further with Luke’s Gospel by saying that, although Elizabeth drops out of the story entirely after the first chapter and Mary (Jesus’s mother) after the second, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and “many other” Galilean women join the company of Jesus’s closest followers in Luke 8:2-3, thus inviting readers, male and female, to consider the balance of Luke’s narrative from women’s points of view, even though these particular women say nothing and remain hidden until the closing scenes in 23:55-24:10.

Richard Hays mounts a more vigorous assault, trumpeting a “hermeneutic of trust (pistis)” as a “dramatic and life-giving alternative to the corrosive hermeneutic of suspicion that has come to dominate the modern academy.”  Here suspicion equates with apistia – unbelief, unfaithfulness.  Although Hays acknowledges that many “suspicious interpreters. . . believe [the Bible] can contain both liberating and oppressing messages,” he focuses on their overriding tendency to “portray the apostolic witnesses less as revelatory witnesses to God’s mercy than as oppressive promulgators of abusive images of God.”  He particularly seizes on Schüssler Fiorenza’s contention, alluded to above, that “a feminist critical hermeneutics of suspicion places a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution!  Could be dangerous to your health and survival.  Having thus tarred the Bible with a dubious and dangerous brush, Schüssler Fiorenza and her suspicious cohorts supposedly supplant biblical authority with the rule of experience, which they elevate, in Hay’s opinion, with “remarkably credulous” arrogance as “unambiguously revelatory.”  Hence, “they endlessly critique the biblical texts but rarely get around to hearing Scripture’s critique of us, or hearing its message of grace.

Hays turns the tables on feminist and other ideological critics in calling for suspicion of human experience and academic institutions inevitably “corrupted and shaped by the present evil age,” (cf. Galatians 1:4), and polluted by “filth in our own souls,” (T. S. Eliot).  As sinful beings, we must humbly and trustingly allow God’s word to rub hard against the grain of our fickle and misguided experience.  We should take our foundational hermeneutical cues from (1) Abraham, who, according to Paul, distrusted (suspected) his own geriatric impotence and Sarah’s barrenness in favor of believing God’s remarkable word of promise, (Romans 4:18-21, using apistia and pistis/pisteuō); and (2) Mary, who overcame her suspicion of virginal conception (“How can this be?”) with faithful submission to God’s purpose (“Let it be with me according to your word”); (Luke 1:34,38).  Thus, Hays principally advocates suspicion as an obstacle to surmount or a practice to suspend – replaced by a hermeneutic of consent/trust.

Sustaining and Struggling with Suspicion

While turning the critical spotlight on a hermeneutic of suspicion exposes valid concerns – by definition, this hermeneutic should train its suspicious eye inward as well as outward – questions concerning balance and proportion persist.  How far must the pendulum swing away from an engaged suspicious approach to biblical interpretation to be regarded as “faithful”?  The lament tradition notwithstanding, does suspicion operate more as faith’s foe than as its friend?  Are Bauckham’s and Hays’s negative assessments of suspicious practices of feminist biblical criticism, in particular, squarely on target?  Do they fairly reflect typical use of a hermeneutic of suspicion by feminist scholars?

My take on the broad sweep of contemporary feminist biblical criticism is that it generally plays the “suspicion” card in a more limited, sophisticated, and optimistic fashion than is often assumed.  Moreover, I suggest that suspicion and trust, doubt and faith, can and should mutually inform biblical-theological interpretation, feminist and otherwise, spurred by the lament tradition but also extending beyond it across the biblical canon.  Consider the following four issues.

Methodological Complexity

First, tarring feminist biblical interpreters as “blinkered,” “one-issue” critics armed only with a suspicious sledgehammer in their exegetical toolbox, which they ruthlessly wield to bash the “abusive” biblical God, is itself a myopic, reductive caricature, woefully out of touch with the rich complexity and diversity – and even piety – of much feminist engagement with the Bible as it has developed over the past four decades.  Shifting the image from toolshed to music hall, Amy-Jill Levine observes,

Today there are countless readings that could be labeled feminist, even as there are countless ways that the term has been and can be defined.  The feminist choir no longer sounds the single note of white, Western, middle-class, Christian concerns:  “feminist biblical studies” is now a symphony.  It acknowledges the different concerns social location and experience bring to interpretation and recognizes the tentativeness and partiality of each conclusion: no instrument alone is complete; no two musicians play the music exactly alike.

