It is easy to allow our perspectives to be influenced by others, acting reflexively without conscious thought. In the Christian tradition, scripture is one area where the faithful often rely on established interpretations without thinking much beyond the text we know or considering why those traditional interpretations have been allowed to flourish through the centuries.
In our spiritual life as in other aspects of our existence, we too often we forget the words of the great Satchel Paige: “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” *
We all know the story of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, for instance, and most of us assume we know why he did it. Follow the money. Specifically, follow the 30 pieces of silver. It is a cut and dried case, history has made its judgment, and we find it easy to blame the corrupting influence of money and use his name as a curse and an insult. No thinking required.
We can do better. In his 2019 book Biblical Fracking: Midrash for the Modern Christian, Francis H. Wade pushes us to explore meaning beyond the literal text and traditional interpretations, building off the Jewish idea of midrash (to “inquire” or “expound”). As Frank — an Episcopal priest and mentor — writes in the introduction, “Biblical fracking, in the spirit of its historical roots and its geological namesake, means reaching into the cracks and crevices of the biblical narrative to extract the richness that lurks there.”
Biblical fracking as Frank defines it is not Jewish midrash. Each has its own interpretive slant. And perhaps because he is a native of West Virginia, Frank certainly knows that not all fracking is good. He encourages his readers to avoid “idly tossing out scriptural fantasies like daydreams” to justify their own prejudices.
Instead, he encourages his readers to wonder about things that have no authoritative answer in a way that leads to a faith-based reflection on the human experience.
In 20 short chapters, Frank explores questions that lie on the edges of the literal texts with the hope that we will find something of value to move the one-dimensional cut-out figures from Bible stories into real people, just like you and me.
Right out of the box he asks a valid question not addressed in the Biblical text. How, exactly, did Sarah feel when Abraham left to sacrifice their only son Isaac as recounted in Genesis 22? There is no authoritative answer, but we can be sure that Abraham and Sarah, like the rest of us, “had to address, live with, or flee from their experience.”
Frank’s sly sense of humor is such that he can take a story like the Annunciation and give it a twist to make us consider a different perspective. In the traditional telling of the tale, the Archangel Gabriel shows up to let Mary know that she is to have a son, she accepts, and her name is honored to this day. And we think, “Of course she accepted. God (through Gabriel) spoke to her. What else would she do?”
But if Mary deserves to be honored for her decision, she must have had the opportunity to turn down Gabriel’s invitation. So Frank wonders if Mary of Nazareth was the first person the archangel asked.
Perhaps there was a Mary of Bethlehem. Having her serve as the mother of Jesus would at least have had the logistical advantage of avoiding the necessity to move a pregnant woman seventy miles in order to fulfill the prophecy of the messiah coming from the city of King David’s birth. It is possible that Gabriel approached Mary of Bethlehem and was turned down.
Frank explores why Mary of Bethlehem might do such a thing. And all the reasons are pretty acceptable to the average person. Who wants to have that conversation with your fiancé or your family? (Hmmm…I know we haven’t consummated our marriage, but I’m pregnant…by the Holy Spirit. Right.) As Frank notes, there are times that we have known what we should do but have turned away because of the consequences. Doing what is right (or doing God’s will for the believer) isn’t as easy as we sometimes portray it.
In the story of the betrayal of Jesus, Frank goes beyond the interpretation of the Gospel writers, who had their own set of prejudices, and sets the context for what was happening in Jerusalem at the time and what Judas could have been thinking as a follower of Jesus. The threat of rebellion was very much on the minds of the High Priest and the Roman authorities. What if Judas saw Jesus as betraying the revolution as he understood it? Could he have been a devoted disciple who wanted to force Jesus’ hand to bring about a fight?
Each chapter pushes us to see beyond the standard interpretation that is so familiar that it requires no serious reflection. The individuals considered — who bear the same human foibles that you and I share — are treated with empathy.
Many of our perceptions today — spiritual and secular — are developed without serious reflection. ** Those who would try and shape our perceptions often use fear and bullying as a way to stop our rational thought process. As Frank notes when fracking a story about David and a true bully, the Army Commander Abner (2 Samuel 3):
It takes courage to live in the world as it really is with people who are fully human. Bullies universally lack that courage and cover their deficit with blind aggression. Frightened enablers…and satisfying victims…play their part. As Jesus once said (Matt 15:14), when the blind lead the blind, both fall into the ditch.
Seeking new perspectives is one way to avoid being led by the blind…and to avoid falling into the ditch.
More to come…
For other posts relating to work by The Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, see:
- Isolated minds. Dead hearts. (November 23, 2020)
- Walk it like you talk it: Hope, joy, belief…and feet (May 10, 2021)
- Power that builds rather than divides (June 7, 2021)
- A new American agenda (June 28, 2021)
*The quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, with this adaptation by the great Negro Leagues pitcher.
**I would strongly suggest that there is no serious reflection involved in taking the stance of one of our political parties that our constitution and definition of liberty requires us to allow hate-filled and mentally disturbed people easy access to assault rifles to murder innocent children and adults in schools, churches, and grocery stores.