Mike’s note: This is a Speakeasy-inspired guest-post from Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible, by my dear friend Anthony Bartlett.
Many Christians have to go through a time and experience of atheism, because the God we have been taught to believe in does not exist.
– Richard Rohr, apocryphally
I’ve been a student – and teacher – of theology, Scripture, and practical spirituality for over 40 years. My life’s work is nothing less than a schooling in necessary Christian atheism about a God of violence. But underlying and vitally more important than that, my scholarship and teaching centers on the revelation of the God of love who has been here all along, and whose very character of love (by brilliant contrast) prods this kind of atheism into being!
I, along with my primary faith community, have summarized and applied this teaching in my newest book, Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible. The biblical and theological interpretive movement that Seven Stories is part of is called Peace Theology broadly, and Mimetic Theory more specifically. This school of Biblical interpretation demonstrates persuasively that not only is the God of the Old Testament consistent with the God of the Sermon on the Mount, but the implications of this God’s character carry a sea-change in the meaning of church: Rather than an institutional guarantee for an afterlife, being Christian, in our vision, is a profound journey of human change in this life, a journey always intended by a God of unimaginable love and vitality. The resurrection of Jesus is a pledge of a transformed earth where all history is invited into a fullness of life, a time and place where violence has no part.
If God is nonviolent, then God’s identity in the world has to struggle against the default violence of human identity. How can God’s face be seen clearly when the eyes we see with are framed and focused by cultural roots and memes of violence? Here is the contribution of the theoretical anthropology of René Girard, itself deeply influenced by the Biblical record. The Girardian perspective enables us to see how humanity has been formed from originating events of violence and how the Bible both reveals this and calls us into an entirely new way of being human…
If the Bible is anthropological revelation — showing us the violence of human cultural origins — then the Bible must carry within itself a critique of its own theological forms. If on the one hand the Bible tells about human violence and on the other about God, texts about the latter will always be written and read in tension with texts about the former. It is only over the course of development of the whole Bible that resolution will be possible, but the tension must be always kept in mind. We get the kind of God our minds are equipped to understand. Violent minds understand God violently; and perhaps nothing more violently than “God,” the generative concept at the source of human cultural evolution. But the Bible is never univocal about God: there are always stresses and strains, like a landscape bending and warping around a geological fault. Genesis is particularly suggestive of the way our thought of God has to be decoded according to awareness of generative human violence. If God, after the devastating universal flood, decides “I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done,” what clues for deciphering are being given us? But then the whole labor of the text, from Genesis to Revelation, is a journey of decoding of the Bible by the Bible.
Today we are on the cusp of an enormous shift, from colluding with inherited tropes of violent divinity, to surrendering completely to the dramatic truth revealed through the whole Bible: nothing less than a nonviolent God bringing to birth a nonviolent humanity. We offer this coursebook as a heartfelt contribution to this worldwide movement.
So what is a “story,” in the sense we are using it here?
Five of the story cycles have titles which express a movement “from” something “to” something else: “from” something established and ingrained “to” something unexpected and new. It is a real movement, one happening at the level of human perspective and meaning. If we think for a moment about normal changes in human life, say from childhood to adolescence, or from being single to being married, we can easily understand how the change will bring a real shift in how we see and relate to the world. Different things become important to us, our values change, the very things and the words we use about them change. But what is being talked about in Seven Stories is not a normal mutation built into the pathway of human life. We are talking about a shift in the fundamental way in which the world is constructed for everyone, in every situation and at every level.
Imagine that the actual eyes we see with are filters which only let in a certain amount and certain type of information. Then, somehow, we are given new eyes which reveal to us completely new perspectives and possibilities! But even this metaphor doesn’t quite do it. Because what the Biblical transformation is offering are new eyes and the reality to go with them. Without the new eyes the new reality is simply not there. With new eyes a new reality dawns. As Jesus says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is focused [‘single’ in the Greek], your whole body will be full of light!”
Let’s take, for example, the second story cycle, “From Violence to Forgiveness.” What is happening is not simply some way of dealing with violence through a subsequent forgiveness; say, for a particular episode of offense. No, it is a matter of going from a world constructed in and through violence to one constructed in and through forgiveness. With this shift in perspective creation is authentically new.
The phrase used for this huge change is “semiotic shift.” It means a shift in the way the world is figured and shaped at the most basic level, the level at which the signs that give and convey meaning are generated. There is a new generation of meaning all together. So forgiveness is no longer in a kind of equal partnership or back-and-forth with violence. Instead, it replaces it entirely.
Another thought about the way story works can help. In many thrillers or detective stories there is the big moment of revelation, what is sometimes called “the reveal!” This is the point when all the bits fit together and the reader finally understands what has been going on in the many details of the story. The jigsaw suddenly makes sense. There also may be a “twist” at the end that turns the whole thing on its head once more. The semiotic shift is both the reveal and the twist, a credible explanation and a sudden astonishing re-dimensioning that changes everything. At the end of John’s gospel the Risen Jesus meets Mary Magdalen in the garden near to the tomb. In the text she is seen to “turn” twice, before she recognizes Jesus. Mary experiences a “twist” and yet another “twist,” before finally she gets the radical “reveal” of the whole story, the one that changes the meaning of everything.
InSeven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible, I take a look at each of these story cycles, showing how a different reading of these stories can give us a different reading of God – and ourselves. I hope you join me in this ongoing journey of discovery!
Anthony Bartlett was born, like his peers, surrounded by echoes of world war—WWs 1 & 2, and always the possibility of another. Early on he wanted to be a priest. He was ordained in 1973 and spent a year in Rome. Ten years later a second stay in Italy, under the guidance of spiritual teacher, Carlo Carretto, saw him finally leave the ministry. In 1999 he received a doctorate from the Department of Religion, Syracuse University, New York. His wife, Linda, and family joined him in the States and all became U.S. citizens. His writing reflects the anthropology of René Girard—culture is rooted in violence—but always seeking a way through and out. He and his wife help lead a small study and prayer community in Syracuse called “Wood Hath Hope.” His published works include Pascale’s Wager: Homeland’s of Heaven, Virtually Christian, Cross Purposes, and most recently Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible, which this post is based on. Connect with Anthony online at hopeintime.com.