Moreover, along with employing a variety of tools and instruments, feminist biblical scholars come to their work with a range of theological commitments, but rarely with no commitment at all.  Simply conceding that most feminist interpreters recognize helpful as well as harmful elements within the Bible understates the situation.  Most in fact are passionate women (and supportive men) of faith (pistis) – not unfaith (apistia) communities struggling to discover and experience the Bible’s God-gracing, life-giving power.  If the Bible is so hopelessly deleterious to women, why bother?  If it is so incorrigibly riddled with patriarchy, why “love it,” as Phyllis Trible confessed, to devote so many years of professional training and so much critical energy to studying it?

Although Schüssler Fiorenza’s students have playfully dubbed themselves and their mentor as FBI agents (Feminist Biblical Interpreters), in truth their sole mission has not been to spy and smoke out dangerous threats to women and other oppressed persons lurking in the biblical text.  Identifying seven interweaving “hermeneutical moves and turns” in the “circle dance” of feminist biblical interpretation, Schüssler Fiorenza lists “suspicious” third (after “experience” and “domination and social location”), followed by four constructive steps: “critical evaluation, “creative imagination,” “remembering and reconstruction,” and ultimately “transformative action for change.”  Further, she strongly argues that biblical interpreters “need to develop and engage not only a deconstructive but (re)constructive methodology.  The feminist coin, if it should retain its currency, must have two sides: deconstruction and reconstruction!”  And she decries the cynicism of some (a minority, I would say) feminist critics who assert that any attempt to reclaim androcentric biblical texts for women’s emancipatory interests is a disingenuous and hopeless act of “wishful thinking.”  On the contrary, Schüssler Fiorenza’s appreciation for the theologically imaginative, literarily open, and historically contingent nature of the Bible spurs her to creative, salutary (re)interpretations for women today.

Biblical: Theological Tension

Second, careful attention must be paid to the thick textures, creative tensions, suggestive gaps, and dynamic ebbs and flows of biblical narrative, which permit, if not invite, a wide array of reader responses across the doubt-faith, suspicion-trust spectrum.  John Goldingay issues a strong and persuasive appeal to biblical-theological interpreters to take seriously the predominantly narrative nature of the Bible and, in turn, the nature of narrative as richly “open-ended, allusive, and capable of embracing questions and ambiguity,” in distinction from “traditional systematic theology,” which “by its nature. . . is [more] concerned with the unequivocal; it presupposes a quest for unity.”  In particular, meaningful narrative plots mount and maintain various levels of suspense (suspicion), which lead to a range of partial and frustrating, as well as more complete and satisfying, resolutions.  Complex narratives have no problem with leaving their readers dangling in deliberative thought.  Applied to the canonical NT Gospel plot(s) – unfolding in four (or five, if Acts is treated separately) distinctive narratives – various “dialectical tensions” can be appreciated, not least one with provocative implications for gendered status among Jesus’s followers.  “[T]he Gospel story portrays Jesus choosing twelve men as members of his inner circle, which might confirm men’s special status in the leadership of the people of God.  It then portrays him watching them misunderstand, betray, and abandon him, so that the people who accompany his martyrdom and first learn of his transformation are women – which might subvert men’s special status in the leadership of the people of God.”

It’s at this point of keenly attending to narrative-theological plots and tensions that Hays falls short in his antifeminist readings of Abraham’s and Mary’s “faithful” surmounting of doubt to believe God’s word.  On the one hand, these cases don’t really address the feminist-critical hermeneutic of suspicion.  The suspicion Abraham and Mary overcome focuses not on withering, unjust life experiences they interrogate God about, as with biblical laments, but rather on incredible promises of God’s life-giving power.  Their problem is not theodicy, but theophany.  Abraham resists false hopes of Sarah’s childbearing in old age, while Mary queries the prospect of her own childbearing without a man’s seed.  They suspect God’s overreaching blessing, not God’s overbearing oppressing; and such blessing – focused on enlivening and empowering both elderly and young women – nicely fits feminism’s liberating agenda.

