David M. Carr, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
This isn’t hyperbole: David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins may be the best book written about the Bible that I’ve ever read. In one sense, it does what the ‘Biblical Theology’ movement has attempted to do: provide an overarching canonology that accounts for the unification of this collection (or these collections). In another sense, it does what critical scholarship on the Bible often fails to do: show how the Bible can remain relevant, even life-giving, without resorting to a conservative Bibliology.
There are two threads that tied this book together for me and in turn that tie the Bible together for me: (1) the impact of collective and individual trauma on the creation of the Bible (Carr is a Christian so by ‘Bible’ he’s including the Jewish and Christian Bibles) and (2) the various waves of adaptation, adoption, or even supersessionism that make up the Bible.
Let me begin with the first thread. Carr emphasizes how collective traumas such as the Assyrian invasion, the Babylonian Exile (including the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple), the waves of returning exiles, the emergence of the Greeks and the counter-emergence of the Hasmoneans, the execution of Jesus, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Romans, and broad Roman disdain for the ‘atheistic’ Jews and Christians shaped these collections but also the movements that inspired them and in turn have been inspired by them.
This means re-reading popular Bible stories through the lens of trauma, such as Genesis’ Abraham (living in Babylonia, leaving, and having descendants in spite of the odds against it) or Exodus’ Moses (the Exodus itself, Passover, and the reminder of enslavement that comes with these stories). These stories were told as a means of addressing the experience of exiles.
As to the second thread: In Chapter 2, ‘The Birth of Monotheism’, Carr read the Book of Hosea as an important shift toward monotheism wherein the prophet doesn’t blame the Assyrians for the demise of Israel, but blames Israel, and in an effort to regain some sense of control, argues that Yahweh willed it all. Monotheism’s problem, ‘Theodicy’, is essential to monotheism because monotheism emerged as a way of addressing the chaos of life. Carr has a wonderful line on p. 248 for people that might be repulsed by these origins: ‘Those inclined to ridicule the idea of a powerful, violent God—whether Jewish or Christian—might well defer their disdain until they encounter someone for whom that idea is the only thing giving him or her a sense of control over an otherwise overwhelming chaos.’ That line stopped me and made me think of people I know, have known, and even stages of my own life and theology.
What Carr observes regarding supersessionism is this: Judah embraced Hosea’s ideas even though Hosea was a prophet from Israel. And then over time, Judah began to refer to themselves as ‘Israel’ once Israel was gone. And therefore, in some sense, it’s no surprise that partially by way of Paul, and partially by way of Rome’s treatment of Jews and Christians, the gentile Christians came to see themselves, in some way, as the heirs of ‘Israel’s’ story just as Judah once did. Additionally, we could add Islam to this discussion, which Carr does only in passing. But the trend is there, from Judah becoming the true Israel, to ‘the Church’ becoming the true Israel, to Islam becoming the truest version of both, supersessionism abounds.
As a final word, let me say if the Bible is meaningful to you, read this book. And let me share this paragraph from p. 250 that really summarizes the beauty of seeing the Bible through the lens offered by Carr:
‘I’m profoundly impressed with how the Bible is saturated with trauma and survival of it. If the Bible were a person, it would be a person bearing the scars, plated broken bones, muscle tears, and other wounds of prolonged suffering. It would be a person whose identity, perhaps average at one time, was now profoundly shaped by trauma. This person would certainly have known joys and everyday life, but she or he also would bear, in body and heart, the wisdom of centuries of trauma. He or she would know the truth of trauma and the survival of it. Just like the suffering servant of Isaiah or the crucified Christ, that person would not be pretty to look at. We might be tempted to avert our eyes. But for most of us, there will be a time when we need that person’s wisdom.’
This week I was talking to my friend and mentor, Dr. Jeff Garner, and he informed me that the Church where he is a Pastor (where I spent several years of my life and where I married my wife, Miranda) is beginning a series on the Book of Revelation. He proposed that sometime next week we do a video interview (this time I’d be the one being interviewed rather than being in my traditional pandemic-time role as the one doing the interview) wherein we discuss this controversial text. In preparation, I want to write out some of my thoughts.
But there’s another reality I must face. John of Patmos (Rev. 1.1) was a disciple of Jesus who was persecuted by Rome. While many Christians in the United States today feign persecution, and that may color the Apocalypse, I must remember that Christians globally remain one of the most persecuted categories of people. To what degree John and his community were unfairly treated, we may never know, but if we put ourselves in the place of a ostracized and often maligned minority community within a sprawling Empire, we’re bound to be more sympathetic to John and his vision than if we read it through our experience with privileged American Christians who see a loss of status as the same thing as being persecuted or if we read through our experience with doomsday prophets and date predictors who are wrong, time after time.
