On Saturday I wasn’t feeling well and so I wasn’t able to make it into the city centre for the event I was really looking forward to. Not the Vigil4Life, but my friend’s birthday party. Still, what is a man with a queasy stomach meant to do to entertain himself when the stream of the Man City game consisted of nothing more than men in blue passing the ball around Fulham players until they all decide to give up and go watch Les Mis together?
I checked Twitter to see what people were saying about the world. In my part of the world, they were talking about Vigil4Life, which was the largest gathering of Irish citizens over a political issue since before the start of the economic crisis. According to Twitter users though, because the people protesting were old, from the countryside or both, it wasn’t a real protest.
One chap tweeted the Irish Catholic Bishops’ feed asking:
Hi I’m just doing some reading, which sections of the Bible are specifically about abortion again?
Ever the ecumenical enthusiast, I thought I’d step in on behalf of the Catholic Bishops. After all, if my career plans pan out, I’ll end up being the first Presbyterian Pope! So I tweeted this chap I didn’t know:
Psalm 139, the first chapter of Jeremiah, the early narratives in Luke are all prime spots for exegesis.
I am not familiar enough to know what the etiquette of Tweets are. Perhaps it is rude to intrude on someone’s conversation like that? Maybe I was being as obnoxious as a chap who would lean across space in a restaurant and “share his expertise” to put an end to a debate at a neighbouring table?
Regardless, this fellow, Dara Turnbull responded to me:
— Dara Turnbull (@DaraTurnbull) January 19, 2013
Dara is right that the Psalm depicts God as being omnipresent. Of course, omnipresence is a Hellenistic category of thought and this Psalm dates from long before Alexander invaded Palestine. So from an interpretative side of things, we would need to complicate the use of words beginning with “omni-“.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
God, as David presents him, is indeed an inescapable presence. There is no space where God is not intimately close to the Psalmist. Highest heavens, deepest depths, as far as the horizon stretches – God is always there. This is beautiful poetry.
Dara also claims that God in Psalm 139 is “bloodthirsty”. Here his interpretative skills fall short, not in fancy ways, but in basic comprehension. Verse 19:
If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
It is not God who is bloodthirsty, it is men. At best, we could say that David is indirectly bloodthirsty, since he pleads with God to slay those who are wicked. David continues on from verse 19 with some pretty gruesomely honest vitriol against those he despises. Whatever else you say about the Psalms, they don’t hide us from the reality of our hearts.
And then at the end, almost in self-critique, David calls on God one last time and says:
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
The praying man is praying that God would correct his prayer. There are many layers in this Psalm. It is ripe for interpretation. But one thing you can’t say is that God is depicted as bloodthirsty.
Now again, I want to be clear that Dara is a stranger to me. I have no doubt he is sharp and compassionate. I don’t mean to pick a fight with him. But I do want to take the liberty of using our snatched back-and-forth tweets to talk about something people struggle to understand:
Why do Christians think the Bible has anything to say about abortion?
In verse 13 of that Psalm there is a famous section:
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
In my initial tweet to Dara I proposed that this passage was a “prime spot for exegesis.” In response he answered:
nothing about medical terminations there
Well of course there isn’t! The Bible isn’t a guidebook for life, a sort of restrictive divine manual. It is a much more interesting proposition. Psalm 139 is actually the prayer of an individual, that became so cherished by a community that they discerned something of God in it and over the course of centuries it achieved a canonical status, even more, a sacred status.
Christians do not think that the Bible is an index of solutions to problems proposed by God. There isn’t a section at the back where we can thumb down till we find “abortion” or “war” or “hunger” and then skip to the referenced passages. Perhaps we could be forgiven for the misimpression if Irish Christians treated the Bible that way. They don’t however. (They don’t use the Bible at all most of the time, but that’s another conversation…)
Dara’s response was actually hugely helpful to me because it reminded me that people don’t instinctively know what Christians are up to when they say the Bible is their authority. Verse 13 and 14 are pieces of poetry, prayed passionately for about 2800 years by Christians and Jews. Those lines present a certain picture of God. He is intimately involved in the life of his creatures. The Psalmist is claiming that his life is the product not of his parents’ copulation but an act of God. God “created my inmost being; God knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
This isn’t about “medical terminations” but it is a basis for a pro-life position. And the position needs to be appreciated in its fullness. In verse 13 there is a reflection on how every human being is a miracle – an act of God in time and space – and then it flows into verse 14. A worldview built on the belief that every human being is “fearfully and wonderfully made” may be one that Christians fail to live up to. It may be an approach to living that you disagree with. But that is one damn-hell-ass beautiful way to think about your brother, your neighbour and your enemy.
The other texts I suggested by the way are the start of Jeremiah where the word of the Lord comes to this teenaged boy:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
And the Lukan birth narratives that I mentioned include the annunciation scene to Mary that we all actually do vaguely know and the strange interaction between Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth, who becomes pregnant late in life at the same time as her teenaged relative. When Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s house, the text records, with what could be mistaken for lovely naivety if your only exposure to it came at Christmas carol services:
As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
This sentimental interpretation is somewhat disturbed by a full reading of the narrative. Mary’s response to Elizabth’s leaping foetus is one of the most strident political proclamations in ancient literature:
God has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
When Christians argue that their pro-life position is informed by the Bible, they are not pulling some sentences written in now-extinct languages out of context and then using them to bash people over the head. Or, rather, if they are doing that, we can take them to task on their own terms – being poor readers and prayers of the texts they themselves deem sacred. But what is really going on in little communities and parishes up and down the island is that people are joining in an interpretative effort that is now stretching into its fourth millennia. They are imaginatively embodying these texts that over generations have proven themselves to be trustworthy.
You don’t have to think they are trustworthy. You can spend the rest of your good, long life ignoring any such delusions that God would reveal himself in words to men and women. But you should better understand what Christians mean when they say “the Bible is pro-life”. It isn’t as stupid as you can foolishly think. It is actually noble, and credible, and when done well, transformative.
Your Correspondent, Wants to know what kind of dinosaur your grandfather was.