What are we going to do with our bibles?

This is the second in a series of blog pieces describing the place to which my faith journey has taken me. Out of these scattered thoughts, I am constructing a new creed, or rather I should say WE are constructing a new creed because these are not original thoughts. They arise from discussions, books, doubts, hopes and a profound feeling of HOPE for the emergence of a new kind of Christianity.

For each of these posts, I will try to follow the same format;

An introduction.

A look at the old paradigm.

A look at the new.

Finally, a ‘statement of faith’

An open bible left on the fireplace of an abandoned croft house on Bernera, an island just off Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The fourth (and most important) person of the ‘Trinity’

I made this statement about the way we have treated the bible in my last post. I don’t think I overstated – let me say why.

Perhaps the defining triumph of the first reformation was the fact that the bible was, for the first time (because of the printing press revolution) made widely available to an increasingly literate ordinary population in our Western civilisation. The assumption was that this could only ever be a good thing- that it would set us free to read the very words of God directly, with no ecclesiastical/clerical obstruction or interpretation, therefore raising us up into the very presence of God. People hoped this would change everything. Perhaps it did.

Remember however, that Christianity had largely managed without the bible for one and a half thousand years, during which what we recognise today as ‘the bible’ simply did not exist, at least not in the collected form that we know today. It is still a source of wonder (but not surprise) to me that this fact was NEVER mentioned in any of the many thousands of bible-based sermons that I sat though in the first half of my life. It was almost as if to speak of it would undermine something sacred- something that came down from heaven on a cloud. Something we started to call ‘The Word of God’, despite the fact that nowhere within it’s pages does it make this claim (which is after all one of the names given to The Christ.)

How did this amnesia about the origins of the collected canon of scripture come about? Perhaps because, for the last 500 years, the largely Protestant West (protestant in the sense of protesting against other versions of biblical truth) has been engaged in a series of truth wars, using the Bible as a bazooka aimed at apostasy.

Of course, much of this was necessary. It began as liberation- setting people free to make new adventures and to challenge the powers of orthodoxy, who often responded with punishing violence, but they were unable to suppress this new religion which flowed like lava, burning all before it with holy zeal. But like all lava, it eventually set to stone. We carried our bibles into granite institutions and began to dissect it, to treat it to the same analysis as we might a scientific specimen. We needed it to be a blueprint, so we found a way to make it one. Soon, far from being a source of truth available to everyone, new orthodoxies were concreted in place, mediated by a new priesthood, who were able to define ‘correct belief’ with almost the same power and control as their medieval pre-reformation counterparts, because sooner or later, religion tends towards the Pharisaical.

So, what am I saying?

You might read this as being anti-bible, but this would be to miss my point entirely. I think we should read the bible much more than we do, but in order to read it, we have to stop worshipping it. We have to stop treating it as a rule book, or an instruction book, or a blueprint that can solve all problems and answer all questions.

If faith is going to be set free again in this new reformation there is perhaps nothing more important than reforming of how we read and understand the bible.

The bible as blueprint

The first reformation emerged during a period known as ‘the enlightenment’, when rational thought and scientific method were dominating and replacing medieval mysticism. The value of an idea now measured according to how ‘true’ it was; how much it could be measured and proved. Of course, this gave the protestant reformation a problem; how might it be possible to bring the same scientific rigour to the practice of religion? They turned to the bible as primary source material, which allowed focus on the solid, tangible, external world of words, rather than the messy internal world of mystery and ‘faith’. Of course, if it was to be proper source material, the bible had to be codified, cross referenced – it had to become an organised, unified whole, inspired by God and ‘without error or contradiction’. It had to have complete authority over everything. It needed to be something we could go to again and again to mine propositional, hard truths- but ones that fitted well into an organised whole.

The problem was that the Bible had certain shortcomings if it was to be used in this way. For a start, it was not a book at all, but rather a whole library of books, written over an unknown period of time at least nineteen hundred years ago, charting ancient attempts to understand the nature of the divine. The library includes books of history, books of poetry, books of philosophy and books of wild prophecy. The prophecy was not really about foretelling the future, although we often treat it as such. It was more about speaking truth to power. Many scholars through the whole of Christian history contended that some of the books should be read as allegory, whilst others, (particularly more recently) demand that we read the whole thing literally, as if every word was uncontestable ‘fact’ (even if they themselves often had chinks in their own willingness to do the same.)

The Old Testament in particular is full of nasty bits, in which God seems to condone or even instruct mass murder, rape, child sacrifice and even cannibalism. I spent a few posts on this blog trying to think about what these may be all about. You can read more here. Not that we really talked very much about these passages in my experience of church.

We had to find a way of integrating all of these story lines, all of this wild poetry, all of the contradictions and inconsistencies and so a whole industry spent centuries doing just that. The extreme of this were seen in systematic interpretations of scripture, in which each and every ‘problem’ was given an explanation, backed up by references to other parts of scripture. We also tried to argue that the stories emerged in different ‘dispensations’, as if God was happy with murder back then, but changed his mind a little after Jesus came.

