The narrative power of old stories…

Fire stoking as at intermission of story telling, ATC Cranborne by Simon Barnes is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

If this (17 year old!) blog is about anything, it is about a search for meaning. I seldom have any desire to look back at early entries but this seems consistent throughout. Often I have found myself concerned with religion – as a source of inspiration and frustration in equal measure – because surely religion is also primarily concerned with meaning?

But the religion I knew most intimately was not really about meaning – not directly anyway. It was mainly about providing ‘answers’, albeit to questions framed only in a way that we wanted them to be considered. The rest was more about belonging- using the right words and singing the right songs. We were not encouraged to search too far from the fixed tramlines that we were given or to do too much questioning of the certainties that our tradition provided.

Aside from the frustrations that many of us feel about such religious restrictions, there are many problems with this kind of closed-circuit religious thinking, particularly in a changing world dominated by problems that our old doctrines either provide no answers to (such as climate change, or economic injustice) or actually seem to make worse (such as polarised attitudes towards gay people or other conflict with other religions.)

If we are to be seekers of truth (which is just another way of saying seekers of meaning) then integrity must draw us to adventure further. I do not necessary mean a rejection of our tradition (although many of us have found this to be a necessary step) rather that we remain open to renewal and re-reformation.

I need to say a little more about this word ‘truth’.

Truth, according to Jesus, will set us free. What he might have meant by that has been debated down the generations, but any religious types think that truth is found in the literal sense from the words of scripture. It will be of no surprise to you to hear that I do not believe this reading is correct. If it were, I find it odd that Jesus used his words in the context of challenging religious bigotry (check out John chapter 8) not underlining it.

And here is the rub. If we use scripture like a definiative rule book/text book/blueprint that has been locked and closed, all we have open to us is to learn what has already been decreed and declared to be ‘correct’. There may still be many subtleties and depths that we can dive in to, but fundementally the only way we can read these old stories is the way that our religion has mapped out for us. To put it another way, we are presented with stories that have already been shaped to tell the over-arching story that has been provided by our tradition. It has all been made to ‘fit’ this narrative, a feat that has always required considerable contortions and calisthenics.

Typically we miss the many blind spots and assumptions behind these readings, because our first concern will be ‘correctness’; a feeling rendered all the more urgent by the fact that getting it wrong might result in eternal damnation.

I am speaking here with intimate knowledge only of my own religious beginnings but I think there is good evidence to suggest that we can generalise this to other forms of religion – both Christian and other faiths – particularly those who rely on scripture as their primary (and sometimes only) reference point. I think this is a terrible shame, for a number of reasons, which I will try to tease out below.

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The first thing that I would say is that closed system readings of scripture are not honest. They are only made possible by imposing restrictions on the minds of the reader, who is expected to read them only in the way that is authorised. For example, readers are expected to accept the ‘inerrancy’ of the bible, no matter how hard it is to make it all fit together as a coherant whole.

It is also often intellectually blind, in that it ignores or rejects any knowledge that might be seen to challenge the closed reading of those stories. For example, most of the people in the tradition I grew up in have no idea about how the canon of the bible came to be compiled. Asking questions about how the events told in these ancient stories mapped on to archeological discoveries or alternative histories would be seen as dangerous and subversive to correct belief. For the same reason, our knowlege of other streams of Christian theological thinking was limited indeed- mostly to just knowing that ‘they’ were all wrong.

The reader is also asked not to question certain underlying assumptions, without which the whole closed system would collapse. For example, we might be encouraged to read backwards from understandings gained from narrow readings of one part of scripture, interpreting complete other sections of the canon in the light of those understandings. The key assumption here is that the bible must not be seen as a library-like collection of ancient scriptures written by ancient people over a considerable length of time, but rather as a complete and whole manuscript that was always intended to be provided in its current form from the beginning of time. Perhaps you might protest that it can be both, but it does not change the fact that the assumptions we make changes the readings immeasurably.

The effect of these assumptions means that we have to ignore contradictions. If the reformation taught us to value scripture, it also soon taught us to value our own understandings of this scripture more. Truth wars became the way we did religion for hundreds of years and we in the West live at the end of all this; arguably an increasingly irrelevant remnant, defined more by our narrow religious views than our capacity to live for grace and goodness.

Perhaps the most problematic result of these closed system readings is that they lock us in to black-and-white thinking. Any command-words from anywhere in the canon of scripture have to be taken as fixed instructions handed down directly from God. It is true that we did not do this completely (ignoring purity codes from Leviticus about mensturation cycles for example) but this was a bit of a guilty secret, with no easy explanation when confronted.

Another aspect of this is how our approach to religion becomes highy legalistic, as if the scriptures themselves exist as a code of instruction that is applied and interpreted by our priest/judges, or our bishops/supreme court. Legal correctness takes precedent over anything else, even if the outcome is undesired, as in the rejection of homosexuality alongside the desire to remain loving and accepting of outsiders, and the church has to endure more of this sort of thing.

Finally, if we use only closed reading systems, there is little room for adventure. Institutions will tend towards control, order and a resistance to radical diversity. Arguably, any spiritual journey worth making will be towards personal (and hopefully collective) transformation, NOT towards greater doctrinal convergance. It is not impossible to make these journeys within closed reading systems but I would suggest that this will always be difficult.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Pexels.com

So what value have these old stories? Why not just treat them as quaint old folk tales intended for children? Why continue to expect them to be relevant all these thousands of years after they were written?

Well, in these fast changing times, I think we need these old stories more than ever, and I am not willing to throw any babies out with the bathwater.

It is perhaps worth remembering that there are many other ways that Christians have always read scripture. There is a summary of some of these in this post, in which I listed the following kinds of reading;

  1. Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.
  2. Conversational 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.
  3. Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending his overarching mission of blessing all nations through a community of people.
  4. 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.
  5. Rhetorical reading– in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.
  6. Contextual reading – in which we try to understand how the specific context might have influenced the writing of the text
  7. Literary 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.” (Brian McLaren)
  8. Close reading– better readings of scripture will examine 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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 …”
  13. 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.”
  14. Christo-focussed reading – where 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.

This is far from an exhaustive list and whilst some of these might be seen to be more practiced by theologians, the point here is that scripture has ALWAYS been used in a much wider way than the narrow closed readings that we have locked them it within.

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My argument here is not against scripture, but for it. It is not a tirade against the value of these old stories, but a desire to rediscover them, to reframe them for our new context, to set the power they contain free again to do new things.

I am comfortable with seeing the Christian scriptures as a library of generations of people trying to make both personal and collective meaning out of chaos- much as we are trying to do now. Much of these stories also seemed to have been written down in the context of abject failure (slavery in the OT, occupation in the NT) – again, much like the feeling that some of us feel now. Nevertheless, throughout the whole mess of this scripture, themes emerge of a longing for justice, restoration and wholeness. Above all, these themes come together in the stories told about a man called Jesus.

The relevance of these stories, when encountered outside the closed readings that we have been used to, is startling. Consider, for example, the stories from the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, that go something like this;

Simple people, living in harmony with nature, rise and seperate themselves through the accumulation of knowledge. Soon there is conflict between the hunter-gatherers and those who fence the land and accumulate belongings, leading to the murder of one brother by another. The accumulation gets more extreme, leading first to cities, then to empires, followed by more empires. God is so angry that he wants to wipe the world clean in a flood and start again.

You can read these stories in all of the ways discussed above, but I want to propose one last reading, one that I will call a ‘radical reading‘. Radical, that is, in the sense of looking for prophetic inspiration towards change. Looking for ways towards justice that might be relevant to our situation.

Against such there is no law.

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