Greetings from chilly Chicago! I’m here this week attending another Meadville Lombard seminary course, this one examining the Hebrew Bible (known in the Christian tradition as the Old Testament, though in a slightly altered form).
My classmates and I have been discussing many provocative issues raised by this collection of ancient writings, discussions that have sometimes become spirited debates. But whatever differing opinions we may hold, we all agree on at least one point: that the Hebrew Bible (like the Christian New Testament) is a book of profound consequences.
On the positive side, its stories have served as rich fodder for a vast variety of artistic masterpieces; its spiritual poetry (largely found in the book of Psalms) has soothed countless aching souls; the righteous calls of its prophets have inspired social reformers to work towards greater justice and freedom for oppressed peoples, and helped such communities maintain a degree of hope (when hope was about all they had) that the divine spirit was on the side of their ultimate liberation.
Yet this same text has just as often been used to justify—even sanctify as the will of almighty God—brutal oppression and slavery; to defend the colonization and extermination of indigenous peoples; to allow politicians to reduce tremendously complex issues into simplistic “good-vs-evil” warmongerings; to distort or deny scientific facts to the point of tragicomic absurdity. (Our professor told us that in the fundamentalist church of his youth, he was taught that the dinosaurs died off because they literally missed the boat of Noah’s ark.)
So in our examination of this dichotomy, an overarching question has emerged: Can the text be redeemed for our age? That is, does the Hebrew Bible still contain enough positive spiritual wisdom and power to be worth the effort of battling those who would continue to abuse it—or should it just be wholly discredited and jettisoned?
As a modern UU my strongest inclination is to write it off as a historical artifact penned by a tribal people who were engaged in endless bloody tribal warfare, during which they (just like their enemies) sought divine guidance and intervention in hopes of coming out on top. But then I recall that in the worship service on prayer that I led this past fall, I was moved when our wonderful choir performed Bobby McFerrin’s beautiful version of the 23rd Psalm. I realize that in reading the biblical prophets for my course, I was so struck by an image from Ezekiel that it’s likely to make its way into my next sermon (I’ll be offering a service relating to Earth Day on April 21st). And I am reminded that three of our six official UU sources can be seen as including the Hebrew Bible: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil…; Wisdom from the world’s religions…; [and] Jewish and Christian teachings….”
So while I haven’t closed the book (literally or figuratively) on the subject, I suspect that my response needs to be more nuanced than chucking the whole thing and starting over (though considering some of the horrors contained in the book, that urge definitely grabs me sometimes). And I guess that’s part of what seminary—and ministry, and perhaps the spiritual quest in general—seems to be about; wrestling with big questions that may not have clear answers, and that lay competing claims on us that can’t always be fully reconciled. Yet in our willingness to engage such questions we can often grow in awareness and empathy, and in our determination to make the fruits of our struggle a positive loving force in the world.
I look forward to enjoying such explorations together with you this spring and throughout next year, and meanwhile welcome your thoughts on the matter.
Peter Farriday, NUUC Ministerial Intern