I got to scratch one item off the list last night—along with our twice-yearly crab cake supper (yum!) I taught our Christian Formation class. The title was “The Spirit of the Monasteries for the Modern Church.” The content was what you would expect, exploring the monastic roots of the Anglican Church and the prayer book with an emphasis on the counter-cultural qualities of obedience, stability, and conversion of life/habits.
I did get a good question when I was talking about the formative role of the Psalter—specifically, do the monks give us anything to help us make sense of the imprecatory psalms? These are those psalms that make us cringe when they get used in public worship (or at least have sections that do) and, as a result, have been chopped out of most denominations’ worship books and even get short shrift in the current BCP’s Daily Office lectionary: Pss 7, 35, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109, 137 and 139.
Because we headed off to talk about other difficult passages where God or the people act in ways that seem amoral or immoral, I never got back to my usual answer. My usual tack is that these psalms function akin to a mirror. When we see these thoughts expressed openly, we recoil from them—and rightly so; it means that our moral sense is fully intact. How they assist us, though, is that they confront us with their honesty. When we are truthful about ourselves and the effects of sin within us, we must acknowledge that these psalms express real feelings that we feel. When they confront us, we have an opportunity to recognize the ugliness contained in our own interior life, an ugliness that can only be addressed when it is admitted, then confronted.
So—that’s where I didn’t go. Instead, I took another angle that I think I want to explore more. The patristic and medieval Christians took much more seriously than we the notion that all of Scripture is edifying. With our modernist notions of what’s right and wrong and convinced that our moral discernment trumps the text, I think we can and do often put ourselves in judgment over the biblical text and simply reject the portions that overly offend us. That approach both is and is not how the monks dealt with both the imprecatory psalms and some of the hard sections of the Old Testament.
First off, let’s acknowledge that there are certain biblical texts that should offend Christian sensibilities. Sometimes (like with Hosea and Ezekiel), I think the author was being intentionally provocative and intended to offend. In other portions (I’m thinking events in the historical books as well as the psalms), the author thought that the behavior narrated (genocide, what have you) was completely fine. And we can’t be fine with that.
In the second case, how do we deal with the text? On the surface, both moderns and medievals do the same thing: a rejection of the plain sense of the text. The difference is what happens next. For moderns, when we reject the plain sense of the text, we tend to also reject the text as a whole. For the medievals, they remained with the text, confident that somewhere in there was something edifying. Turning again to the fundamentals of obedience, stability, and conversion of life, they kept chewing on the text until they could extract some form of edifying meaning from it, no matter how tortured it appears to us. These meanings then, would co-opt the literal meaning and would, in effect, become the new “plain sense” of the text.
For instance, a common monastic trope is to talk about dashing incipient vices against Christ. Nobody had to ask what this related to. The literature inculcates the moral meaning of Ps 137:7-9 to the point where the substitution of “vices” for “the little ones” of the “daughter of Babylon” and “Christ” for “the rock” is automatic. So on one hand, the medievals were being more obedient towards the authority of the text than we tend to be. On the other hand, they were also more subversive of its meaning to the degree where the more palatable and edifying interpretation would be adopted as a wholesale replacement for a more obvious but less edifying one.
My questioner wasn’t totally satisfied with this answer—that we just make an end-run around the literal sense—and wasn’t convinced that this is a case where the monks can inform the modern church. Perhaps he’s right. But the lesson that we could stand to learn, though, is the patience and discipline of wrestling with texts that confront us with a moral perspective alien from our own.