Banish the Square Brackets! The Case for Reading the Ugly Bits of Scripture.

I have never been in any doubt that God has a wickedly playful sense of humour, and that it is most often deployed when he encounters the Church at its most institutionalised. During this month’s Church of England General Synod, with another crucial vote on the path to the consecration of women as bishops on the agenda, the lectionary had us reading the First Letter to Timothy day by day at Morning Prayer. Those of us in the 8 a.m. weekday gang at St. Thomas’ in Salisbury were reading it along with the rest of the Church of England.

On the morning of the crucial vote, the reading included the following comment on women. “Their role is to learn, listening quietly and with due submission. I do not permit women to teach or dictate to the men; they should keep quiet.” It then goes on to justify this with reference to the fact that not only did Eve come after Adam, but she was responsible for his temptation. Women should therefore, the letter argues, be happy in bearing children modestly, instead of getting uppity ideas about teaching.

By all accounts, red faces abounded and an alternative reading was supplied. But, really, should it have been? Are we embarrassed to deal with the Scriptures that God has inspired for us? Do we think we do ourselves any favours but cutting out, little by little, the bits that offend our sensibilities?

I ask these questions as someone whose understanding of Scripture is as far as could be from literalism. After all, central to Paul’s understanding of the revolutionary nature of the Cross and Resurrection is the futility of seeking salvation through obedience to the Law. I note the views expressed in the Letter to Timothy and I humbly beg to disagree with them, not least in the spirit of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: “There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.”

Scripture is not univocal – it argues with itself, with a force and convolutedness that would drive a Talmudic scholar crazy. When we start cutting bits out that make us uncomfortable, we lose bits of the story of God’s relationship with his chosen people – the wonderful story that ends by concluding that every people is God’s chosen people. It is a story littered with false turns and monstrous deeds committed in God’s name. That story did not end when the Revelation of St. John was written. It is a story of transcendent glory and monumental, wicked, folly that continues in the life of the Church to this day.

Many of the stupidest and most wicked episodes were committed not only by people determined to remain faithful to Scripture, but were committed precisely because people were committed to remaining faithful to Scripture: or at least to the partial and selective reading of Scripture that must always be the lot of human beings, with our tendency to see what we want to see and incapacity to grasp in its totality a series of writings which, in English, run to around three-quarters of a million words.

The Second Letter to Timothy says that all Scripture is God breathed. But that does not mean God intended it to be read like a legal code or, as we are inclined to do at our worst, the instruction manual for a flat-screen TV. Part of the story of Scripture-on-the-page is the folly of those who wrote it; part of the story of Scripture-as-lived-in-the-Church is the folly of our interpretation. When we excise the bits we find embarrassing, we bury that ugly history and make it all the more likely we repeat it.

If we want to take Scripture seriously, we need to expose ourselves to all of it, not just the bits we find inspiring, heart-warming or which reassure us that we are good obedient little Christians. We need to read the bits that justify slavery, and genocide, and imply that God sends wild animals to butcher teenagers because some other teenagers who lived nearby were nasty to a cleric. Only then can we appreciate how radical the approaches of both Christ and Paul to Scripture were.

Lectionaries are increasingly inclined to skip over bits of Scripture that are either embarrassing, or have a history of being read in unfortunate ways. I remember one lovely winter holiday Chris and I spent at a rather nice hotel in Weymouth, when we said Morning Prayer together in our room every day, after breakfast and before going out for the day. It was Epiphany Season in Year 1, so the Old Testament readings were a run through Genesis. The last part of Chapter 9 and all of Chapter 10 were left out.

We were therefore denied the rather wonderful story of Noah getting very drunk and falling asleep in his tent in the nude, only to be discovered by his youngest son Canaan who made fun of Dad in front of his brothers. From that story, and the genealogies in the following chapter, was born biblical justification for the enslavement of people of African descent.

