I have to admit that I find it hard to agree with the writer of the second letter to Timothy that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for a variety of pious purposes, so when a couple of years ago one of the clergy at our cathedral came up with the phrase “extreme scripture” I was instantly intrigued. It’s the sort of passage, he said, that makes you look across at a colleague and roll your eyes when you have to read it in church. There are a lot of such passages in the lectionary, and since at the cathedral the morning and evening offices are said or sung publicly every day, there are plenty of opportunities for reading some of the less edifying passages of holy writ.
There’s plenty of the violent, the disturbing, and the plain weird (what on earth is going on in Exodus 4:24-6?) in the Old Testament. What Phyllis Trible calls ”the texts of terror” confront us with some very strange aspects of God and his chosen people. But there are things which give us pause in the New Testament too. OK, if we want we can leave the Book of Revelation strictly to the fundamentalists to play with, but even the gospels have their strange moments. The other Sunday the gospel reading at the Eucharist was the passage in John 6 where Jesus speaks about his followers eating his flesh and drinking his blood. We’re used to thinking of it figuratively as eucharistic, but it must have sounded utterly bizarre to Jesus’ first followers, as if he were inviting them to cannibalism. No wonder some of them walked away.
And then of course there are the passages in the letters of Paul and the other New Testament writers which make perfect sense as part of the worldview of devout Jews of the first century, but which for so many of us invite eye-rolling when we read them as Christians of the twenty-first century. These letters may indeed have been inspired by God, but they’ve certainly been coloured by the assumptions of the people who wrote them down, assumptions which are no longer valid for us.
But then perhaps this is what really does make scripture useful for studying and making our own; not just the passages which comfort or encourage or inspire, but the ones we have to wrestle with, the ones where we have to decide what on earth is going on: Is this divine or human? Extreme scripture may help us to open our eyes, as well as making us roll them.
- Margaret Wilkins