Volume 39 - Issue 1

The Covert Thrill of Violence? Reading the Bible in Disbelief

By Michael J. Ovey


One of the perils of being a middle-aged parent in England is that you have to attend school plays. By the time your children are in their mid-late teens, they no longer act in dubious juvenile versions of The Lion King, but any sense of safety this gives you is thoroughly spurious: they have been told by their drama teachers to do Shakespeare. . . .

One of the perils of being a middle-aged parent in England is that you have to attend school plays. By the time your children are in their mid-late teens, they no longer act in dubious juvenile versions of The Lion King, but any sense of safety this gives you is thoroughly spurious: they have been told by their drama teachers to do Shakespeare. However, Shakespeare in its raw form gives drama teachers cold feet, it seems. Thus it is that you can find yourself watching King Lear or Romeo and Juliet, but not in their tragic form: rather Shakespeare’s tragedies are played for laughs. The thing is, Mercutio’s agonised, dying, ‘A plague o’ both your houses! They have made worms’ meat of me’ does not really work as a gag. Trust me on this.

Now I have no doubt that the drama teacher who produced this comic adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy was doing her postmodern best: ‘witty’, ‘playful’, ‘imaginative’, ‘creative’, ‘rebelling-against-Shakespeare’s-patriarchal-authorship’, ‘the reader-as-empowered-author’. Yet other adjectives seem more appropriate: cruel and violent. ‘Cruel’ because to treat Mercutio’s death in this way is cruel and compassionless. ‘Violent’ because Shakespeare is not simply being gagged or silenced: he is being made a ventriloquist’s dummy and being made to say words of trivial cruelty. George Steiner long ago appreciated that some modern reading strategies had exactly this quality: they had the ‘covert thrill of violence’. ‘Violence’ because the reader make a ventriloquist’s dummy of the author against his or her will, and ‘covert’ because this is carried out under the cover of ‘witty’, ‘smart’, ‘playful’ and indeed ‘scholarly’ reading of the author.

Obviously, we see these techniques applied to the Bible too. Equally clearly, I do want to pick up on Don Carson’s brilliant book title The Gagging of God. Yes, there is a way in which God is silenced, but, going further, there is a sense in which our reading strategies make a ventriloquist’s dummy of God, not simply gagging him, but putting our words into his mouth and then treating our words as if they are his.

Why would we do that?

I think Steiner’s phrase ‘covert thrill of violence’ offers a critical clue here. You can read some-one violently, violatingly. A reading strategy can be a strategy for exercising violence. In particular, a reading strategy for the Bible can be a strategy for exercising violence towards God.

Let me explain further by drawing on the thought of the fourth-century bishop Hilary of Poitiers (flourished 360). Hilary was faced by those who denied that the Son was truly son, either by saying that he and the Father were really just masks for the one God (modalists) or that the Son was only a creature (Arians). On either view, the Son was not true son. Hilary feels that the true Sonship of Jesus is clearly stated by the Bible, and yet his opponents persistently claim that they find support for their own views in the Bible. He feels he is faced with those who read in disbelief, and has to work through what right and wrong readings of the Bible involve. This leads him to discuss what we would now call presuppositions and the hermeneutics of suspicion.

What, Hilary muses, is this prior commitment which means modalists and Arians read the Scriptures as disbelievingly as they do?

And yet our disbelief tilts even against obvious truth; we strive in our fury to pluck even God from His throne. If we could, we would climb by bodily strength to heaven, would fling into confusion the ordered courses of sun and stars, would disarrange the ebb and flow of tides, check rivers at their source or make their waters flow backward, would shake the foundations of the world, in the utter irreverence of our rage against the paternal work of God. It is well that our bodily limitations confine us within more modest bounds. Assuredly, there is no concealment of the mischief we would do if we could. In one respect we are free; and so with blasphemous insolence we distort the truth and turn our weapons against the words of God.1

Hilary’s point is that what humans really want is to do violence to God. Failing being able to do that in a physical way, we do it against what is available to us, his revealed word, because unlike the eternal incorporeal God, his word has physical presence in our world. Our treatment of God’s word is the focal point of our violence against him.

This is a kind of hermeneutics of suspicion. Suspicion of both authors and readers can have its place: it is no doubt right and helpful to ask whether I read the Bible and write as I do because I am a person at least partly produced by a particular nation-state, in a particular class, in a particular place, of a particular gender and influenced by particular education. But Hilary raises the issue of spiritual suspicion. Hilary makes me ask whether I read as I do in my urge to do violence to God. Unnervingly, he makes me ask whether my basic disposition is precisely to want to distort the word of God, just because it is the word of God.

I suspect one response here is that this is too bleak. Certainly human motives can be mixed, including the motives for their hermeneutics and it is plausible to think that a human being can be both attracted to God and his word and yet simultaneously repelled. But the point is that this element of repulsion with its dimension of anti-God violence does exist, and this repulsion can be determinative in how we respond. Thus, Jesus analyses disbelief in him as arising precisely from the fact that he does speak words from his Father (John 8:45). And while he recognises that those who oppose him and his followers think they do God’s will (John 16:2), in fact, he explains, this shows their alienation from the Father (John 16:3) and is in the context of hatred of both Jesus and the Father (John 15:24). Jesus comments that he has been hated ‘without a cause’ (John 15:25), that is, without good reason. And, finally, Jesus’ all too real experience is precisely that humanity, when given the chance by Jesus’ physical presence amongst us in the incarnation, murders God.

Murderers and would-be murderers are not necessarily the best readers of their victims’ texts. That is obvious. Why would this not also be so when the one we would murderously love to be the victim is God?

What follows from this? To begin with, we have to expect to fight the battle for the Bible in every generation because it has to be fought in every human heart.

Secondly, I need to be especially aware of the times when I have so mixed my inner desires and experience with what I claim is God’s word, that God’s word is merely a ventriloquist’s dummy for my own thoughts—making doctrines out of my desires, as Hilary puts it. Perhaps I need to ask myself more carefully whether I want something I claim God says to be true. Perhaps I need to ask when God last said something in my reading that I did not like or that the world did not already say.

[1] De Trinitate III.21.

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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