On Curiosity and War Stories

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“Stay curious just a little bit longer.” 

A Cohort Detroit (the ministry I lead) alum introduced me to this wisdom from Michael Bungay Stanier, author of The Coaching Habit. According to Stanier, we all have “Advice Monsters” that are quick to tell others what to do. Stanier helps coaches, mentors, and friends tame their ‘Advice Monsters,’ encouraging us to listen just a little bit longer.

Stanier says that we overestimate the quality of our own advice (which often turns out to be the last thing we heard) and are too bound up in our own experience. Our advice is simply not the thing that someone needs. People thrive when they are given a platform to reach their own conclusions. While our advice typically doesn’t change hearts and minds, a good next question might.

Stay curious, Stanier reminds us. When you ask someone, “What’s on your mind?”, try not to jump into sharing your story or a piece of advice that relates. Instead, ask, “What else is on your mind?” Recognize that the first thing someone says is rarely the thing they want to talk about. When someone shares a problem that seems readily solvable to you, stay curious and ask, “So what’s the biggest challenge for you in this?”

This advice coincides with a summer spent preaching, mentoring, and curriculum planning, and it makes me wonder how deeply I incorporate this ethic of curiosity into my own work, study, and spiritual formation. Staying curious has at times been the antithesis of the brand of Christianity I know well, one which aims to have all the answers laid out in a systematic way. During my senior year at my Christian high school, my classmates and I watched a twelve-part series entitled The Truth Project, Focus on the Family’s apologetics manifesto, which was designed to help us build “a comprehensive and systematic Biblical worldview.”

The whole series was filmed in a space that looked like a hybrid between a Yale classroom and Judge Judy’s courtroom. Relativism, pluralism, and universalism were key targets. Ravi Zacharias was featured prominently alongside a slate of all-male apologists. The series centered around showstopping answers for anyone who might question the Christian faith.

This summer, as I preached through the story of Jericho, I remembered once again how deficient that buttoned-up mode of Christianity is and how it damaged my faith by centering simple answers to deep and complex questions. The insistence on a quick, rational defense of the faith did not cultivate a spirit of curiosity; yet that spirit of curiosity has been foundational as I learn to love these difficult biblical texts and exegete them faithfully. 

I need curiosity especially when it comes to stories about war in the Old Testament—stories that narrate the victories of Israel at the expense of slain enemies—stories that sound genocidal.

***

“And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, ‘Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.’ …Then [Israel] devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city [of Jericho], both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys”(Joshua 6:16-17, 21 NRSV).

My immediate desire as I faced this biblical text was to find a sound explanation for the destruction explicitly ordered by God. Answers aren’t hard to find—some commentaries note that the people of Jericho deserved judgment for their sins: they were violent, they were promiscuous, they were disobedient. But as I reread the text, the real issue with the people of Jericho seems to be that they were in the way. This hardly seems like a reason to topple their walls and destroy every man, woman, and child. 

When Israel circled the city seven times, I had always assumed the war-hardened warriors of Jericho fired arrows down on them, maybe because in the Veggie Tales version, Josh and the Big Wall, the city’s guardians poured purple slushies on the marching Israelites. That might justify some of the ensuing violence. But as I read the text, I noticed that the warriors of Jericho commit no aggressions. In fact, no warriors are mentioned.

To compound the issue, texts like the Battle of Jericho have been used to justify the enslavement and capture of indigenous peoples and lands across the Americas through the Manifest Destiny and doctrine of discovery, the latter being a series of papal bulls later codified into U.S. law (Johnson v. M’Intosh) which authorized western European nations to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed… [and to] reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” (The Bull Romanus Pontifex).

Staying curious might mean resisting the temptation to dismiss the misuse of this text and perhaps resisting even the attempt at an immediate and systematic explanation. Staying curious might simply mean sitting in lament and frustration.

But of course that’s a much harder sermon to write, especially when faced with the Veggie Tales version. A Truth Project answer might note that the citizens of Jericho did not worship the one true God or that, had they repented, they might have been spared. In this view, their polytheism represents the modern disease of relativism, what The Truth Project terms the “silent killer that has crept into our nation.”

Our own Advice Monster is strong. This text makes us uncomfortable, and rather than sit in the awkward silence, we prefer facile explanations. Some resolve the tensions by questioning the historicity of this story in its entirety—and to be fair, the archaeology surrounding Jericho has some big gaps. Others claim that, at the end of the day, God can do as God pleases. Some avoid this text altogether.

What if we all stayed curious a little longer? What if we trusted the text—trusted the Spirit—to speak after some silence? What if we sat in the frustration for just a few more days, or even a few more months? 

