In a recent post, Joseph Kelly cites John Barton to excellent effect: “Those who hold that nothing of religious importance can hang on the contingencies of history are supposed to be the people who are really serious about theology. Precisely the opposite is the case; for theology is not a game played among those already in a charmed circle, but a set of assertions about the way things really are.”
The question, then, is how biblical literature makes assertions about the way things are. Let me count the ways: through myth, legend, and chronicle; through the description of the bios of a people and individuals thereof; through the critique of prescription (torah) and prediction (prophecy); through satire, parody, and parable (e.g., Jonah, Esther, and the parables of Jotham and Nathan); through prayer, by definition the most fundamental indictment of the way things are; through praise, the affirmation of particular features of the way things are; through empirical observation and speculative inquiry within the bounds of philosophical religion (Proverbs; Job; Qohelet).
The discussion of a particular example may help clarify. Exodus – Numbers reflects on the election and identity of the people of Israel through the genre of theological ethnography. The narrative expatiates on the saving gifts of God: the gift of leaders, however flawed; the gift of deliverance, even if it leads straight into a wilderness; the gift of Torah that, if heeded, will preserve a people in a land of their own, and if ignored, will serve as a witness against it; the gifts of a singular locus of God’s presence and a caste of individuals able to distinguish between what is holy and what is common, even if that caste, beginning with Aaron himself, proves unable to live up to its commission. At every step the narrative exposes the contradictions that endanger the election and identity God bequeaths on a particular people. Historical contingencies, paradigmatically, are constantly in view.
The narrative intends to describe the way things are. It does so by collapsing into a pivot of the formative past (1) an interpretation of conflicts and (2) conflicts of interpretation that have characterized the history of Israel over the long duration. In what sense does the narrative do so in ways that analogous ideological narratives which reflect on the election and identity of a people do not? In what sense is the narrative true whereas other narratives are false?
The New York Review of Books blog has published a stunning collection of interviews of Chinese dissidents by Ian Johnson. If you have not read the series, you would do well to drop everything and spend a few hours savoring the tempered wisdom of people like Bao Tong and Ran Yunfei. At stake in the interviews is the identity and self-understanding of the Chinese people. Identity and self-understanding are likewise at stake in Exodus – Numbers. The analogy is stringent. Here is Ran Yunfei:
Everything they teach you to admire is jiade (fake). Right now they’re pushing Lei Feng (the Communist hero who was a model of selflessness) again. But everyone knows that Lei Feng is made up. All of their model heroes are false: Wang Jie, Liu Wenxue, Lai Ning: fake fake fake. So when they teach morality their teaching tools are fake. Completely fake. After a while the students learn that Lei Feng is a fake. He existed but all the stories are made up. It’s destructive—it destroys everything you’ve been taught. You feel that nothing is real. How can they teach virtues? It’s impossible. The problem is they don’t have a bottom line. There is no bottom line in society. You find out that the things you’re supposed to admire the most are untrue. So it seems nothing is real. So the only way the party can succeed is by cheating you. That becomes their biggest success.
Exodus-Numbers and the hagiographical literature of the Chinese Communist Party instantiate with equal vigor the genre of ethnocentric ideological narrative. But there is a difference. The exempla of the latter are fake, fake, fake. The exempla of the former ring true, to this day. They are an unvarnished, accurate reflection of the struggles of a chosen people over the long duration.
The biblical exempla form the basis of elucidatory discourse to this day in synagogues and churches around the globe. The exempla challenge and shape the identity of millions of people. They have done so for a hundred generations and they will do so long as heaven and earth endure. They create true rather than false conscience in those that take the exempla’s message to heart.
Not only does the Bible embody a set of assertions about the ways things are. It embodies a set of assertions about the way things are supposed to be. In a recent review, Walter Brueggemann says, “all we have is image and metaphor.” I beg to differ - or perhaps I misunderstand. What we have in the Bible is text which addresses and constitutes a readership by way of truth claims about the ways things are and the way things are supposed to be.