The Rebound Bible
Engaging the Bible: Critical Readings From Contemporary Women
reviewed by Donna Thoennes
I read Engaging the Bible in New Delhi, India, where there was no escape from the harsh daily evidence of oppression based on caste, sex, religion, and disease. Sharing the authors’ concern “to address conflict and oppression and give us transforming power to deal with these realities,” I read the book looking for transforming power to deal with oppression.
But the transforming power to eradicate oppression ultimately comes from God and the truth of his Word, yet as editor Choi Hee An reveals in the introduction, the authors seek to expose oppression not just in contemporary culture but in biblical texts. Not only do they hope to equip the reader to identify such passages, but to embolden her to step out from under Scripture’s authority.
The authors ask, “How do shifting circumstances affect our efforts to communicate Christ’s message to others?” They are concerned with interpretation, and with discovering “how we can better equip ourselves, our churches, and our communities to raise multicultural consciousness and to broaden and enrich the interpretive strategies by which we bring our own struggle and experiences into dialogue with biblical traditions.”
To accomplish their goal, the contributors, who include theologians, biblical scholars, a church leader, and a sociologist, offer a “Prophetic Apocalyptic” reading (by Cheryl Townsend Gilkes of Colby College), a “Postcolonial” reading (Kwok Pui-Lan of the Episcopal Divinity School), a “Communal” reading (Aida Irizarry-Fernandez, a United Methodist official), a “Critical Feminist Emancipative” reading (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School), and a “Critical Relational” reading (Carter Heyward of the Episcopal Divinity School).
Heyward, a lesbian-activist Episcopal theologian, most explicitly challenges the authority of Scripture. The work of the Christian theologian is “to denounce oppression, including oppressive biblical texts, to announce liberating interpretations wherever we can, and to disrupt biblical authority and shatter its hold over us.”
The goal of the theologian’s work is liberation from obedience: “No longer are we put under obedience to Jesus, God, Church, or Bible. We have become friends, justice-loving friends, to Jesus, God, Church, and Bible. Together with them we can grow, empowered through the Sacred Spirit of mutuality that is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Christic Spirit.”
Heyward urges readers to “think against the text,” particularly any biblical text that “contradicts” the Micah 6:8 mandate to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God,” though she does not explain why Micah 6:8 holds this privileged position. And while eager to use Micah 6:8 as an interpretive grid, she neglects the context of the passage in Micah.
For there we find a less than flattering picture of the Jews and a picture of a wrathful, jealous God who defines justice as unyielding faithfulness to him, who does not allow Heyward’s easy rejection of his authority. Further, the terms “justice,” “kindness,” and “humility” must be defined according to God’s character, not the author’s notions. Apart from any objective biblical definitions of these lofty words, they lose authoritative meaning.
Not the Word
While Heyward gives authority to Micah 6:8, she excises it from Matthew 27:25. In this passage Pilate washes his hands before an unruly crowd, declaring that the death of Christ will not be blamed on him, and the crowd responds, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
She rejects Matthew’s recollection and is relieved that New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan grants her “permission to reject this text as authoritative for the Christian life.” But she asks, “Would we claim the authority for ourselves to reject the passage because it has nothing to do with the love of One who ‘makes justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’” if Crossan’s work weren’t available?
Similarly, commenting on John 18:36, where Jesus speaks of being handed over to the Jews, she asks readers—“if we must read John . . . in church or in any public place”—to commit themselves “to changing its language so that Jesus’ antagonists are not identified as ‘the Jews.’”
In Heyward’s proposals for reading Scripture, the options available when encountering “oppressive” language in Scripture are to reinterpret or reject it, but not to understand it.
In the Conclusion, co-editor Darr, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston University, explains that sometimes the biblical authors present ideas that are unacceptable to contemporary readers, while at other times “they expressed what still strike us as immutable truths (love your neighbor as yourself).”
Truth is whatever “strikes” the contemporary reader, yet the authors do not want to completely disregard the Bible. To keep readers engaged with the Bible, Darr says that the Old and New Testaments “remain our most engaging conversation partners. We read them listening for the Word of God.”
The reader is left wondering what constitutes Christ’s message and why it is important to communicate that message to the multicultural church, as the authors intend. If that message can be altered to align with the interpreter’s convictions, is it important at all? If parts can be rejected, can it be relevant today? The problem is not just the fatal loss of authority: Readers who move out from under Scripture’s authority yet continue to call it “Christ’s message” will soon be forced to ask whether this powerless Christ is worthy of devotion, and many will answer “no.”
Scripture equips us for the “good work” of freeing others from oppression. As I write from India, I am frustrated by a commonly held low view of women. I hope that I am not merely “struck” by the wickedness of mistreating women, that my response is not simply defensiveness or distaste, but that I am moved by a theological conviction that men and women are created equal and with great value, a conviction that began with what the Bible teaches about creation, redemption, and sanctification.
Engaging the Bible makes the Bible an interesting yet culturally bound conversation partner, not a transcendent word that ought to determine one’s convictions, a word that, because it is transcendent, can give us the tools to fight oppression. God’s Word should transform us rather than our transforming it. Justice and kindness will not heal prejudice or male domination until we truly walk humbly with our God by ascribing authority to his revealed Word.
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