by the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, Dean of Chelmsford
Contested conversations and the life of faith
Contested conversation is written into Old Testament narrative. Indeed, the Bible presents contested conversation as its primary hermeneutical model. It still stands at the heart of the Jewish tradition and issues an invitation to Christians in a cultural context which often seeks bunkers and silos rather than listening to all the voices.
John J Collins, in his recent – and intentionally provocative – book What are Biblical Values? Goes as far as to suggest that when someone claims that “this is what the Bible says,” they normally mean “this is what I want the Bible to say”. And as Elizabeth Gaskell points out in North and South – her great novel of faith, love, and class – when the church starts talking about “keeping the teaching simple” that normally ushers in the infantilization of the people of God.
The Bible itself never claims to be without error or internal inconsistency. That is a product of the Enlightenment. Richard Dawkins and contemporary biblical literalists are (tragically) singing from the same epistemological song sheet.
The notion that texts only mean what they say is devastating enough for Jane Austen, and a complete catastrophe when it comes to sacred texts. For much of Christian history the Church has understood biblical texts to have many layers of meaning. Origen suggested at least four. Contested conversation invites contemporary Christianity to re-enter this arena.
So, John places the crucifixion on a different date and at a different time from the other Gospels. Paul himself recognises that he disagrees with Peter. Luke – who contributes more text to the New Testament than any other author – shows no trace of anything resembling substitutionary atonement. One of the reasons that so many churches in the early centuries chose to read Tatian’s synthetic version of the Gospels rather than the real thing was that it neatly tied up all these inconsistencies. much as we choose to do at Christmas with the infancy narratives and the family trees (plural) of Jesus.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Pentateuch intentionally places two stories of creation side by side, with creation happening in a different order in each of them; the text then refuses to resolve the conflicts. In the same way two iterations of the Law itself, each of them reflecting different contexts and concerns. The biggest example is the variety of responses to the Exile in the early 6th century BC. Isaiah on the one hand; Ezra / Nehemiah on another; and Ezekiel offering something wildly different, driving a coach and horses through whole swathes of Old Testament thinking.
One of the primary roles of the church here is as the “venue” for these contested conversations. Luther translated the Bible into German not so that each person could sit at home deciding what the Bible said but so that the community of faith could gather round the Scriptures and swink and sweat in the corporate search for the truth.
Are there limits to the conversation? Certainly. Newman’s line that theology is always a “process of saying and unsaying” suggests that the goal posts are generously wide. Contested conversations are not intended to be bitter conversations, inviting exclusion or the denial of people’s right to be present around the table. Jesus’ own pattern of speech and action explicitly rejects the notion of power as coercion but embraces the idea of power as capacity to act. Any partner in the contested conversations who diminishes the ability of others to join in on the basis of a priori assumptions based on gender, sexual orientation or race is forfeiting their own right to participate. Just as when I was invited to address the congregation at Friday Prayers at our local Mosque last year, we go into the conversation clear and unapologetic about our identity, but undefended.
In lock-down I have been binge-watching Scandinavian Noir. In one of the final episodes of the gruesome Finnish drama, Bordertown, the lead character confronts a Puritan Christian sect whose theology and practice has led them to commit appalling acts. At the climax he walks into the church just as the elders are about to discipline yet another female member who they judge to have misbehaved. He asks for permission to speak. Stunned, they fall silent, and he simply says: if you go on listening to just one voice in your little echo chamber, you will carry on doing evil when you want to do good. You must listen to all the voices.
Its very unlikely that we are going to learn, develop and grow if we only pay attention to the voices we agree with. As the Bible itself suggests, we are invited to pay attention to all the voices, including the ones that make us uncomfortable.
The biblical practice of contested conversation can be challenging but ultimately teaches us to live not in the absolute authority of our own views but out of a place of assurance that whatever happens, the future is secured through what God has already done for us in the salvation of the whole created order.