There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Review: Laying Down the Sword

Laying Down the Sword
Laying Down the Sword by Philip Jenkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've just finished watching a production of The Merchant of Venice performed at a Christian university. What will I tell my mom about it when I phone her tonight? Not much, because reading King Lear was one of the most rebellious things she ever discovered me doing as a young teen. Although Shakespeare's raunchiness is doubtless part of the problem, a significant issue that conservative members of my denomination have with Shakespeare is the explicit violence of many of the plays. One minister whom I was quite influenced by during my pre-teen years linked a staging of Macbeth to the 1849 Astor Place riots, implying that Shakespeare should never be read because the plays inspire violence. While I agree that enactments of violence should be subject to critical thought and careful semiotics, the simple equation of textual violence with physical is highly flawed. Ironically, however, many atheists who would not object to the staging of Shakespeare, would object to the Bible or the Qur’an on similar grounds, citing the crusades and genocides that have fed upon biblical “texts of terror”. Unfortunately, the Christian has less deniability than the English professor. It is utterly dishonest for Christians to condemn the Qur'an as a work inspiring terrorism when their own sacred volume has an abundance of texts commanding religious warfare. Jenkins’ scrupulously researched book shows the pervasive influence of such stories as Saul and Amalek, or Phineas and the Moabite woman in instances of religious and ethnic "cleansing". Even could such violence be relegated to the distant past of “an antique volume, written by faded men”, for those seeking to find the character of God in the biblical record, these stories present an almost insurmountable road block.
When one begins to experience profound discomfort with the morality advocated in these texts, it’s tempting to jump to easy answers, such as that the Canaanites were so wicked that their destruction was a mercy. Jenkins, however, takes the text and its historical, cultural and archaeological framework seriously. Respecting a text can be a painful process, and the recital of the atrocities patterned after biblical harem warfare is torturous.
Most of the time, Jenkins’ is unflinching in his psychological and cultural instinct, such as when he declares that “If Hitler’s Holocaust had succeeded, presumably Christians in some future era would have recalled the prowling Jew as a menacing symbol of depravity. The idea could scarcely be considered offensive as it was not linked to any existing human reality. No one would survive to be offended” (197). His honesty struck at a theory I wanted to believe: The genocidal texts of books like Joshua, and Judges are an example of the divine working with an Iron Age people, while the universal visions of prophets like Isaiah (or, that is, the authors of the Isaiah manuscript[s]) and Jeremiah present a move away from such xenophobia and harshness due to progressive revelation. Unfortunately, the dating of the texts simply does not support this conclusion – Jenkins reads the violent, quasi-historical texts as part of the same national moral ethos the Axial Age prophets were attempting to instill.
In frequently comparing texts supposed to inspire jihadists with even more egregiously unmerciful Judeo-Christian texts, Jenkins makes clear that violence does not spring from the text itself, but that as “political and social circumstances change, interpretations of fundamental scriptures… change likewise” (249). In other words, readers are fundamental to meaning, and the political is fundamental to the personal.
While Jenkins’ honesty has earned my admiration, this book is not all I wanted. Despite a generally neutral voice, the book appears to be written with the assumption that the whole of scripture is inspired and to question its unity is suspect. A few assertions I would have liked to have seen more thoroughly explored or defended include the easy dismissal of Marcionism, the statement “A bloodless Bible offers cheap Grace” (208), and “Without the Old Testament… the New Testament becomes a tree without a trunk” (225). While I was raised to credit such views, intellectual and ethical honesty compel me to explore why I believe this. Had Jenkins more explicitly explored these issues he might have written an interminably long book, but a more rich and rewarding text. Like The Merchant of Venice, the texts of scripture must be respected by readings that combine "uncompromising scholarly standards" with unmitigated human compassion for the victims of the texts and their historical-cultural contexts.

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