Hazel McHaffie

Bible

The Badly Behaved Bible

The Badly Behaved Bible. Well, the title grabs you immediately, doesn’t it? We’ve been raised on the idea that the Bible is about teaching us what’s good and right and how to behave in a godly way. So how can it itself be badly behaved?

I saw this book on a friend’s bookshelves during a Zoom meeting, and was intrigued enough to order a copy immediately. And wow! What a lot of things Nick Page challenges; and what a lot of common sense he talks. I confess I don’t go along with everything he says – which he would certainly approve of! – but I loved his robust down-to-earth head-on approach to a traditionally wrapped-in-serious-holy-language topic. Enough in itself to make you think again. He certainly made me sit up and think … and think again.

So many Christians have been brought up with the idea that the Bible is a sacred inerrant book, one coherent whole, and everything does, nay MUST, fit together. If it doesn’t, you’re somehow lacking in spiritual wisdom or knowledge or understanding or whatever other commodity might be crucial. Page has met them all in the course of his work as a writer, speaker, podcaster, unlicensed historian, applied ranter… Orthodox Anglo-Baptecostal.

I meet them when I give talks or lead retreats. Some are cheerful, but confused; some are subdued and quietly thoughtful; some wear the pained expression of people who have suddenly realised that the underwear they have on has shrunk two sizes in the wash. Others look genuinely shocked and distressed, as if they have discovered that their sweet, little, eighty-year-old grandmother has secretly been selling crystal meth down at the day centre.
All of them say the same thing to me: ‘I have this question about the Bible …’
It might be to do with the brutality and the bloodshed, the difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Or a ridiculously obscure passage that they simply can’t understand. Maybe it’s a law or command which seems unfair, discriminatory, misogynistic or otherwise at odds with just, you know, ordinary decent behaviour. Quite often they simply can’t believe a word of what they’re reading – that a fish can swallow a man, that a boat can contain all known species, that God placed responsibility for the entire fate of humankind on two people and their behaviour around a fruit tree.

And with verve and humour and straightforward logic, not to mention a hint of borderline irreverent glee in places, he sets out to explain how the real problem is that people are starting from the wrong place. They’ve been misinformed or misled, he says. The Bible isn’t one cohesive and infallible whole; and furthermore it never claims to be. It’s a collection of books all with their own cultural background, history, development, genre and perspective. Every single one has been translated and is subject to translator bias and educated guesswork, with inconsistencies and mismatches and contradictions. Don’t even try to force the pieces of the jigsaw into one box, he recommends.

… we have to stop trying to control it, to tame it, domesticate it, make it support what we want it to say … To open the Bible is to risk our theology, our presuppositions, our deepest-held beliefs.
The fact is, you see, the Bible is a very badly behaved book.

According to Page, we don’t have to struggle with theological contortions any longer. Forget those blanket statements and tablets of stone and fears of perdition you were fed from your cradle up, and instead take each book for what it is, a product of its time, flaws and all. Accept them.

… if we insist on seeing the books as one unified work then we will always have problems with the fractures, the edit points, the duplications and the differing details. But if we just let the text speak for itself, then a different picture emerges; one of collaboration and careful preservation, one of multiple anchors and witnesses, each doing their bit to tell the great story of God and humanity.

Only then will we be liberated from the mindset that shackles us to an indefensible position, that gives rise to such doubt and angst, and be free to see and hear the message for us personally in our own place, in our own time, and our own culture. Because make no mistake, he’s a genuine fan of this fallible collection of books, the Bible – he believes it to be a place to encounter God.

Oh, and The Badly Behaved Bible is a book for all shades of religious persuasion. The author isn’t about forcing everyone into a mould of his design; rather he wants us all to admit our doubts and questions and frank disbelief. If you don’t doubt, you won’t grow. You won’t change.

Doubt is not a sin. Doubt is a necessity.
Doubt takes you places. Certainty stops you dead in your tracks.

