For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been obsessed. Pretty much every spare moment I’ve had has been spent studying, reading about, and wrestling with a particular story from the Hebrew Bible: Jehu’s rebellion in 2 Kings 9-10. A strange thing for me to be obsessing over, I know. It’s a violent mess of a story, but then again, most old stories are, whether biblical or otherwise, and it’s not like I don’t have the interpretive tools to deal with them. One of the wonderful things about looking at Christianity from an integral perspective is that its lens of cultural evolution provides a helpful way of understanding such stories that neither shies away from nor condones such violence.
So why then have been obsessed with this story?
First, I’m captivated by the fact that the Scriptures themselves offer different assessments of Jehu’s actions. Depending on which verse you’re reading, Jehu’s actions are either an expression of the very heart of God (2 Kings 10.30), a trigger for national geopolitical disaster (10.32-34), or a symbol of just how far Israel has fallen from God’s ways (Hosea 1.1-5). Clearly this is a story that has left people of faith conflicted for a very long time.
Second, my obsession came on the heels of a conversation with a friend about my discomfort with praying violent Psalms. This confused him, since he doesn’t see praying the psalms as petitionary prayer. But for me, when words are put on my lips, I feel responsible for them, because they’re now my words. I can appreciate and value the importance of Psalm 137 as a beautiful, heartbreaking testament to the trauma of the Exile, and I can meditate on its words of alienation and homesickness when I too am feeling overwrought in my circumstances (sometimes we all need to sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon). But that doesn’t mean I want its words fantasizing about infanticide on my lips. Yes, I can allegorize them, but that doesn’t feel like enough. Words matter.
There’s an ancient Christian saying lex orandi, lex credendi, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith, or less opaquely: we pray what we believe and we believe what we pray. The words on our lips matter, the stories we tell ourselves — whether the internal narratives in our heads, the bedtime stories we tell our children, or the stories we drink in from newsmedia — matter.
One of the most transforming aspects of my time in seminary was my exposure to narrative psychology and narrative theology. These disciplines focus on the impact the stories we tell and embody have on our life: our values, our identity, and sense of right and wrong. In my own life I’ve seen time and time again that this is true. When the story of my life was ruptured a decade ago, one of the hardest things was that I no longer had a story. There was no longer a sensible “and then and then and then” but just a disconnected “before and after.” Stories matter.
Postmodern folk are rightly suspicious of the mythmaking power of stories, but the problem is, we are story-tellers and meaning-makers by nature. Even the postmodern suspicion of metanarratives is a kind of metanarrative. It doesn’t do to stop telling stories, because we’re always going to tell stories; if we stop being intentional about it, then all we’re going to be left with are the unintentional ones. And that’s a frightening prospect if there ever was one! This was actually a big part of my journey towards reaffirming my faith in 2014. When I thought about the stories I wanted to tell, the stories I wanted to build my life on, it was the stories of the Gospel that stood out. I didn’t want to latch onto the stories of alienation or superficiality or self-aggrandizement that our culture offers us. I wanted stories that call up the best in what it means to be human, stories that demand my attention and my action, stories that put me in my place.
But, getting back to what inspired this reflection, what about the difficult stories that are part of our tradition? I mentioned at the start of the post that having a perspective that allows for cultural evolution (or, if you’re uncomfortable with those words, you can call it unfolding revelation) provides a lens for understanding these old violent stories. But there’s a risk there too: It’s always tempting to try to grow by pushing away what we don’t like about who or what we’ve been. But in order to grow healthily, we need to grow by transcending and including as much as we can. If we try to transcend by rejecting what has been, what has been will always find a way to haunt us.
And this is the main reason why I’ve been obsessed with this hard story from 2 Kings. I don’t want to leave this story behind or push it away. I want to keep it where I can keep my eyes on it. It’s a part of our history and so it’s a part of my history. I want to bring it along with us as we venture into the better, truer, and more beautiful, all-transcending ethics of the Kingdom of God.
I’m not sure how I’m going to use my study of 2 Kings 9-10 here on the blog. It’s been a surprisingly fascinating exercise and I think there’s some helpful stuff there, but no one has time for a fifteen-page integral exploration of Jehu’s rebellion. (At least I hope no one does!)
But until I figure that out, I hope this post has provided some helpful food for thought about words and why they matter.
May the words of our lips and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
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