Friday, May 16, 2008
Book Review: From Stone to Living Word
Debbie Blue's newest book, From Stone to Living Word: Letting the Bible Live Again, is both intellectual and personal, down to earth and yet also extremely deep. Debbie, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few weeks back at up/rooted, is a pastor at House of Mercy in the Twin Cities and has also previously published Sensual Orthodoxy. This book is not so much a linear argument, but rather a series of examples of how to read the Bible as a living document that confounds our idolatrous systems of doctrines and easy answers. In fact, I get the impression that the chapters in this book could have been written as sermons for her church, in that each one of them not only stands alone, but the each also take a particular text of scripture and reflect on how it confounds our expectations about God and tears down the idols of our day to day lives.

If there is any overarching theme of the book it is idolatry, which as Debbie defines it, is pretty much anything that we use to tame life, control the uncertainty of existence, and bring stability to the chaos. As she puts it early on in the book:
Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven. Idols help to make up for that deficiency. Life is outrageous. Idols help us know how to proceed. So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes. Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God. This isn't always an overtly religious project. Some have claimed that the entire Western philosophical tradition is idolatrous. Idols are concepts and ideas that come to rule the world, or your world. Capitalism or communism or self-help strategies or macrobiotics or punk rock. They help us choose our church, our mates, and what shoes we wear. They help us know what life is permissible or desirable and what life is not, whether we're suburbanites or urbanites or skinnyites or church ladies or revolutionaries. Idols provide us with goals. Idols might make us feel good about ourselves or they might make us feel bad about ourselves; they might tell us how we should looks or how we should act or how everyone else should look and act... Idols are the things we cling to and bow down to that are not God. It would be hard to imagine what the world would look like without idolatry. It is so prevalent. It is the way the world works.

Blue then proceeds to show how even our many religious conceptions about the Bible and the God of the Bible are themselves idols if we use them to try to contain and control and tame God. She seems to be advocating that faith that is more about simply living in the wildness and mystery and confusion of life, than about trying to use faith to bring stability and certainty to life. This is a message that is at the same time both liberating and frightening. Liberating in that I don't have to try to explain away all the messiness anymore, or make excuses for God. But frightening too, in that I like my idols: my revolutionary ideals, my hope in what I think is God's plan for the future (both personally and globally), my picture of who Jesus is and what he was about. And Debbie herself shares many of these ideals. And yet at the same time she is relentless about mocking and smashing even her own idols.

In their place she recommends only love, but not in a sappy, generic, overused way. Rather she presents love as itself an almost undefinable mystery that confounds our attempts to idolize it. Love as unconditional acceptance even to the point of undermining our sense of justice (think Jesus with the tax collectors). In so doing she opens up the Bible in new ways, asks new questions, forces us to sympathize with characters (the Pharisees for instance) that we were comfortable relegating to the idolatrous category of "villain".

This is a way of reading scripture that I am slowly learning - to read it not as a source of mere ideas or ideals, but as a living conversation, whose point is to tear down my conceptual idols, not build them up. People (e.g. my atheist friends) will often hold up the contradictions and difficult parts of the Bible as evidence of its worthlessness as scripture - if God's will isn't clearly spelled out in black and white, what good is it? But according to Blue, those difficulties and contradictions may be the whole point. What if God's main concern is not to give us a book that will answer all our questions and bring us stability in a chaotic world, but rather, is to give us a book that will shake us up, that will leave us with more questions than when we started, so that we will be forced to wrestle through them and search together in community for how to live with love in this crazy, messy, chaotic world? What if the point of the Bible is not information, but transformation? What if it's supposed to be not propositional, but provocative? What if it is in itself a challenge to idolatrous faith, including idolatrous Bible-based faith? Blue's book does a good job of demonstrating how the Bible is exactly that.

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posted by Mike Clawson at 11:14 AM | Permalink |


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