I come back to the Book of Revelation because I recognize it gives a voice to those within my tradition who have been marginalized, silenced, and even martyred. I favor the Jesus of the Gospels who tends to be somewhat pacifistic (and who according to Anabaptist-hermeneutics was pacifistic). The Jesus of Revelation 19, the warrior-Jesus, seems to be a different, even contradictory, Jesus (see though the interpretation of Revelation by Quaker theologian Wess Daniels). Again, genre matters, so I don’t need to read passages like Revelation 19 as being literal predictions that Jesus will appear in space-time on our earth using violence against the armies of the world (as popularized in The Left Behind ‘novels’). There’s a place to spiritualize it, if you will, so that the warrior-Jesus fights spiritual enemies in ways that are depicted as mirroring the physical violence so common on our earth but hopefully subverting that physical violence to show that true warfare isn’t ‘against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ as the Pauline author of the Epistle to the Ephesians worded it.
How I read the Book of Revelation
This is how I’ve chosen to read the Apocalypse. I use the aforementioned author of Ephesians as a paradigm. He uses images of warfare not to advocate for warfare but to subvert the power claims of physical warfare—the kind of warfare perfected by Empires but not the the Kin(g)dom of God (or whatever other metaphor works best for you).
Speaking of ‘Empire’, this is central to how I interpret this text. On several occasions, John of Patmos mentions ‘Babylon’ (Rev. 14.8; 16.19; 17.5; 18.2, 10, 21). Most scholars seem to agree that this code for ‘Rome’. John knows better than to critique Rome-as-Rome so he critiques Rome-as-Babylon. His Jewish readers would’ve known what he meant by Babylon, the destroyer of the First Temple, was Rome, the destroyer of the Second Temple. Also, they would’ve been familiar with a tradition going back to the Book of Daniel where the fall of one Empire only leads to the rise of the next Empire so that in some sense one can speak of there being an ‘Evil’ that might ‘die’ with the collapse of Persia, or the Ptolemies, or the Seleucids, but can always return from the dead again, as they were seeing in Rome.
The Book of Revelation is an ‘apocalypse’. It begins with these words in the NRSV, ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ…’ which translate Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. That first word, Ἀποκάλυψις, transliterated Apokalupsis, doesn’t mean the ‘end’ of something, per se, but it means that something is being revealed (which is why it’s called the ‘Book of Revelation‘). Another way of saying this is that something is being exposed; something that wasn’t visible is being made visible. This might mean that the heavenly or spiritual realm is being revealed to earthly or physical eyes, or it might mean what the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes (12.14) meant when he says, ‘For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ Or what the Matthean Jesus (12.36-37) meant when he says, ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’
In the Christian tradition there will be some sort of ‘final’ apocalypse in this sense. The Apostle Paul warned in Second Corinthians 5.10, ‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ The Nicene Creed states, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ And then there’s the liturgical acclamation: ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’ But not every ‘apocalypse’ has to be final, final.
But it’s possible to experience a semi-apocalypse, i.e., an apocalypse that ends an age. This is subjective. It’s not necessarily what the Apostle Paul, or the Nicene Creed, or the aforementioned liturgical confession mean, but it’s real. Elizabeth Dias wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times titled ‘The Apocalypse as an “Unveiling”: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times’ that makes this point better than I can.
Every semester when I teach the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, I frame their origination around the collective trauma of the destruction of the First Temple (the Hebrew Scriptures) and the execution of Jesus and destruction of the Second Temple (the Christian Scriptures) to explain why these works were written, by whom, and to whom. (As I’ve written, David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins has been an important dialogue partner for me.) Every semester I try to relate these collective traumas to what Americans experienced during 9/11. The problem has been that my students can’t relate. When I was younger, I understood the concept of ‘Pearl Harbor’ but didn’t ‘understand’ it. Similarly, this year, I don’t think any of my students had been born yet when 9/11 happened. They ‘understand’ my reference but they don’t understand my reference.
Now, COVID-19, and this pandemic, has caused collective trauma. It has ended an age (see Ben Rhodes, ‘The 9/11 Era is Over’) and a new one will emerge. We talk about the ‘new normal’ knowing not of what we speak. For the foreseeable future, when I want my students to understand what prompted the formation of the writings they know as the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’ I won’t relate the destruction of the First and Second Temples to 9/11; I’ll relate these traumas to this earth-shattering, time-stopping pandemic.
Allison Murray’s ‘What is Now Uncovered/Don’t Waste an Apocalypse’ gets to the point I want to make next. Apocalypses shatter our myths. They expose our false narratives. As an American, the triumphalism of the military industrial complex, or Wall Street, have been shown to be lies. Bombs don’t stop a pandemic. Money doesn’t stop a pandemic. And when a pandemic hits your shores, no wall is going to stop a pandemic. But the pandemic will show you what happens when ‘the wealthiest nation on earth’ forces most people to live paycheck-to-paycheck, spends more on war than healthcare, continues to underserve communities (usually because of race), ignores the weaknesses of its education system (or in DeVos-mode, tries to ruin that education system). Many people saw our weaknesses as an empire. Now the pandemic has left us nowhere to hide.