… it is not disrespectful to question the Bible, it is absolutely vital. Because it’s only by questioning that we move to a new understanding.

By now you’re thinking, why am I raising this on my blog about literature and ethics? Because Page draws attention to important aspects of literature.

When we read we subconsciously enter the world of that book. He bases his comments here on scientific research which has demonstrated this fact. We don’t just listen or read when we pick up a book; because of how our brains are wired we live the stories. We feel the things the characters feel. We face their challenges. At least with good stories we do!

Stories are transformational. Stories make us feel and think. Stories empower us …

There are different kinds of truth. A story might not be true in the sense that it’s borne out by historical or scientific or archaeological evidence, but it can still be true. It’s truth lies in its validity for us today. It’s a metaphor, a parable, teaching us something valuable about how we should behave or be, in our time and culture, with our modern understanding of all the -ologies.

This is an absolutely crucial point about the Bible. The truth of a metaphor – whether it is carried as a saying, a poem or a story – is not dependent upon the fact that it literally happened. Metaphors and stories do not have to be literally true. But all of them say something that is true.

The best stories challenge us. You know already my personal predilection for stories that leave me thinking about issues of morality or truth long after I’ve finished reading. So I would agree with this point, wouldn’t I?!

… ask yourself, ‘Is this true? What is the story about? What counsel has this storyteller got for me?’
Participate in the story. That’s why this story is there. Ask the questions. Use your curiosity.
And feel free to use your imagination.

I so agree with all three points, and indeed it’s exactly the reason why I went into writing stories to explore ethical issues all those years ago. So, Nick Page is on my wavelength. And this is one well-written and refreshingly different book that lives up to its whacky title.

 

 

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What’s in a name?

Hmmm. I’ve just read a book that purports to be ‘A Story.’ Not a factual text, not a novel, something in between.

So a few definitions might not come amiss.
Story – an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.
Fact – a thing that is known or proved to be true.
Novel – a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.

It gave me pause for thought. Because the book – Phoebe by Paula Gooder – is founded in fact, but about a character who is mentioned only once in the New Testament of the Bible (Romans 16 vv1-2):
I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae.
I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.
Lots of room for creativity then. Not a lot of restrictions. Well, except that Biblical texts and events and meanings have been debated for ever! And most practising Christians will have their own take on things. So what is Gooder trying to do?

In a nutshell, bring the back-story of the early church to the forefront. Give it breath and life. As she says on her website: her passion is ‘to ignite people’s enthusiasm for reading the Bible today, by presenting the best of biblical scholarship in an accessible and interesting way.’ For me, though I enjoyed the fleshing out of the character, I wasn’t as excited by the style of writing which attempts to teach … tell … inform … rather too much for my taste. The knowledge glowers through the mesh of the narrative, as someone once wrote of my own early writing! I learned from that criticism, which is partly why I suspect  ‘show don’t tell’ is wired into my DNA!

So why a whole book on an obscure character? Well, Phoebe is thought by scholars to have been given the responsibility for carrying the Epistle to the Romans from its author, the apostle Paul, to Rome in around 56AD (although the Bible doesn’t explicitly say she did). A significant event then, given that that particular letter is arguably the apostle’s theological masterpiece and contains a great deal of instruction and clarification for this new movement – the Christians. The book Phoebe is woven around that premise. And, of course, it’s fleshed out by yards of information that is conveyed in the Bible. The woman Phoebe provides a useful vehicle through which to explore so many questions and suppositions and theories about life in those patriarchal times, the experiences of the early Christians, and the doctrines and principles which underpin Christianity both then and now.

