the temptation of comforting cross-reference

I’ve got a hunch that there’s a certain lack of … texture and nuance in the way I’ve been taught to read the Bible and approach the task of synthesising (and systematising) its teaching.

bible

I’ll often read something — e.g., the radical demands Jesus lays upon his hearers in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, etc — and experience a sort of ‘Yes, but…’ reflex. I find myself reaching automatically for some other teaching, some other text (it hardly matters where it’s from), to pull the sting. Maybe you recognise this reflex?

Having noticed this ‘Yes, but…’ reflex in myself but not yet knowing quite what to do with it, I found these words of Richard Hays’s distinctly unsettling — in a good way (The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pp 187-188):

Even if Mark’s apocalyptic vision sounds bleak and foreboding, we must resist the temptation to soften it by supplying subtle — or not-so-subtle — correctives from Matthew or Luke. Even if John’s dualistic invective against “the Jews” sounds hateful, we must resist the temptation to explain it away by reading into it Paul’s eschatological hope for the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. Even if Paul’s teaching about subordination to “the authorities” in Romans 13 sounds like tepid acquiescence in an unjust order, we must not rationalise it away by overdubbing the stentorian voice of Revelation 13 upon it. We must let the individual voices speak if we are to allow the New Testament to articulate a word that may contravene our own values and desires. Otherwise we are likely to succumb to the temptation of flipping to some comforting cross-reference to neutralize the force of any particularly challenging passage we may encounter.

Any suggestions for how to chart a way forward?

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2 comments

  1. It reminds me of those that talk about their theology as an invitation to conversation (I think its ++Williams?). That they aren’t trying to have the last definitive word, to resolve things, to make us feel comfortable in the truth, but to open up conversation and possibly tension. Is it possible that certain parts of the scriptures don’t want to give us the answers, but prompt us to ask and keep asking and struggling with difficult questions? Now, that may make it very difficult to feel righteous as we walk along in our lives, if we don’t have the clear definitive, comprehensive moral map to exactly what we should think and do, but maybe that unease about our own righteousness is exactly the point

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