I don’t mean this in a cheery, triumphalistic, ‘told-you-so’ way. This apocalypse is horrifying, as Dr. Kelly J. Baker’s article ‘It’s the End and Nothing Feels Fine’ rightly captures. But we’re here now. And the Book of Revelation is less literature to be read and more a mirror for reflection. What happens when the unseen is seen? What happens when the lies are exposed? What happened when an era ends? Apocalypse. As Pope Francis has proclaimed, this isn’t divine judgment, but it’s our judgment. This virus has judged us. It has exposed us. There’s nothing more apocalyptic than that.
Several days ago, I wrote about how I’ve been forced to become comfortable with some sort of metanarrative being imposed on the Bible when its being introduced to younger students, especially when they may not be as ‘biblically literate’ as you’d hope. That being said, I don’t think the natural place in 2019 is the canon of a physical Bible. The digitization of the Bible makes the lines of canon fuzzy. For example, when I teach Infancy Narratives, I juxtapose Matthew’s version with Luke’s but then I like to bring in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to show how Jesus’ ‘missing childhood’ became a later interest among Christians. Year after year I realize by the end of the semester that my students have lumped in Thomas’ child-Jesus with the ‘canonical’ birth and childhood of Jesus. They’ll talk about how Jesus does this-or-that ‘in the Bible’ and they’ll be referring to the Infancy Gospel. Their lack of familiarity with a physical canon makes it less likely that they’ll see ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ over and over again and therefore as different from ‘Thomas’. For them, both were introduced digitally and therefore canonicity is something harder to grasp.
Now, I know some readers may say, ‘Well, then we need to make them use a physical Bible.’ Maybe. That’s a different discussion based on different values—values I don’t share as part of my educational philosophy (I’m not doing ‘Brevard Childs-for-teens’). I’m of the view that we turned a corner in 1994 with the emergence of the Internet and that will impact how people think of the Bible and canonicity. On this matter, I’m prepared to adapt rather than fight, especially since canon is an inherently confessional construct if you want to argue we ‘ought’ to emphasize it. It might have had a heuristic purpose but I think it’s worth having a discussion as to whether that’s still the case (for example, our school catalog still says ‘New Testament’ while I’m advocating for the name change ‘Christian Scripture and Its Influence’).
I want something to serve as an anchor for my class though. I don’t want it to be decontextualized. The canon of the Tanakh/Old Testament and that of the New Testament still provide useful organization perimeters, even if it’s not placed front-and-center as the key to what holds this collection of literature together. But I’ve chosen ‘traumatic events’ as the anchor I emphasize. As I wrote previously, the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent occupations by the Persians, Ptolemies, and the Seleucids, motivated the Judahites and their descendants to start collecting what they had written, continue editing it, continue organizing it, and to continue writing to add to those earlier writings (whether that be some form of the Book of Deuteronomy or various psalms and collections of wisdom). The New Testament, in my view, shares a similar impetus: Jesus’ execution, the persecution his followers experienced and perceived they were experiencing, and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans all seem to shape the writings that would become known as the New Testament later.
I started teaching this way, and doing lesson plans based on this ‘metanarrative’, prior to running across a copy of David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins in a Half Priced Books a few weeks ago, but when I saw the book I was thrilled because there it was in book form (published by Yale) an argument for the very approach I was taking. As I continue to read through Carr’s work I’m more convinced of my approach. What I appreciate about this approach is that it is humanistic. I teach at an Episcopal School, which while being distinctly Christian, is welcoming to students who come from a variety of religious and non-religious persuasions. I’ve had Jewish and Hindu students who bring their own spiritualities to class. I’ve had students from China who came knowing little about the Bible. But also I have Catholics, and Evangelicals, and a variety of other Protestantisms, not to forget Episcopalians. How do I teach them the Bible in a way that invites all of them? Well, the framework I’ve chosen allows my students to engage these texts from all of their perspectives in ways that are not threatening but also that allow for my students who are Christian and who come from Christian families who have sent their kids to a Christian school to know that their child is being taught their sacred texts in a respectful way. Meanwhile, my students of other religious traditions, or who come without a religious tradition, can find value in the human struggle exemplified by these texts. You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian to empathize with a people who were conquered, exiled, and occupied. You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian to empathize with people who see their world fall apart as they symbolic buildings are destroyed. You don’t have to be Christian to empathize with people who believed in and loved someone who was then killed, wrongfully. If in the process the removal of freedoms, or the destruction of temples, or the execution of a man you believe to have been the Messiah happens to resonate with you as a Jew or Christian, and empowers you to rethink your faith and appreciate it more while exploring it’s nuance, then that’s great. The goal is to make sure that what I teach has the potential to be valuable in a pluralistic classroom and in my opinion, this approach allows for that.