Q&A with Julie M. Smith for As Iron Sharpens Iron July 26 2016
Q: Give us a little background into how this project started.
A: I read a review copy of Matthew Richard Schlimm's This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities. Its aim is to help the modern reader figure out what to do when a work they regard as sacred seems to promote genocide, slavery, etc. There is a brief section in the book—just a page or two—where he presents a fictitious dialogue between Ruth and Ezra. Ezra is the one who commands the Israelites to divorce their foreign wives. Ruth, of course, is a foreign wife. Now, in real life, they never had this conversation—they didn't even live at the same time. But Schlimm has created this conversation that shows them exploring their positions on what we would call interfaith marriage. It is civil, but neither concedes. They explore their disagreement. This dialogue stuck in my mind. A few weeks later, I was still thinking about it. I wished that I could read an entire book of dialogues like that. And since I know some pretty clever people, I decided to ask them to write a book like that for me.
Q: Why is it important for readers of scriptures to understand that there are various, sometimes even contesting, views within the scriptures?
A: Usually, one of two things happens: we either don't read closely enough to notice that there are differences, or, as soon as we notice the differences, we work as hard and as quickly as we can to come up with some theory that makes the difference disappear. But what if the contesting views are supposed to be there? What if they are a feature and not a bug? This book is an exercise in exploring those differences. If they are there, they are a feature of the scriptures, and we might just be able to learn something from them.
Q: Why did you choose to portray these different views within scriptures as fictionalized dialogues among scriptural figures? Does this approach tie into a more anciently-practiced approach to scriptural hermeneutics?
A: In some ways it is similar to the Jewish practice of midrash because it is creative and because it goes beyond the text itself. But whereas midrash often tries to fill “gaps” or solve problems, it was important to me that we specifically not do that, but rather try to stay true to the text itself. As far as using fictionalized dialogues, it seemed to be a reader-friendly manner of presenting the diverging opinions. It also models civil dialogue—something I think this current moment is lacking and might benefit from seeing modeled.
Q: What are some of the larger themes within scripture that are particularly relevant to a modern audience?
A: Can I say “all of them”? I'm not sure there is much that they wrestled with that we don't, at least in some iteration. For example, my dialogue concerns Mark and Luke discussing (or, as Ben Peters described it, “mansplaining”) women's proper roles. Luke's viewpoint is that we honor women by honoring what women have traditionally done; Mark's is that we honor women by removing restrictions from their behavior. But is Mark's view requiring women to act like men in order to be worthy of honor? Is Luke's view too limiting of what women can do? It's 2,000 years later and we are still having precisely the same conversation about women's roles. This is true for all of the dialogues.
Q: Can you provide an example or two of topics that casual readers may assume unity among Biblical writers that, upon closer scrutiny, may actually show tension?
A: Nicholas Frederick has a great piece contrasting the different views about the nature and divinity of Jesus within the New Testament. Heather Hardy's piece highlighting the different ways that Joseph (in the Old Testament) and Nephi think about rivalry and reconciliation with their siblings is just fantastic. Ronan James Head writes about contrasting views of Satan.
Q: How does understanding the different views and ideas presented in scripture help us to have a deeper, more rewarding experience in reading them?
A:Well, I find the places of tension to be the most productive locations for really pondering because they raise such important questions about how to resolve those tensions. I'm a big proponent of the idea that when you are pondering and wrestling, you are creating space for the Spirit to speak as you let the questions tumble around.