So, a flimsy foundation, you might be thinking; but no. Gooder is one of the country’s foremost New Testament scholars and her knowledge is prodigious, her research meticulous. Which puts a kind of stamp or authority on the writing, but in this case also bogs it down. You feel her desire to impart information. She reserves the real ‘scholarshippy’ facts to 85 pages of notes at the end (the story part is only 216 pages), which I found utterly fascinating and impressive. But throughout the text she feels compelled to spell out what she’s talking about. For me, as a novelist, I found it held up reading. I am hugely in awe and admiring of her as a scholar, but as she knows herself, she isn’t a novel writer – and she generously accepts her limitations in an endnote: ‘I am not a novelist – and to all expert weavers of stories, I offer you my admiration for your skill and my apology for the very many ways in which this story falls short of what it could be.’ You know, it made me wonder why she didn’t consult with a novelist and iron out a few of the more obvious anomalies. A little tweaking could have made a big difference.

She describes the book as ‘an experiment in historical imagination’. Phoebe is given a full back-story which gradually emerges and gives the tale momentum. Slavery, rights, ownership, the role of women, clashes of culture and opinion, all feature. Then there’s the most famous character: the apostle Paul himself, about whom much more is said in the Bible. His appearance and traits are depicted in ways that will startle many a believer. More peripheral players in the early church who are briefly mentioned in the New Testament books – Stachys, Titus, Junia, Andronychus, Patrobas, Gaius, Gallio, Aristobulus – are fleshed out by Gooder’s knowledge of life in those times. Their inclusion helps to give the ring of authenticity on one level, but at the same time raises questions as to the veracity of the whole at another level. Confusing.

As former Archbishop Rowan Williams puts it: ‘Vivid and sympathetic … very few people are as expert as Paula Gooder in communicating biblical scholarship clearly and creatively.‘ It is creative, it just doesn’t quite marry fact and fiction sufficiently seamlessly for my personal taste. But it has reinforced a lot of my resolutions for my own writing – and that’s always part of what reading widely is about.

 

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A Biblical tale retold

Famous historical characters like Thomas Cromwell and the wives of Henry VIII lend themselves to becoming the stars of fiction. We already know so much about them and their place in history; we’re curious about their backstory, fascinated by their peccadilloes. Indeed Hilary Mantell is currently writing the fourth in her series of encyclopaedic tomes about Cromwell – her first and second having both won the Man Booker prize. Who dosn’t know about him from history lessons, games, films, plays? And I’ve lost count of the novelists, the film-makers, the dramatists, who’ve recreated the six famous wives of the Tudor king.

But who’s ever heard of Dinah, daughter of Jacob, patriarch in Israel during Old Testament times? Very few, I suspect. Her more famous brother, Joseph – he of multi-coloured coat fame? – yes. The twelve tribes of Israel? – maybe. But Dinah? Her story fills a mere 31 verses in the first book of the Bible, Genesis 34, so hats off to an author who saw the potential here.

Essentially, Dinah is the only daughter of Jacob and his first wife Leah. She has twelve brothers, three stepmothers. They are a rough shepherd tribe living in close proximity in tents, but Jacob has flourished since branching out on his own away from a difficult father-in-law.

One day Dinah goes visiting some Canaanite women, and catches the eye of a chieftain’s son, Shechem, a Hivite. He desires her, takes her and rapes her. But his lust turns to love and he demands that his father gets Dinah for him as his wife.

The chief himself goes to plead his son’s cause, offering extravagant rewards and dowries if Jacob consents to the marriage. Jacob, however, is shocked to hear his virgin daughter has been defiled, and discusses the situation at length with his sons, her brothers. What should they do? The younger men are enraged at this insult and dream up a cunning plot. OK, they will consent to the liaison, they say, but it would be a disgrace and a grave dishonour for their sister to marry an uncircumcised man. The bride-price must also include the circumcision of every male in the groom’s family.

