Tragedy and scripture

By Simon Barrow
November 13, 2007

Both fundamentalist believers and hardline anti-theists say that the Bible is a declaration of dogma that must either be accepted or rejected wholesale. Their only difference is on whether to say 'yes' or 'no' once and for all.

However, such an approach entirely misses the subtlety, demandingness and intrigue of actual scriptural texts - and of the God who is said to lie behind them.

In a lecture given in October 2007, and just placed on the Lambeth website, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has offered a very different picture from the dogmatising one, in his account of 'Scriptures in Monotheistic Faith' offered at St Egidio Conference, Naples, Italy.

Part of his undertaking is to show that the biblical narratives of conflict and division are not negative, when read correctly, but enlightening for the possibility of Godly behaviour in contrast to religious self-affirmation:

"[I]t is only by telling [scriptural] histories of conflict or rebellion that we can properly grasp what is being claimed for God in monotheistic Scripture. It is not that God’s unity is simply appealed to as the foundation for the unity of a people or nation, though that is an easy misunderstanding and one that we see within the pages of Scripture itself: when, for example, the Hebrews of the Old Testament seek to demonstrate their fidelity to the one God and his law by the exclusion and slaughter of others. We see it equally when Christians and Muslims reinforce violent exclusion by referring to the exclusive claims of their belief. All alike are misunderstanding something that runs through the whole of the actual Scriptural narrative (Qur'anic as much as Biblical). This narrative takes it for granted that the history of human communities, even (or especially?) communities of faith, is a record of disagreement, false starts, flawed perceptions. The earliest Christian gospel, that of St Mark, depicts the first followers of Jesus as regularly failing to hear and grasp his Good News and as ultimately willing to abandon him. But what makes such a history more than a recital of tragedy and failure is the presence which continually judges the violence or folly of the human community and consistently promises the possibility of something different."

The full lecture is here:

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