Paula Gooder interview: A biblical relationship
Paula Gooder, writer, speaker and scholar, talks to Stephen Tomkins about her friendship with the Bible – warts and all
Paula Gooder brings a wonderful freshness to the Bible. She has the ability to take a story that you’ve known since Sunday school and turn a new light on it. She can pick on a passage that you’ve read so many times you know it by heart, and make you look again to see if it really says what she says it says.
One example sticks in my mind. When Jesus talks to the Samaritan women at the well, the woman says she has no husband, and Jesus replies: “You are right in saying: ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” It sounds like a rebuke, but Gooder points out that in a society where women had no ability to divorce their husbands, a woman in such a position was a victim of divorce, not the instigator. Return to the story with this insight and Jesus’ response suddenly seems sympathetic rather than critical, and the whole tone of the encounter is changed.
Gooder also points out that this person was the first successful Christian missionary in the Gospels. Go, the Samaritan woman!
We met Gooder at the Birmingham vicarage where she lives with her family. I’ve twice met people who make their living as freelance theologians, and wondered, as you might, what that could possibly entail. I pictured them sitting at their attic desks, suddenly coming up with a particularly ingenious interpretation of a verse in Ezekiel and crying: “Tonight my children will eat!” The reality turns out to be a little more prosaic and sensible, but never mind…
You’re a freelance theologian…
That well-known career decision!
How on earth does that work?
By the grace of God, basically! I taught for six years at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, then I worked half-time for six years at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, and in my other half of the time I started doing conferences and lecturing. Theological college is a proper teaching job, so you never get any time for research. At the end of 12 years I thought: “I have got so many books in me, but unless I do something radical then I’m never ever going to write any.” And having small children and trying to work at theological college when I’ve got a clerical husband was just awful. What do you do for childcare on Good Friday?
I started to get more and more invitations to do conferences and lecturing. And I felt God saying to me: “I really would like you to try being freelance.” We had a year’s argy bargy, God and I, going: “Don’t be ridiculous, who goes freelance as a theologian?” And in the end I felt so strongly that that was what God wanted me to do, I did that deep breath, throw yourself off a cliff. And I still do not quite understand how it works but I’m fully booked two years in advance.
In your book, Everyday God, talking about Jonah, you say, if you really want to test your calling from God, run away.
Yes, that’s from experience!
You’ve chosen theology as the thing to devote your life to. What’s the appeal?
I just love reading the Bible. I’ve always loved reading the Bible. I love communicating biblical scholarship to people who otherwise wouldn’t read it. It isn’t the most exciting stuff on the page, but I love that moment when you’re teaching people something in a scholarly kind of way and you see the light go on. That’s my great love.
Does being a scholar give you a different relationship with the Bible?
Yes, but not what you’d expect. Biblical scholarship has – justifiably – a really bad reputation, of picking the text apart, taking the fun out of it. All the things that you love about the text, scholars come along and say: “No, you’re not allowed to think that.” So you’d think that would be my relationship, but it’s actually the opposite. I’m entirely lucky to spend the whole of my time dedicated to reading the text and I use the scholarship to fall in love more deeply with the text than I was before.
You’ve recommended readers cultivate a friendship with the Bible.
There must be certain difficulties with a friendship if you’re a colleague as well as a friend.
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Has it changed the relationship? I’ve not found that it has. Maybe one day it will. Then I’ll find a new job.
Do we read the Bible well?
I think the problem is most of us don’t read it enough. And therefore not well. One of my big beefs is that the vast majority of people read the Bible just in the little bit that they read in church. You have a little five-verse chunk then off you go. It’s like reading a novel half a page at a time. You miss some of the key things if you do that.
So you recommend people sit down and read the Bible like a proper book?
Well, yes and no. If you’re reading Mark’s gospel, then I think you need to read the whole of Mark’s gospel. But the worst thing that people do is try to read the Bible like it’s a book, whereas actually it’s 66 books. The trouble is most people start with Genesis and get to Leviticus and think “I can’t be doing with this”. So read individual books, but read those as books.
What’s your best practical tip for reading the Bible better?
Never read the same translation all the time. Very few people would think it was right only ever to read one person’s Bible commentary, because you would recognise that it has a slant. And translations are people’s slants on the text. So if you just read one translation you’re getting one interpretation of the text all the time. Read a number of translations – at least three – so that you get a different flavour of what’s going on.
I know some people hate The Message, but I would recommend that you read one like The Message. It makes you come to the text afresh and say: “Does it really say that?” and that’s where you really start to get into what’s going on in the text.
You make the interesting point in your book Heaven that the Bible talks about heaven all the time, from the first verse, but almost never as the place where we go when we die. But that’s almost always what we mean when we talk about it. What’s going on there?
It’s absolutely fascinating. So often Christian culture takes over our reading of the Bible. We know what the Bible says about certain things; we’re so convinced it says that, that we never read what it really says.
So it’s one of my favourite moments, where you go: “Show me the bits of the Bible where it talks about heaven being the place where we go when we die.” There are about eight of them, and that’s all you’ve got.
So what does the Bible say about heaven?
It’s a remarkable thing really. When God created the earth we imagine he created this. But the Bible says God created heaven and earth together, a place for humans to live in, and a place for God to live in that is as close to human beings as God can be. It is a special place, just like earth is.
