The Common Good
August 2008

Unorthodox Orthodoxy

by Steve Thorngate | August 2008

Book review: From Stone to Living Word: Letting the Bible Live Again, by Debbie Blue.

A wise seminary professor once warned those of us anxious to boil the New Testament down to Luther’s reading of Romans and Galatians to be careful, lest we turn faith itself into yet another good work.

In our efforts to correct what we perceive as inadequate patterns of meaning-making, we often fall right into those same patterns. So perhaps the strongest moment in Debbie Blue’s provocative new book comes toward the end, when her critique of the tendency to “mistake the summons of the living God for a rock”—to turn the Bible into an idol—turns in on itself.

“The idols I crank out tend to have some sort of feminine colors and maybe a stripe of some weird antirational thing going on,” Blue observes, “mixed in an unlikely manner with shades of Barth and lefty polka dots.” It’s a good description of the pages of freewheeling biblical interpretation that precede it. And by implicating herself as among the idolaters, Blue avoids setting up her own ideas as the solution. Instead, she recognizes that idols are inevitable—but they’re also hollow, and it’s in recognizing this hollowness that “we glimpse that what holds us is the grace of God.”

From Stone to Living Word is the second book from Blue, a founding pastor of House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Sensual Orthodoxy (Ca­thed­­ral Hill Press, 2003) offers a collection of sermons around a single thesis: that the gospels’ witness is not austere or tidy but rather physical and messy, alive. Here, Blue develops this idea further, applies it to the larger canon, and expands her project to questions about why good biblical reading matters to our faith and our lives.

If this sounds ambitious and overstuffed, it is. But this is part of the point: Blue embraces rather than downplays the Bible’s tendency toward the complicated, cryptic, and paradoxical. She seeks to revel in the text’s vivacious wildness, not tame it.

Also crucial is Blue’s attraction to rabbinic Midrash, which she appreciates for its emphasis on subjective, heterogeneous interpretation. Her biblical reading resists the reductiveness and finalizing of doctrinal nailing-down. “God,” she insists, “is not the solution to a jigsaw puzzle.”

THE BOOK’S FIRST fourth focuses on biblical reading generally. There’s a lot there—big concepts along with assorted quotations, riffs, and tangents. A tighter focus might make Blue’s ideas easier to grasp. But one of her many gifts is an uncanny ability to be at once dense in content and light in tone, to be breezily conversational even in her most learned, heavily footnoted moments. You may need to read the first couple chapters more than once, but you won’t really mind.

She then turns to short pieces on individual texts—sermons, essentially, many of which offer startlingly fresh insights into both the text and Blue’s broader themes. Discussing Eden, she observes that the god the snake describes to Eve—one concerned largely with separation from humans—is not really God. “How in a paragraph does the snake spin a totally false god,” she asks, “and how can it be that that idol is so often precisely what we worship?”

Later, Blue reveals how Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question about taxes points both to their own participation in the economics of empire and to that empire’s ultimate smallness: “Give the empire its little coins,” she paraphrases. “Give it back its idols, but ... life belongs to God.”

Other chapters feature points more familiar, if hardly mundane: the subversiveness of God’s coming to earth as a baby, the cross’ deconstruction of worldly notions of glory. These at first feel odd situated among Blue’s more unusual readings. But ultimately they just point to her primary commitment to good, honest biblical reading, edginess aside.

The three entries on readings from Mark’s gospel betray Blue’s particular enthusiasm for that book. After two volumes drawing from wide sets of texts, it would be exciting to see her turn next to a narrower, sustained study, perhaps of Mark. For now, her formidable talents make for delightful and edifying reading, if also sprawling and challenging. Reflecting the greater book that inspired it, Blue’s book bursts untidily with wisdom and life.

Steve Thorngate, a former Sojourners intern, is an editor and writer in Washing­ton, D.C.

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