On the other hand, however, the overall narratives surrounding Abraham and Mary open up a range of character and reader responses, both problematic and promising.  Paul’s subsuming the career of Abraham under the banner “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” (Genesis 15:6), represents a highly selective generalization.  Abraham also schemed to adjust the Lord’s will, (16:1-4; 17-18), laughed at the Lord’s promise, (17:17), questioned the Lord’s judgment, (18:23-33), and jeopardized the Lord’s plan – and Sarah’s life, twice! – by lying about his relationship with her and selling her into a foreign king’s harem to save his own neck; (12:10-20; 20:1-18).  And the outrageous “binding” of the covenant son Isaac without Sarah’s knowledge, (22:1-14), while capable of being read as the acme of Abraham’s faithful obedience to God, does not yield such an interpretation without engaging some hard-hitting, “suspicious” questions, such as: Why does this patriarch who queried the fairness of God’s judgment against Sodom in order to spare nephew Lot’s life not utter a peep of doubt about God demanding the sacrifice of son Isaac at Moriah?

As for Mary’s role in Luke, some feminist scholars echo Bauckham’s gynocentric reading of Luke’s birth narrative as a “critical counterbalance” or welcome “interruption of the dominant androcentricity of Scripture” – including the rest of Luke.  In Brigitte Kahl’s terms, Luke 1 stitches a “feminist-egalitarian” pattern, “something like a ‘feminist code’ woven into the texture of the biblical ‘textile.’” Likewise, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susannah, and other women among Jesus’s disciples in Luke 8 and 23-24 militates against a hyper-suspicious reading of Luke’s male-dominated story.  But such gains are easily lost.  The total dropping of Mary and Elizabeth from Luke’s script after such a propitious beginning and yawning gap between mentions of Mary Magdalene and cohorts “repatriarchalize” Luke’s narrative and recharge suspicious minds.  To assume women’s continuing presence without regularly checking roll and recording their contributions is better than ignoring them altogether, but it also assumes a largely passive and subordinate role and raises red flags about the depth of Luke’s commitment to inclusive discipleship and equal opportunity.  In any case, negotiating tensions between liberating and limiting elements of Luke’s “mixed messages” regarding women seems to demand a dialectical hermeneutic of faith and suspicion.

Personal Experience

Third, a hermeneutic of suspicion’s alleged valorization of personal experience and arrogant devaluation of the corruptive power of human sinfulness beg for clarification and nuance.  Without a doubt, feminist biblical criticism in its various forms places a high premium on experience, especially women’s experience.  Convinced that interpreters inevitably bring their experience to the interpretive table, a feminist critic lays her cards faceup on the table, calls for others to do the same, and unabashedly argues that it’s high time her experience plays a bigger role in the conversation.  But that does not mean that feminist biblical interpreters glorify their experience as “unambiguously revelatory.”  Quite the contrary, feminists have paid in increasing attention to the kaleidoscope of women’s global experiences that necessarily relativizes, qualifies, and criticizes any singular expression.  If modern feminist biblical criticism sprang up in the 1970s-1980s among predominantly white, middle-class, educated, Euro-American Christian women, it has long since repented of its patronizing monoculturalism to embrace a multitude of perspectives from women of various colors, classes, confessions, and cultures.  Only in the face of alternative experiences can deep self-critique effectively take place.  Indeed, such self-critique is perhaps the greatest motivation for men to suspect their own blind spots and engage feminist criticism seriously.

As for their sense of sin, suspicious feminist interpreters are scarcely squeamish about prophetic denunciations or stiff-necked about personal confessions.  To be sure, more emphasis falls on public-institutional than private-individual win; as Schüssler Fiorenza states, “liberation feminism understands all [women] as the people of [God] created in Her image and hence it indicts the death-dealing powers of exclusion and oppression as structural sin and life-destroying evil.”  But such an announcement has a strong biblical-prophetic ring and provides a critical counterweight to the still dominant “introspective conscience of the West.”  As for personal confession of wrongdoing and wrong reading, whether invoking traditional “sin” language or not, feminist critics – because, rather than in spite of, their suspicious outlook – remain among the most frank and forthcoming biblical interpreters about their own autobiographical journeys, including changes of mind (repentance) and admissions of mistakes (confession).  As a key case in point, more than a few early feminist Christian scholars have humbly disavowed tendencies, both subtle and overt, deliberate and unintended, to smear ancient Judaism as hopelessly misogynistic or patriarchal, usually to make an inclusive, even “feminist” Jesus look good in contrast.

