Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Taylor Gench

I have been spending a good bit of my time of late in the company of biblical texts that raise my blood pressure—mulling over the question of what to do with problematic, offensive, downright tyrannical texts in a book we describe as “holy” and revere as “authoritative” and “normative” in some sense for Christian faith and practice. The Bible is full of such texts—texts that have proved to be “texts of terror” for women, slaves, Jews, Palestinians, Native Americans, gays (to mention but a few); instruments of oppression—and they present serious interpretive challenges for contemporary Christian faith and practice. Should they be repudiated? Discarded? Silenced? Or are there perhaps more effective and faithful ways of handling them?

It seems to me an important question for mainline Christians to consider. It is one with which I have wrestled my whole life. Early on in my relationship with the Bible, during my teenage years, I found myself tremendously insulted by what I thought at the time to be the apostle Paul’s view of women (e.g., 1 Timothy 2:8-15; Ephesians 5:21-33; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16; 1 Corinthians 14:33-36). At the time, it seemed to me that the best solution to this problem was to get out the scissors and perform radical surgery on the canon. Other, less drastic strategies with much the same effect were surely available, and are more often employed by mainline Christians confronted with such texts: we can simply ignore them, or dismiss them as antiquated relics and their authors as benighted savages. But these no longer seem to me to be the most constructive ways of wrestling with tyrannical texts, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, it behooves us to stay engaged with such texts, to wrestle with them publicly and be part of the conversations they evoke, rather than relinquish our opportunity—and our responsibility, I think—to make a contribution to them, for a lot of people out there are talking about such texts, rather loudly. If we dismiss them, if we are not engaging them seriously and setting forth alternative interpretations, we are not likely to be heard or to make any impact on conversations about texts that continue to circumscribe the lives of women (and others) around the globe to this day.

Moreover, one of the most helpful things about wrestling with problematic texts is that they force us to articulate clearly how we understand the nature and authority of Scripture. When we avoid such texts we deprive ourselves, and our congregations, of the opportunity to think through, and to think deeply, about our relationship with the Bible and how God is present in our engagement with it. We deprive ourselves of opportunities to grow in understanding, to mature in faith.  

In this workshop we will address the importance of engaging tyrannical texts directly and publicly, with the expectation that we may encounter the living God in conversation with them. Indeed, the most important reason to wrestle with these texts turns out to be that God is present in all our engagement with them, forming in us the mind of Jesus Christ. We will consider interpretive strategies for engaging them with integrity, and think together about how to help our congregations grapple with the nature and authority of Scripture. Leave your scissors at home!

Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Helping Congregations Wrestle with Biblical Authority” is offered on Tuesday of the 2017 National Gathering during workshop block 2. 

Frances Taylor Gench is Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and a parish associate at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Her most recent publication is Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture (WJKP, 2015).