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Forbidden Fruits and Fig Leaves: Reading the Bible with the shamed, by Judith Rossall

by
23 April 2021

Jennie Hogan reviews a biblical study with pastoral relevance

JUDITH ROSSALL, tutor in church history and preaching at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, has made a bold yet subtle attempt to re-encounter the Bible from the viewpoint of those whose experience of themselves, others, and God has wrought suffering, shame, and isolation.

The book of Genesis, perhaps unsurprisingly, sets the scene. Her appraisal of the theology of shame revealed in the Bible shines new light on familiar passages. Themes of exile and exodus gently and creatively draw out the multi-faceted nature of sin, and we learn that recovering from experiences of shame can often be slow.

Shame hurts. Rossall employs the term “shame-ache”, and it is an apt approach to understanding the pervasive damage that difficult experiences and relationships with others can sometimes inflict.

Rossall makes nuanced arguments regarding notions of forgiveness, and she questions overly simplistic and, indeed, harmful theologies of forgiveness. Abuses in authority are challenged brilliantly in the chapter, “We need to talk about David”, which examines how King David wields his power over Bathsheba and its effect on her.

Rossall’s focus on the emotional experiences faced by people today, as well as by biblical figures, is sensitive. The psychological effects of shame are examined lightly but not simplistically. A deeper psychological assessment of the emotional experience of those whom she highlights would have been welcome. That said, Rossall is a theologian, not a therapist.

The author leads the reader on a set of journeys, deftly sweeping through texts such as St Mark’s Gospel with remarkable grace. Her insights into the experience of Simon Peter’s encounters with the resurrected Jesus are moving and tender. The final chapters are focused on Christ the shamed and yet welcoming Messiah. Rossall reflects upon the tradition of crucifixion through the lens of shame, which, she suggests, may re-interpret the experience of shame all the more.

An impressive fluency with biblical texts is revealed throughout. Moreover, she is able to place in the foreground the failures and frustrations of translation in an accessible and yet original manner. This enables her to challenge narrow assumptions about sin and judgement without lambast, but with genuine appeals for change to do theology differently sometimes.

The excellent chapter on the Book of Job is dynamic. Rossall proposes that, although Job doesn’t get a neat answer to the problem of suffering, he instead “melts”, “that is, he has reached a place where God’s beauty so surrounds him that he is not entirely clear where he ends and where God begins.”

We see that “shame-ache” can begin to fade when our image of God changes and when we begin to see our ourselves reflected in God’s loving gaze. “Our image of God matters,” Rossall contends. We learn here just how crucial and refreshing it can be to read the Bible all at once alert to the emotions of the people we meet in it, and also our own. 
 

The Revd Jennie Hogan is a psychotherapist, and Assistant Priest of St George’s, Bloomsbury, in London. She is the author of This is My Body: A story of sickness and health (Canterbury Press, 2017).

 

Forbidden Fruits and Fig Leaves: Reading the Bible with the shamed
Judith Rossall
SCM Press £19.99
(978-0-334-05920-2)
Church Times Bookshop £16

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