The other thing we’ve done to heaven is to make it a spiritual thing, not like earth in people’s minds. But the Bible seems to suggest quite strongly that it is like earth. The difference being that God’s principles reign in heaven, and they ought to reign on earth as well, but they don’t.
You talk about the vast majority of writers of the Hebrew scriptures not believing in life after death. But we, following the New Testament do. Where does that leave us with regard to the authority of the Bible?
People assume the Bible is this big monochrome chunk, which kind of drops from heaven to earth as this thing called the Bible. But it’s not the same all the way through. It is God’s word speaking to us, but it is God’s word speaking to those who were writing at the time, and ideas develop and shift and change. In the Bible, ideas get bigger, get smaller.
It’s authoritative, but it disagrees with itself. One of the challenges and one of the fascinating things about reading the Bible is to try and work out how you’re meant to get that bit of the Bible to talk to that bit of the Bible. And what are we meant to understand that comes out of it? It’s about getting to know the whole of the sweep of the scriptures as well as the individual bits.
So it’s not so much a case of “The Bible says…” but rather “The Bible says this, and this, and this.”
Yes. And then what do you do with that, how do you get to some kind of position that says: “And what I believe is…”
What I love about the Bible is it feels as though you’re going on a constant adventure with it, so you’re constantly being pulled into a greater maturity.
Are Christians allowed to disagree with Bible?
I think we have to at times. The famous bit which sticks out in everyone’s mind is Psalm 137: “Blessed are those who dash the babies’ heads against the rocks.” Nobody in their right mind can say: “Yes, excellent theology there.” But then you have to do what we have to do with the whole of the Bible, which is to say: What was the context that made them want to say that? What is the theology that arises out of that? We find it very distasteful, but let’s just stay with it a bit and try to work out: why did they feel the need to say it, what was right about them trying to say it, was there anything wrong with their trying to say it, and what can we therefore learn about it? It’s a more complex process than: “The Bible says… and therefore it’s right.”
Do you think some parts of the Bible are more about speaking on our behalf than speaking to us?
Absolutely. I would say the Bible is a conversation with God, and there are bits which are very clearly God’s word, and there are bits which are very clearly humans’ words. Psalm 137 puts into words an awful experience, and is authoritative insomuch as it represents the conversation between God and human beings. These days we forget that God is quite fine with us shouting at him. What God really wants is for people to communicate with him. And if that involves shouting and swearing then that’s fine too.
Going back to heaven and matters arising, I heard Francis Spufford – the Anglican writer of Unapologetic – tell an audience that the Church of England no longer believes in hell. Can you confirm that?
Ah – no, I don’t think you can say that. You cannot say “The Church of England believes…”, just like the URC, it just doesn’t work that way. What we can say is that very few people today go along with the medieval vision of hell such as you get in those gory paintings of the devil with horns and a pitchfork prodding people into cauldrons. We don’t believe in that kind of hell anymore – but then that kind of hell isn’t in the Bible either. Again you’re back to this much more complicated conversation: What’s really in the Bible, how do you work out what’s there, how do we understand what’s important about it?
What is important about it?
I would hesitate before I used the word “hell” about what the Bible says about anything. It’s so associated in our mind with those medieval paintings I don’t think we can split them apart. And the Bible doesn’t have a full-blown vision of what we might call hell. It has a belief in “down there” – the sheol/hades idea – but that’s not punishment. You do have punishment: in Gehenna there is going to be fire, and punishment as a result. There is also outer darkness, where there is going to be weeping and gnashing of teeth. And there’s punishment for the angels of Satan. So there are strands; the trouble is in the Bible they’re not all gathered together into something you could call hell.
But there is definitely going to be punishment, the Bible says. With a doctrine of resurrection has to come a doctrine of judgment – whether someone goes in one direction or another. And the direction of punishment is the biblical doctrine which eventually becomes the doctrine of hell.
And if the Bible doesn’t have an idea of the immortality of the soul…
That’s right, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to go on forever.
And the other thing we have to bear in mind is what it says about who is going to be judged. That’s where it gets a little uncomfortable. It’s those whose eye sins against them, and who haven’t plucked it out. We always assume its the Hitler-type people, but in Jesus’s teaching, it’s people like us, who have lied and are deceitful. We all like to say: “Well, I’m not that bad”, but one of the things the New Testament really challenges us on, is that it could easily be us.
Are there parts of the Bible that you don’t like?
Are you comfortable with that?
Oh yeah. And one of the things that I make a discipline is always to try and read the bits I don’t like as often as the bits I do like. We all end up with a canon within a canon. Isaiah is read far, far more often than 2 Chronicles, in terms of church worship, discussion, personal devotion. I think it’s really important to keep up the relationship with the bits of the Bible that you don’t like, or that bore you. There are some phenomenally dull bits.
Can I ask you which…
…which are my bits? There are bits in the prophets that I really hate, because they use imagery which borders on raping women as God’s justifiable relationship with Israel. Another passage I always struggle with, but for personal reasons, is Abraham’s sacrifice with Isaac. My dad is a vicar, and he used to do acted-out sermons. One Sunday he dragged me out to be Isaac to his Abraham, and I lay there on a table, this knife above me, and I’ve loathed the story ever since.
But you spend time with these passages.
That’s right. And occasionally you find that you do like the passage after all. Other times you don’t, but the process of engaging with it means you go away changed. That’s what we mean when we say the Bible is the word of God – I don’t have to like it, or agree with it, but I have to listen to what it’s saying.
This article was published in the March 2013 edition of Reform.