Not that the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, were necessarily given primacy. After all, our war mongering, empire building and slave making was justified, using the bible – the Old Testament, that is. Because we were able to give equal weighting to all of ‘The Word of God’.

You see the problem? But it does not end there.

We also made the bible our rule book. It had to be this of course. It has lots of commandments and instructions in there- some of which we have ignored, some of which towers over us. The bits we tended to ignore were those that did not sit easily with our culture- the warnings about wealth and money, for instance, or gluttony, or treatment of our enemies (who we were told to love.) The bits we emphasised however were often concerned with private morality, particularly sexual morality.

Those that did not comply with these instructions were excluded. This is no small matter.

If we make the bible into a holy blueprint, we diminish it, because we make it into something it never was. For many, it can even become a prison, locking us into a proscribed set of beliefs which are to a large extent dependent on… our ‘correct’ readings of the bible.

Other ways of reading the bible

Of course, people have always read the books that make up the bible in other ways too, both before the first reformation and after it. People have also always relied on many other source material to inform their spiritual lives, and these in turn have had an influence on how we approach the bible. Whether or not we acknowledge it, we all approach the bible through a set of assumptions and pre-conceived ideas which we project onto our readings.

Perhaps then, our starting place has to be about recognising what these are and the history and context they arise from. It would argue that it might help to concern ourselves again with the principles taught and demonstrated by Jesus, allowing these to shape our readings first and foremost.These will surely take us towards a skew to the concerns of the poor and weak and those who have been excluded, particularly those who have been excluded for religious reasons.

If we stay with our literal reading (bible as blueprint) we miss so much richness. In this post, i discussed a number of other ways to read these ancient texts proposed by the writer Brian McLaren, which included the following;

Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.

Converstional reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.

Missional reading– in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending God’s overarching mission of blessing all nations through a called and commissioned community of people.

Political/Economic reading– the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.

Rhetorical reading– in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.

Literal reading- “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” McLaren suggests that people who say they are taking the words literally often are doing the very opposite- approaching the test through a very narrow hermeneutic.

Close reading- better readings of scripture will fit in with the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.

Communal reading- the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.

Recursive reading- understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.

Ethical reading– text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended social consequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.

Personal reading- “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”

Mystical reading– we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”

.

McLaren proposed on further way to read the Bible, the relevance of which will no doubt be obvious;

CHRISTO-FOCAL READING

McLaren proposes that we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

He suggests we need to leave behind three old ways of reading the Bible that have perhaps dominated-

Flat reading- where we see all Jesus’ life and words pressed down and flattened to the same level as those of Abraham, Moses,David, Isaiah, Paul, and Jude. This results in the raising of the Bible above Christ- which is a kind of idolatry. For example, it might be biblical to commit genocide by quoting Deuteronomy 7, but one could never claim it is Christ-like.

Descending reading- where we start with an ideal state in Genesis, and then it all goes wrong, leading to a time when God is going to destroy everything, and Jesus is but a lifeboat for a few. Or the other decent comes from the fall too- “the problem is sin and the solution is law-keeping, with sacrifice-making as a back-up plan. The rest of the story descends from this high point, so that the life and ministry of Jesus have value to the degree that they solve the problem.”

Ascending reading- “Moses’ teaching was good, David’s perspectives were better, Isaiah rosehigher still, John the Baptist ascended even higher, and Jesus was really wonderful andunique, but the crowning revelation comes with Paul and his writings.”

What McLaren proposes is something more radical- “When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning. If we follow this approach, we’ll speak less about the Bible as the supreme Word of God and more about Jesus as the supreme Word of God. We’ll let the person of Jesus –including and integrating his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, abiding presence, and ongoing mission through the Holy Spirit – become the light in which all interpretations are evaluated, the key in which all interpretations are played, the leader behind which all interpretations arrange themselves as followers, and the meaning in which all interpretations have meaning.”

These readings set us free from the old liberal/fundamentalist false paradigm. The bible can become once more what it always was- a library of astonishing writings reaching back to the beginning of humanity and recording our attempts to understand ourselves in relation to the divine and eternal.

They set us free to adventure again into the library, to see where it might lead us. Not because there is a ‘correct’ reading, but because all scripture is

“God breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3, 16-17.)

And as we read Timothy, we might usefully remember that when these words were written, there was no such thing as a ‘bible’. Then, ‘scripture’ included many books we no longer regard as sacred, as well as some that we do. This should remind us too the there are other wells to drink from because God is a generous God, whose breath flows in all things.

I believe that the bible is a rich library, full of ancient history, poetry, prophecy and beauty. It is not a blueprint, or an instruction manual. It is not an object of worship. Too often it has been used as a blunt instrument and a means to exclude people. We must also recognise the way that history,context and cultural backgrounds influence the way that the bible has been written and also the way we read it. I believe that as we read the bible, we should always start with the ways and words of Jesus, which ground everything in love.

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