A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The Violence Lurking in “Gorgeous Gestures”

“Gorgeous gestures backed by a thousand years of tradition may not be much different from wars and other acts more stark and obvious in their capacity for violence.”

I came across this sentence while reading Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (Penguin, 1997), a novel about the experience of a Vietnamese daughter and mother living in Virginia in the 1970’s.
The words are those of the mother, as she remembers coming to understand that her marriage would be far more traditional—and stifling—than she had imagined. When she and her future husband met, she was excelling in school, widely recognized as an academic star. He was intelligent and an independent thinking. He wooed her with poetry and flowers and conversation, and she fell in love. She believed that they would be something close to equal partners.

But, once they were married, his thinking turned traditional. In his eyes, she became a wife, with all the expectations that the role entailed. He now saw the woman whose intellect he had once admired as someone whose job is was to join his family and assist in running the household.

The mother describes her new life as exile—a separation not only from her education but also from her own family and the rhythms of its rice farm. She understands the expectations placed on her as a form of violence. Not all violence arises from hate; some is inherent in “the way things are.” Although her husband continued to love her and his family treated her well, his unconscious acceptance of traditional marriage norms destroyed much of who she was.

When the prophets use metaphors for God and people, they often turn to roles within the traditional family—God is husband and father; the people are wife and daughter. Because ancient and modern people understand so well the expectations that go with these roles, the metaphors continue to communicate effectively. They provide an easy way to explain God’s expectations of “his” people. But, in my writing I have tried to show the violence inherent in these traditional metaphors. Even when God is a loving husband in the prophets, “he” remains a husband in full control of “his” wife. “His” right to punish is beyond question.

That’s why the metaphors used for God matter so much to me. I believe they not only shape people’s thinking about God but also continue to reinforce ways of thinking that are often “gorgeous” but also filled with “the capacity for violence.”

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