The young man is so besotted, and his father so bent on this marriage, that they waste no time in having the deed done, along with every male citizen of their city. Three days later when every man jack of them is still sore and feeling fragile, (and remember, this wasn’t delicate surgery under anaesthetic with four hourly pain relief thereafter!) two of Dinah’s brothers steal into the city and slaughter all the men, loot and plunder their goods, and take all the women and children (including Dinah), everything of value, away. When he hears of their murderous revenge, Jacob is horrified – now he’ll be hated by everyone around him, but the killers insist they absolutely could not allow their sister to be treated like a common prostitute.

In the hands of Anita Diamant, this ‘oldest love story never told‘ comes to vivid life. The title, The Red Tent, is derived from the name given to the exclusively female place where the women go to menstruate and recover from childbirth. Diamant, a Jewish journalist-cum-novelist, has subtly altered certain aspects of the story, and colourfully embellished it, but the result is a beautifully told tale of love and betrayal, of grief and family honour. It challenges the reader to consider the role of women at that time, the meaning of loyalty, the belief systems and complexities for a tribe worshipping a faceless, invisible God of Israel, alongside those who are steeped in the traditions and beliefs that surround gods they can see and touch and stroke and involve in their ceremonies and major life events.

A gripping and full-bodied tale revolving around the community and continuity of women, woven from an almost-throwaway incident in the age-old story of the beginnings of the nation of Israel. Or as one reviewer put it: A remarkable combination of historical research, biblical story, and sheer talent. Indeed. A fantastic read.

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Words words words

Cartoonists, journalists, feminists, politicians, the world and his wife, are pitching in to the incident on the tennis courts this week, where Serena Williams took exception to her treatment by the umpire in the women’s final of the US Open Tennis tournament. She smashed an expensive racket in public in her frustration, and accused the umpire of being a thief. She was heavily penalised. The rights and wrongs of her tirade, the whole issue of gender equality, are not the topics I want to home in on here; what has got me thinking in all the fallout from this, though, is the power of words and the baggage that comes with them. Serena clearly read much more about discrimination into what happened than I saw.

Also this week the media spotlight has also been on death by one’s own hand: National Suicide Prevention Week 2018. The importance of taking care with the words used has been highlighted – not saying ‘commit’ suicide, for example; not ignoring subtle cries for help. Such deaths are a tragedy whichever way you look at them, but understood with much more sympathy today than they were in the past. When I was growing up, we were told to ignore taunts and bullying. ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me‘ was the response to childish angst. But of course, we now know this is patently not true. Words DO hurt. Far more deeply that a swift slap or punch. They can seriously, sometimes irrevocably, damage your health. Mental stress can be every bit as debilitating as physical ailments, perhaps even more so. Certainly my own scars from psychological onslaught are much deeper and recurrently painful than those from any bodily trauma.

So words are powerful beasts. As the Biblical writer James says in a poetic description on control and careful speech: ‘… no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison,’ and he concedes, no one has completely mastered his own tongue. And that adage IS still true. Who hasn’t regretted something they’ve said; and felt the burden of not being able to recall or erase those words? Salutary lessons all.

Which brings me to the written word. Authors do at least know the importance of the right word in the right place. I have a row of lexicons on my desk, as well as everything the internet has to offer, to help me choose wisely. Like Oscar Wilde and his famous busy day taking out and putting back a comma, I can sometimes agonise for ages about a word or phrase, take it out, put it back, tweak it, change it, before I can move on. But who can factor in the inferences and prejudices of the reader for whom those very same words can be laden with meanings and accusations and slurs and judgements unseen by me? To minimise the danger of being inadvertently (sometimes it’s deliberate, of course!) misunderstood or causing offence, I draft in a range of experts and readers to examine the text for inaccuracies or infelicities which have escaped me. Invaluable allies.

But hey, I must get back to my serious editing – I’m working to a tight deadline this week. Third draft and a further 13,000 words to lose, so a way to go yet. I find a specific target helps to concentrate the mind, making me focus on every word to see if it’s pulling its weight; actually hunting for as many as possible that are just coming along for the ride. Which again highlights the issue I started with. Words count.

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