Monday, 21 July 2014

The "aha" moment - Biblical Scholars Tell Their Stories. Part 9: Anthony Le Donne

Part 9 of Peter Enns' series features Anthony Le Donne, currently assistant professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. Le Donne is widely respected for his work in NT scholarship, particularly his work in historical Jesus research and social memory. One of Le Donne's main "aha moments" came while trying to reconcile the apparent contradiction between Ezra's marriage restrictions in Ez 9-10 and Jeremiah's command for the Jews in Babylon to intermarry.

I was in high school when I first set my eyes on Ezra 9-10. I was able to sidestep the command to divorce and abandon children without much thought to the “literal sense” of this story. Obviously such a command shouldn’t be taken literally. After all, Jesus condemns divorce. 
So I looked for the gist of God’s words through Ezra. The underlying message—it occurred to me—was that interracial marriage is sinful and disastrous to the purity of bloodlines. This teaching seemed remarkably similar to my grandmother’s disapproval of my parents’ relationship because my father was dark-skinned. 
I’m not claiming that my 16-year-old exegesis was all that sophisticated. But any way you slice it, Ezra 9-10 is deeply troubling—especially so to folks with an owner’s manual view of the Bible. 
My salvation during this crisis came from a fellow evangelical who pointed me to Jeremiah 29. In this passage, the Lord seems to command intermarriage as the Israelites find themselves in Babylon. 
An owner’s manual view of the Bible might see this as a contradiction. But I found Jeremiah’s exhortations to be comforting. The prophet commands Israel to be culturally integrated within a milieu of religious and ethnic pluralism. 
This wasn’t my only “aha” moment, but it was a significant realization in my life. The Bible—it occurred to me then—was much more than an owner’s manual. (Emphasis in original)
The view of the Bible as 'owner's manual' is not uncommon among many conservative Christians who think that every problem has a direct answer from the Bible which one can apply as needed. That mindset of course presupposes that the Bible speaks with a univocal voice, and as Le Donne noted when one reads that way, it is not hard to come across examples of non-congruent "advice" on the same problem from different parts of the Bible.

As Le Donne notes, sometimes there are divergent views set side by side in the Bible. For the fundamentalist who thinks that one can simply retrieve a verse at will to solve the problem without thinking, there will be problems. He notes how Prov 26:4-5 helped disabuse him of this fundamentalist mindset of Bible as owner's manual:
I also found Proverbs 26:4-5 to be a needed corrective to my view of the Bible as an owner’s manual:
  • Do not answer a fool according to his folly,or you yourself will be just like him.
  • Answer a fool according to his folly,or he will be wise in his own eyes.
In my Johnny Fontane years, I might have heard this passage as a contradiction. What am I supposed to do? Answer the fool or not? But when I hear these sayings as two voices collected within a multi-vocal collection, I am invited into a conversation. 
More importantly, these divergent views are set side-by-side. Somewhere along the way, a faithful collector of tradition decided that these two sayings should be set into direct relationship. Once put together, these sayings were passed from generation to generation in a relationship of tension. There is something beautiful here that cannot be captured by the owner’s manual paradigm.
The example in Proverbs is reasonably straightforward in that a wise person will know when someone is too confused to be taken seriously, and can be simply ignored and left to ramble away, and when someone's ignorance is corrosive and needs to be rebutted. Experience, which isn't magically bestowed by reading the Bible if viewed as an instruction manual, will allow one to know which advice to employ. That experience will also allow the honest exegete to recognise that the fundamentalist / Biblicist mindset which engenders the 'instruction manual' view of the Bible is simply inadequate to honestly understand it.