Review of ‘Birthpangs & Blessings’
First of all, thank you to Sacristy Press for sending me a review copy in response to my request on Twitter. I worked with, or alongside, Clare Amos while on secondment to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Christian-Muslim Initiative and through some of the programmes of the Christian Muslim Forum (I was Director from 2006 to 2015).
Part of my interest, other than knowing the author, is that I host a Bible study group which has been working through Genesis since last year. The core of the group is colleagues who work with me at the Methodist Church, we are very pleased to also have with us a rabbi and a Muslim mental health chaplain. We have mainly been studying books in the Hebrew Scriptures over the last few years.
Clare’s book is very readable, i.e. one can sit and read through it, unlike some other commentaries with more disjointed notes on specific verses. It is a refreshing read in that Clare wrestles with the text, its writers/editors and its characters, including God. This is exactly, to my mind, what readers and commentators should do.
As is my custom in recent years, I ‘live-tweeted’ the book while reading it, making use of this hashtag #BirthpangsBlessings (using the ‘&’ disrupts the hyperlinking of the two words). My tweets can be seen here.
The book has some great (tweetable) lines, such as: ‘The mysteriousness and at times illogicality of God and of Genesis are not to be despaired of but are there for wonder and for hope.’ This highlights the positivity (rather challenging at times!) which Clare has towards the text. I selected this one because I didn’t really agree with it, though it perhaps makes a point that I would endorse — the text is neither flat nor Gospel (not in the supersessionist sense). I believe that a commentary should engage and inspire us to ask questions as much as the original text, and we may need a helping hand to feel comfortable critiquing a foundational religious text, Clare does so joyfully!
In similar vein, Clare writes — ‘The Old Testament is at its heart gloriously world-affirming and acts as a rebuttal to elements of the Christian tradition that have had an escapist or negative attitude to the world.’ Critiquing our own tradition (sometimes very needed) and pointing us towards how things could/should be done differently if we are also informed by Jewish takes on the text in its own right, not ‘reading it through the lens of the New Testament’. Here is another example — ‘Genesis 1 offers a majestic monotheistic vision, which shames us when so often our conception of God still seems unashamedly tribal.’ This is a very good point, especially for Christian readers of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Often, as we read, the text is not straightforward or straight, it is tricky and even slippery, it does have a snake!
Clare’s background in committed, and textual, interfaith work shines through here — ‘The early chapters of Genesis provide a model for those in every age who are prepared to deepen their own faith by listening to the sounds that other religious traditions can sing.’
Asking bold questions about the text enables us (or Clare) to make bold observations about the text, or God in the text (a question in itself!) — God as character in a human rather than a Divine narrative. I was very struck by this, commenting on how God engages with Cain and his sacrifice — ‘YHWH seems as inept a parent as Jacob and David are later.’
Clare and I have both worked in the area of women and faith/interfaith, though I worked outside women’s groups in order to enable their work within women-only spaces. I have a particular sensitivity in this area so found it difficult to read this — ‘[God] sets about providing him [Adam] with the companion that will facilitate the transgression’. I also found this difficult — ‘in view of her [Eve, and her naming as such, i.e. ‘life’ or ‘living’] responsibility for this new era in which difficulty and death would predominate.’ For me this seems like rather a male reading of the narrative, though Clare does highlight another way of looking at this.
I really liked this line — ‘doubt, ambiguity or paradox [is] the friend rather than foe of true faith.’
What Clare does really well, apart from constructing a book that can be read from end to end, perhaps without even having the text of Genesis in front of oneself, if it is sufficiently familiar (as I did), is engage with the characters. This is particularly notable in the reflections on Abraham’s dealings with his neighbours in Canaan and with other notable characters, such as Abimelech in Genesis 20. This is also a strong aspect of the ‘unhappy families’ saga which covers most of Genesis. I was glad I read it.