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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"Encountering God in the Tyrannical Texts" (Frances Taylor Gench)

TITLE: Encountering God in Tyrannical Texts: Reflections on Paul, Women, and the Authority of Scripture
AUTHOR: Frances Taylor Gerich
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (212 pages).

The Bible is Truth. The Truth shall set us free. If that is so, why are there still passages in the Bible that appear to "oppress" or create controversies? Why is it that while there are passages on love, and the equal treatment of one another, there are also passages that seem to prefer one gender over the other, especially on the subject of women? Called "tyrannical texts," there are passages that stump and confuse rather than liberate and clarify, asserts author Frances Taylor Gench. As a Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Gench is particularly interested in the gospels, women in the biblical world, and interpretation of the ancient texts with an awareness of the contexts of today. The following key questions sum up her purpose for writing this book.
  1. How can one honour the authority of Scripture without rejecting the teachings in the "tyrannical texts?"
  2. What kind of alternative interpretations can one make?
  3. How can the ancient Scriptures bring us closer toward an encounter with God?

Six Pauline passages of Scripture are tackled head on. The first two chapters present the introductory stance which comprises of interpretive strategies and engaging honestly with the texts. Chapter One deals with 1 Timothy 2:8-15 as a test case because it is one of the most controversial texts regarding the role of women in the Church. So controversial that the author shares her honest struggle: "Is there any biblical text that you would reject?" Truth is, quite a number of people would, but for whatever reason choose to hide it from the public. Others would attempt alternative interpretations that risk been branded a liberal at best or a heretic at worst. Ask a woman to preach 1 Timothy 2:8-15 in a male dominated Church and we would have an explosive situation. Gench's approach is to embrace the texts without rejecting her discomfort, and wait for God to reveal more of the problematic passages. This book is one result of such a stance. Remain with the text no matter how much we may disagree with. Ask whether the text is prescriptive or descriptive. Is it prescribing a timeless principle or describing an ancient context?

Five strategies are proposed on how to remain with the text.
  1. Interpreters should offer grace to the ancient writers, to give them the benefit of the doubt of ancient contexts
  2. Wrestle with the text without casting it aside
  3. Resist the temptation to throw out the text
  4. Learn from the dangers as well as the insights given in the text
  5. Remind people you are taking the text seriously even though you may disagree with it emotionally.
On Ephesians 5:21-33, where a wife must submit to the authority of her husband, Gench approaches it from a more "dialogical, relational understanding of revelation." The authority of the text means we need to sit under the text to let the text exercise authority over us. We let Scripture interpret Scripture without letting our preconceived ideas influence the interpretation. This means learning first and foremost to listen to what the text is saying. Let the text first create the world of meaning without us short-circuiting it with modern concerns. With the principle of giving charity to the text, Gench learns to be more open to the ancient circumstances. Dialogue with the text. See the broader picture. Let love lead the interpretation. At the end, our engagement and wrestling with the texts will lead to inner spiritual formation rather than mere Bible information. She shares Sandra Scheiners's interesting parallel to the Declaration of Independence in which there was an affirmation that said: "all men are created equal." At that time, the founders were not thinking of pluralistic society. Neither were they thinking about women, slaves, and children. They were using the accepted language and terminology of the day. Whether we understand or misunderstand the text before us, we can grow with honest engagement and earnest wrestling. 

Two chapters are allocated to "Women and Worship Wars." Looking at 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, we ponder about Paul's instructions regarding women's apparel and attire. What has hairstyles got to do with worship? Why the gender hierarchy in Church? Gench notes that the instructions have more to do with gender distinctions and propriety in worship. Going through a series of cultural, theological, scriptural, and supernatural perspectives, behind the gender distinctions lay a bigger concern of understanding the shame-honour culture. For modern readers, ask about what is most appropriate dressing for worship instead of a literal read. Look at what unites the Church rather than divisive matters. In fact, writing an open letter to Paul constitutes a good scriptural engagement. On 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36, Gench shares about her difficult preaching experience with this very text. In fact, it was the chosen text for her to preach. How is she as a woman going to preach on a text that instructs women to be silent? She had to make peace with Paul first. She had to assign charity to the text. She looked at the context of worship. She shared about the scholarly debates on both sides of the divide. Is there a contradiction? Are there pressing circumstances we do not know about? Eventually, Gench testifies that without the need to rush to conclusions, she comes away knowing that the text is not as glaringly offensive as it initially seems.  

On 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Gench guides readers to see from both the perspectives of Paul as well as the widows. On Romans 16:1-16 that talk about women in ministry, readers see references to the many women Paul wrote to. Not particularly contentious, it manifests Paul's deep awareness of the important role that women play in the church. In fact, this passage shows that Paul is not interested in patriarchy or male superiority. He is interested in worship of God, proprietary in worship, and edification of the body.

Most readers of Scripture do not take the "tyrannical texts" seriously enough. Some take the path of avoidance, preferring not to stir up the hornets' nest of gender differences and sexuality issues. Others stubbornly insist on a literal to the letter interpretation, slapping God's label on that interpretation and dumbing down all others. This often causes a reaction from more progressive interpreters who run the risk of accepting only parts of Scripture and rejecting the ones that seem unpalatable. This book carefully navigates the two extremes by building bridges of reconciliation that is biblical and relevant. 

This book is bold and dares to go to places that few people dared to probe. With the five strategies, readers can learn to stay and not stray from the text. Readers learn to receive the text as it is without being dismissive. Readers encounter God in all circumstances, whether they are nodding in agreement or shaking in dismay. I think it is a good opportunity to wrestle with the text not only about what it says, but also about how we feel about it. There are people who would cut out portions of scripture if they do not agree with it. There are also people who do not want to cut out areas of disagreement, but avoid the texts totally. Gench gives us a third way. Actually, it is five ways to stay with the text. In the process, it is hoped that readers will come away not only with a deeper appreciation of the cultural challenges of that day, but also the modern relevance of what it means to worship God in a way that is respectful of one another. In a nutshell, God is not limited to meeting us only in places we we frequent. God is God. He can choose to meet us anywhere, anytime, and anyhow. Perhaps, He will meet us again when we study difficult texts, especially those parts we find trouble agreeing with.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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