Barbara Brown Taylor says there comes the “time in every preacher’s life when the queasy-making parts of the Bible can no longer be ignored, when it is time to admit that the Bible is not a book about admirable people or even about a conventionally admirable God. It is instead a book about a sovereign God’s covenant with a chosen people.” The Bible, she claims, “is as full of holy terrors as it is of holy wonders,” and while we’d like “to approach the terrors as stray bullets outside God’s plan,” the fact is that we cannot avoid either the terrors or the wonders without avoiding part of the truth (“Preaching the Terrors,” Leadership Journal, Spring 1992).
The surest way NOT to preach the terrors is to jerry-build so-called “spiritual principles” or “moral guidelines” on the texts. Chuck Swindoll does this in spades in his David: A Man of Passion and Destiny. In his reading of I Samuel 17, David’s fight with Goliath provides four lessons on dealing with worry (marvelously adaptable, no doubt, to PowerPoint). As an authentic hero and a model worth following, David shows us how we too can defeat the “giants” in our life. Reviewer Susan Wise Bauer calls this “tropological whitewash.” Way too many Bible studies and sermons, mine included, are multi-coated with it.
Walter Brueggemann, especially in Power, Providence and Personality, offers guidance for a more faithful reading of the David narrative. The story is not heavy-handed theology or sweeping moral generalities, but an artistic narrative, indirectly and cunningly told, with a “taken-for-granted, transformative figure” we dare to call “God” at its center. Odd phrases abound, especially about David – “God was with him;” “a man after God’s own heart.” Wonders of God’s chosen one.
But then… the queasy parts. As another commentator puts it, David is “thoroughly assimilated into the bloody barbarism of Iron Age Canaanite culture.” His message that “the Lord does not save by sword and spear” is seamlessly interwoven with his striking down and beheading Goliath, then feeding the dead bodies of enemy soldiers to the wild animals. Brueggemann charges that our benign way of reading the Bible for “privatistic reassurances and personal enrichment” has screened out the pervasiveness of violence in these stories. “The Bible,” he says, ‘has long known about the seething brutality mostly right beneath the surface of public life….We are always close to blood – a violence we can neither justify or deny and which we mostly leave unacknowledged.”
The main character in Paul Haggis’ disturbing film In the Valley of Elah (from I Sam. 17:19) is former military officer Hank Deerfield (powerfully portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones). In his descent into hell, Deerfield gradually discovers some of the terrors of his son’s deployment to Iraq as well as the events that led to his son’s brutal murder shortly after his return stateside. Early in the movie, a grade school custodian from El Salvador is raising an American flag upside down by mistake. Deerfield stops his car and tells the custodian never to let the flag touch the ground and never let it fly upside down because that is an international distress signal. When asked what that means, Deerfield replied, “It means we’re in a lot of trouble so come save our ass because we don’t have a prayer in hell of saving ourselves.”
It may take such a crass response for the terror in Psalm 9 to be heard over all the Independence Day festivities. “The nations have sunk in the pit which they have made; in the net which they hid has their own foot been caught” (v. 15). It may take such a response for the nations to recognize that the sacrifice they ask their warriors to make is to become thoroughly assimilated into the bloody barbarism of 21st century warfare, with all its lingering casualties.
Only with a chastened acknowledgement of the terrors can our ears be opened to holy wonders and distress signal responses: “Those who know your name put their trust in you” (v.9). “He who avenges blood is mindful of them” (v.12). “You are the one who lifts me up from the gates of death” (v.13).
There are terrors and wonders to preach in the Gospel passage as well. To say that Jesus is with us in life’s storms is not mere whitewash, but there is ever so much more going on in Mark 4. Ched Myers, in his provocative lectures on baptism (Holden Village Audio Archives), reads the crossing-of-the-Sea stories in the Gospels as part of the re-presentation of the story of Israel (I Cor. 10:1-2), part of the Bible’s grand liturgy of going through the waters (Ex. 15, Josh. 3, Gen. 6, Jonah, etc.).
After having gone with John back to the place of beginning, Jesus calls a new people to be immersed in the re-animation of these old stories. He invites them to follow him into the alternative reality he calls the kingdom of God, a reality that does not baptize the status quo but transforms it. This means going with him to “the other side.” When you start to transgress boundaries, you can count on fierce opposition. The storm is, says Myers, an enacted parable “in which the demon of cosmic opposition [Jesus uses exorcism language] is confronted on the journey to the other side.” Fear, sometimes to the point of terror, is fundamental to faith. The promise is that of Jesus’ presence, and that if we get in the boat and into the middle of the storm with him, we will see wonders we would not see otherwise.
Oh yes…there’s another, startlingly unexpected, queasy part that follows. After Jesus wakes and rebukes the storm, after the wind ceased and there was a dead calm, the disciples were, literally, “afraid with a terrible fear,” or were “terrified of being so terrified” (c.f. also Mark 2:27). “Who is this…?” they ask.
In C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra, the narrator is on his way to meet Ransom who has recently returned from Mars where he had contact with non-human creatures known as “eldila.” The narrator realizes he is afraid of two things – that he himself might meet an eldil, and that he might get “drawn in” to what Ransom was involved with. He does in fact encounter “the thing [he] had feared so long to see.” His response describes both the wonders and terrors of genuine discipleship:
“My fear was now of another kind. I felt sure that the creature was what we call ‘good,’ but I wasn’t sure whether I liked ‘goodness’ so much as I had supposed. This is a very terrible experience. As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it also is dreadful? How if…your very comforter [turns out to be] the person who makes you uncomfortable? Then, indeed, there is no rescue possible: the last card has been played… Oddly enough my very sense of helplessness saved me and steadied me. For now I was quite obviously ‘drawn in.’ The struggle was over. The next decision did not lie with me.”