Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Wounded God 2: "He opened the Scriptures to them"

One thing is clear from the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his followers after his death: he gave them a radical new angle on the ancient Scriptures of Israel. This new angle would radically alter their view of how the grace of God operates in the world.

The new angle was that the Crucified and Risen Man is the key to understanding the entire saga of Hebrew history, and God’s ongoing work in the world. Jesus as the messenger and embodiment of God’s Way with humans “opens” a different way of reading the Scriptures. Such a radically changed reading of sacred texts would, more and more, drive a wedge between the new Jesus movement and emergent rabbinical Judaism, rival claimants for the heritage of ancient Israel enshrined in the Hebrew Bible.

The early Christian movement was a hot-bed of inspired utterance, vision, and out-of-the-box angles of vision on the possibilities of human nature, alternative constructions of society, and the ways grace can operate. We get a glimpse of the beginning of this mystical fervor in the resurrection stories when we are told of incidents where the Risen Christ “opened the Scriptures to them” and in the book of Acts where the new insights continue, opening the movement to non-Jews and bringing Paul’s radical views into the fellowship.

Beyond the issue of "proof-texts"

At the center of all this is the reality of a Jesus who has somehow managed to pursue the disciples after his defeat. In the light of this, previously obscure verses in the Psalms and Prophets now appear clearly before the astonished eyes of the disciples as they re-read the Bible and see the Crucified One revealed in startling new ways: “It was necessary that the Christ suffer and rise again.”

We can easily misunderstand the experiences of the disciples if we reduce this all to a series of “proof texts.” Christian conservatives still hold fast to the historic list of “prophecies” which, they feel, “prove” that Jesus is indeed Israel’s promised Messiah. Other Christians, under the influence of historical-critical biblical scholarship, point out that most of these “proofs” are wrenched out of their historical context in the Hebrew Bible. And, they will point out, that to beat Jews over the head with these texts (as was the custom of the medieval Church) has led to great evils against a people trying their best to be true to the God of the Covenant.

But the debate about the power or non-power of the proof-texts misses the point. Because of what happened to Jesus, the disciples now saw the Creator of the world and the Shepherd of Israel as The Wounded God, the One patiently seeking to teach, woo, lure humankind away from its self-destructive paths, and all too often being betrayed and rejected. They saw Jesus foreshadowed in the story of Joseph, in the Exodus from Egypt, in the suffering servant of the Exile, in the mysterious pierced prophet of Zechariah. And because of this, they could never read Israel’s story, or their own, the same way.

They see that the cause of God, again and again, is crucified, dead and buried. And yet, again and again, the Divine Love returned, again and again to embrace those who had failed it, resisted it, or ignorantly misunderstood it—returned with mercy and forgiveness, to resume once again coaching, enlightening, expanding understanding, prodding to new ventures designed to further the best interests of humankind and all creation.

The paradoxical good news

This is good news for humankind, however counter-intuitive. Really good news for a species that, sometimes in spite of its best intentions—and often because of truly self-serving, ultimately destructive intentions — hasn’t yet learned how to “get it right” on so many things that we need for our survival and long term well-being. It is good news because it tells us that the creative Intelligence that broods over and within our life in the world knows how to take mistakes, failures, and tragedies in stride, continuing to work “with those who love him to bring forth good.” (Romans 8:32)

This message was a "stumbling block to Jews" because Messiah is meant to come in Triumph, and "foolishness" to non-Jews who believed that deities were removed from ordinary human suffering. But, for Christians, it remains a valid and revelatory reading of ancient Israel's holy book, though this does make all other readings invalid. (Nor does it suggest that Jews and others do not have their own insights into the pattern which Christins call "cruciform").

And it remains both stumbling block and foolishness to so many in our culture — and in the churches — who see brokenness only as "failure, stupidity (or) incompetence," as Walter Bruggemann puts it. "In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people."

Since Christian history, is about as full of disobedience, betrayal, and tragedy as ancient Hebrew history (and, for that matter, all histories) this is specifically good news for a Church all to often intent on wrapping the image of righteousness about it as a defense rather than opening its brokenness to God — and a culture that, increasingly, can only "apologize" for failure, sin, and destructiveness.

As Bruggemann puts it, The outcome....is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics--it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Angst who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility...generosity, candor...and resilient hope." (The Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible)

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