We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bridging the Gulf: David, Goliath, & Us

One of the most pressing challenges facing mainline churches and pastors is to bridge the gap between scripture and our modern world.  The story of Goliath in I Samuel 17, for example, can be easily dismissed as at best irrelevant to our modern world and at worst as an example of the violent God of the Old Testament.  Thoughtful Jewish and Christian readers will have trouble discovering a spiritual message in the story, which seems to highlight David's prowess as a warrior—and his cleverness.  There are obvious discrepancies between chapters 16 and 17, which to a modern reader are jarring.  The ancient writer seems not have been even a good story teller.  Now, a close study of the chapter relying on commentaries and other scholarly aids, will clear up some of these issues, but for the average reader of the Bible such academic helps do not offer a satisfying means for understanding the modern day relevance of the story of David and Goliath.

One obvious response, of course, is that there are relatively few "average readers" of the Bible in mainline churches, esp. of books like I Samuel.  Even then, a number of those readers would see the story of David and Goliath as being historical and therefore not necessarily in need of theological parsing.  Many others would simply shrug their shoulders thinking that if it is in the Bible then it must be OK.  So, why sweat it?

Well, for one thing the story offers an important example of "inversion," the idea that God turns things upside down for the sake of justice and the furthering of the divine will.  The paradigmatic story of inversion is the Exodus, a motif and paradigm that is repeated in other places in scripture.  More generally, the story of David and Goliath challenges us to appreciate the ways in which our religious fore bearers struggled to understand God's place in their world and lives.  We don't necessarily have to agree with their conclusions or feel comfortable with the blood and guts of the killing of Goliath, but their stories force us to rethink our understanding.  Brueggemann at least gets us started in our rethinking with his observation that, "The story [of David and Goliath] is also set as a paradigm of bold faith in an arena of fear, threat, and defiance."

Short of chucking the Bible, including David and Goliath, entirely, mainline churches need to make a priority of recovering for the whole church the meaning of even the obscure corners of the Bible.  As importantly, mainline congregations need to work overtime at reclaiming a concern for understanding the Bible as a living document.  This is not an easy task in our multi-focused, multi-tasking world where anything "old" is treated with suspicion.  A daunting task - but an exciting one as well for those who take it on.