***

I have two friends who have spent the past few years asking some seriously hard questions of the Christian faith and their own Christian traditions. Ultimately, they have decided not to identify any longer as Christian. They said leaving the Christian faith has felt like being granted a new permission to be curious, to ask big questions without a set of prescriptive answers at the ready. And this—for them—has been liberating. 

That decision is hard to hear, particularly because I resonate with it. We have cultivated a lack of curiosity within the church that begins as early as our first “because Jesus said so.” Many have been raised to defend what is true and right and not see what is good and beautiful and curiosity-provoking about our faith. We have been so busy defending our faith—holding onto our “right answers” firmly—that we’ve lost some of the freedom that Jesus came to bring. We grasp our simple answers like a toddler clutching a ripe garden strawberry.

Jesus rarely responded to his interlocutors with quick advice. He misses opportunity after opportunity to give clear and point-for-point answers, something that seminarians are reminded of as they endure weeks of Greek exegesis courses. Rather, Jesus offers parables, references Hebrew poetry or prophecy, speaks in metaphors, or heals with little explanation. There is great freedom in Jesus’ path, should we muster the courage to resist our need to explain, deflect, and defend.

Marilynne Robinson, writing in the voice of fictional Iowa preacher John Ames, notes that, “nothing true can be said of God from a posture of defense.” Perhaps God doesn’t need our quick answers. Perhaps we have cultivated a faith that is too quick to answer and too slow to pause and listen.

***

I have found great freedom in this gentle posture. It allows the space to get things wrong, continually learn, and recognize we always read scripture informed by our needs and cultural context. This means it is okay to grasp only part of what scripture might be saying. It is okay to get it wrong here and there. That’s why we work these things out in community.

As I continued to wrestle with this question of what the story of Jericho has for us today, and tried to stay curious a little longer, I was struck by what Rachel Held Evans wrote about how to wrestle with stories about war in the Old Testament: “If you pay attention to the women, to the margins, a more complex story of Israel’s conquest emerges.”

It’s easy to conclude that the good news Jericho has for us is that “God is with us,” conquering our enemies. But as I realized how much of this story revolved around Rahab, it seems one reminder in the text is that we often forget how many of our enemies God’s “us” includesIt’s strange, isn’t it, that the story of Rahab—a woman, a sex worker, and a foreigner—appears as a centerpiece in Israel’s bombastic military conquest? It’s odd that Israel’s victory is—in large part—due to the faithfulness of Rahab and her family, who then go on to figure prominently in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

There is more life in the scriptures when I don’t come to a text as if I have all the answers. There is more life when I approach with a sense of openness to correction and surprise, and I lean into ambiguity. There is great freedom in not putting all the pieces together neatly. There is much to learn by following Rachel Held Evans’s advice by looking for the forgotten Rahabs in the text. Then we can scratch our heads or raise our fists at what seems to be cruel destruction. We may feel defensive, or angry, or just need to sit with confusion. We are, after all, people of faith, called to trust in the unknowable and the unseeable.

This kind of openness to the text allows it to speak into the present. It is the kind of reading that has catalyzed freedom movements, peaceably overthrown regimes, and transformed lives. I love Walter Brueggemann’s reflection on Moses in his Prophetic Imagination

“No prophet ever sees things under the aspect of eternity. It is always partisan theology, always for the moment, always for the concrete community, satisfied to see only a piece of it all and to speak out of that at the risk of contradicting the rest of it. Empires prefer reasoned voices who see it all, who understand both sides, and who regard polemics as unworthy of God and divisive of the public good. But what an energizing statement! In his passion and energy, Moses takes sides with losers and powerless marginal people; he has not yet grown cynical with the ‘double speak’ of imperial talk and so dares to speak before the data are in and dares to affront more subtle thinking.”

Desmond Tutu, critiquing the ways in which Dutch Reformed theologies had been twisted to justify apartheid in South Africa, said, “But we note that some of the best theologies have come not from the undisturbed peace of a don’s study, or his speculations in a university seminar, but from a situation where they have been hammered out on the anvil of adversity, in the heat of the battle, or soon thereafter.”

And Allan Boesak, South African anti-apartheid leader, echoes Barthian language when he writes, “It is in the concrete experience of actual human experience that the word of God shows itself alive and more powerful.”

Leaning into our human experience and extending curiosity toward scripture, toward those who question our faith, toward those who question themselves is—of course—not safe. We just cannot know where it may lead. But for those of us for whom the wide road has so often been safe, simple, systemic, and altogether exhausting, this narrow one seems a good bit more faithful.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating a departure at every turn from the history, traditions, and theologies in which our faith has grown, I’m just saying it’s okay to get curious and see where that curiosity leads. My experience is that it leads toward a deeper kind of faithfulness, one both more free and more grounded in the quite curious person of Jesus Christ.

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