Among those advocating a more explicit confessional approach to biblical interpretation and cautioning against a thoroughly deconstructive hermeneutic of suspicion, some scholars retain more than grudging or backhanded respect for suspicion’s necessary function alongside faith, refusing to dump out the healthy suspicious baby with the hyper-cynical bathwater.  Walter Moberly, for example, who resists a particularly virulent feminist-deconstructive strain that debunks the OT God as abusive and capricious, still contends that “a Christian theologian should not be quick to dismiss a hermeneutic of suspicion.”  Indeed, “suspicion touches on something that is basic within a Christian account of life, the recognition that there is nothing which cannot be abused and that humans have an enormous capacity for self-deception in the ways they try to rationalize and justify their greed, desires, and idolatries.  The religious life is not exempt from this; rather it may be a prime exemplar of it.”

Similarly, Ellen Davis, who clings to “a more excellent way than outright repudiation or public silencing of texts that repel us and seem to present a threat to the marginalized and powerless,” understands that the Bible does not always make that way easy.  She appreciates that as much as “the North American church is under suspicion for not taking the Bible seriously, it is equally true that the Bible is under suspicion in the North American church for not being a trustworthy guide for faith and life, for claiming too many victims through the centuries.”  Ironically, however, suspicion of our own stale, parroted views of the Bible can open fresh interpretive paths.  If we read the Bible in sin-and faith-confession communities, “it is well,” Davis exhorts, “to begin by suspecting our own interpretations.  Most of them have probably not been reconsidered in a long time – years in our own lives, generations in the church.”

Hermeneutical Struggle

Fourth, though not calibrating precise amounts of suspicion and faith in the hermeneutical stew, feminist and other liberationist approaches to biblical interpretation typically combine healthy portions of both ingredients under the main element of struggle.  Whatever the mix – so many parts faith to so many parts suspicion – the key is to stir, whip, beat, and knead vigorously and indefatigably until freedom and justice, grace, and peace emerge.  Suspicion and doubt alert us that this is no easy-bake, microwaveable fare; the biblical text can be hard to handle.  But faith and trust keep us in the kitchen however long it takes until God’s word is ready – or better put, until we’re ready to hear God’s word.

Shifting from kitchen to gymnasium, many feminist critics take seriously the work of wrestling with the biblical text in all its power to break and bruise, challenge and chasten – but still with the hope of somehow emerging blessed from the contest.  Trible’s preface to her monumental treatment of biblical “texts of terror” invokes Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match at the Jabbok with the divine-demonic “man” as paradigmatic of the fervent feminist struggle to wrest something redemptive out of terrible stories: “The fight itself is solitary and intense.  We struggle mightily, only to be wounded.   But yet we hold on, seeking a blessing: the healing of wounds and the restoration of health.  If the blessing comes – and we dare not claim assurance – it does not come on our own terms.  Indeed, as we leave the land of terror, we limp.”  Suspicion and faith meet most poignantly at Jacob’s desperate plea – “I will not let you go, unless you bless me,” (Genesis 32:26), — suspended between his old “cheater,” heel-grabbing Jacob-self and his new “God-wrestled,” hip-wrenched Israel-identity.

Again, Ellen Davis chimes in from a more traditional-confessional perspective, but with a critical twist.  She pulls no punches.  “This is, or should be,” she says, “the scandal of every introductory Bible course, in seminary and in parish: the Scriptures are chock-full of embarrassing, offensive, and internally contradictory texts, texts we do not wish to live with, let alone live by.”  But with equal conviction, she also contends that this “scandal” is no surprise to the Bible itself, which routinely engages in “critical traditioning,” as Davis dubs it, across the canon – critiquing, correcting, and clarifying its own previous murky, misguided viewpoints in the spirit of repentance (metanoia).  Banner examples include Rahab’s “radical relativizing” of the ethnic cleansing tradition in Joshua and the Canaanite woman’s strategic reorientation of Jesus’s own ethnocentric, charity-begins-at-home position in Matthew.  Significantly, however, the Bible accomplishes this critical (re)traditioning through a dialogic rather than despotic approach.  That is, it openly retains rather than removes the problematic tradition as a partial witness to God’s purpose and gives us a front-row seat to the wrestling match for a faithful understanding of suspicious texts.  Beyond that, it provides a vital hermeneutical touchstone: although the Bible by no means poses all the suspicious, critical questions we might raise today, it does allow, if not encourage, us to engage in further inner-biblical, critical traditioning, to join the struggle for edifying, redemptive interpretation and to not let the text go, without a knockdown fight, “as a potential source of valid theological insight.”

——————————
David Jasper, A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics
Elisabeth Schüsser Fiorenza, Sharing Her Word: Feminist Biblical Interpretation
in Context
and Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation
Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels
Richard Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter
of Israel’s Scripture

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