To whom is it convenient to leave this story out of the Church’s pattern of daily readings? Certainly not to me, as a radical non-literalist – I want to be confronted with the story, a warning not to get too carried away with my own interpretations of the text. Hiding it, however, suits people who want to read Scripture literally and legalistically, something that has become depressingly more prevalent in the Christian world during the past generation. In particular, excising difficult stories like this one is convenient to those who want to use Scripture as a weapon to defend their own superiority vis-à-vis others.

The well-meaning idea behind skipping over the ugly bits seems to be that we will hide them from people who might make ill use of them. This is silly. They remain on the page and on every bible search website for all to read. When we ignore the bits of Scripture we don’t like, we allow the stories of how they have been misused to be forgotten, and we also remove one means by which God might challenge us on our own misuses of Scripture – and be under no illusions, because of our sinful nature, we all misuse Scripture in ways we aren’t even aware of.

As currently practised in the Church of England, I think the most mistaken practice of skipping over awkward verses is in the Psalms. Trying to pray the Daily Office morning and evening, albeit not always managing it, one gets to know them rather well. What is wonderful about them is their sheer emotional honesty.

Since 1928, at least, the more difficult parts of the Psalms have been left out in the normal pattern of prayer in the C of E; they are usually marked with square brackets in psalters. These are generally expressions of intense hatred and lust for revenge that are difficult to square with the teachings of Christ. I still think we’re making a mistake. For starters, plenty of the bits we leave in are full of prayers to God to violently punish those The Psalmist finds of offensive.

In one of the most difficult periods of my life, I found saying Psalm 55 incredibly healing. It allowed me to express anger that I bottled up everywhere else, especially among Christians. It was particularly liberating to chant it with others who knew nothing of my rage, let alone the circumstances that gave rise to it. We have all had experiences that allow us to feel exactly what The Psalmist feels when he writes:

“For it is not an open enemy, that hath done me this dishonour, for then I could have borne it. Neither was it mine adversary, that did magnify himself against me, for then peradventure I would have hid myself from him. But it was even thou, my companion, my guide, and mine own familiar friend. We took sweet counsel together and walked in the house of God as friends.”

Betrayal by a friend is probably the nastiest thing that can happen to any of us, all the worse because we know that we have at times been both perpetrator and victim. Yet we banish the fury that we naturally feel in these circumstances when we hide the subsequent verse in square brackets.

“Let death come hastily upon them, and let them go down quick into hell, for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”

Which of us can honestly say that feeling is unknown to us?

Psalm 58 “For the leader: set to ‘Destroy not’” has been almost entirely banished from our services now. It expresses some very nasty sentiments, and for once, they are more powerful in the modern language of the Revised English Bible, rather than the Authorised Version or Coverdale: “Lord, shatter the fangs of the oppressors … may they be like an abortive birth which melts away, or a stillborn child which never sees the sun!”

Harsh words – but remember this was a psalm aimed at unjust and oppressive rulers; the decision to quietly hide it taken by ordained priests, mostly of privileged backgrounds, of the established church of a global empire at its height.

How do those words sound coming from the mouths of the starving in a besieged suburb of Damascus, or a gay man terrified by the arrival of a mob at his Lagos shack? Are they an ugly portrait of a vengeful ‘Old Testament’ God or the legitimate cries of the persecuted for liberation?

“You rulers, are your decisions really just? Do you judge your people with equity? No! Your hearts devise wickedness and your hands mete out violence in the land … God break the teeth in their mouths … May they vanish like water that runs away … The righteous will rejoice at the sight of vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. It will be said, “There is after all a reward for the righteous; there is after all a God who dispenses justice on earth.’”

And for me, this is the crux of the argument for reading all of Scripture together as the Church – even the bits we, from our perspective, find ungodly and un-Christlike. Once we choose to drop uncomfortable sections of Scripture from the Daily Office, the Canon of Scripture ceases to be what it has been for 17 centuries and instead becomes what those with authority in the Church choose to make it.

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