Bible nasties- soft conclusions…

During April, I wrote a series of 5 posts (the first of which is here) chewing on how we might understand some of those difficult passages of the Bible which appear to portray God as a mass murderer, who commands rape, child sacrifice and even cannibalism.

For example, this one. Mass murder, mass rape- but the keeping of a trivial oath- all in the name of the living God.

I began by considering some apologetics- here. There were some glimmers of hope of explanation, but on the whole, I found the business of trying to explain away the contradictions of a violent, murderous loving God (as apparently described in the Bible) impossible.

Next I chewed a little on the way Jesus seemed to deal with the hard judgmental, ‘scriptural’ truth that religious people hit him with. I noted that when he talked about the truth that would set you free, he did not seem to define this truth by a narrow interpretation of the written words that were handed down to him.

Next, I wondered about this word ‘context’- and how we needed to attempt to understand the nature of the cultures and historical times that the Bible stories emerged from- often violent, bloody and dynastic. Inevitably reading the Bible like this is a slippery slope towards liberal re-interpretation (as any good Evangelical will tell you.) I am sliding…

Then I got into a bit of  a philosophical ramble about the nature of truth- which to be honest, did not help much. The basic conclusion that I suppose I might take from all this is that truth is almost always nuanced, subjective, debated and interpreted according to perspective.

Finally, I wondered about hell and listened to Francis Chan suggesting that our understanding of hell may well be a rather recent invention.

I am no theologian- although I have been trying to make sense of this stuff for most of my life, so I suppose this might give me some personal source material, even though I lack the breadth of study. But I think the time has come for me to commit myself to some soft conclusions arising from the above.

Soft- because they will be imperfect, and incomplete. They will need to be reviewed and be open to challenge and modification.

Soft too because it is so easy for conclusions to become self referential, self sustaining, and the bedrock for further and more lasting distortions. Perhaps it is even impossible for this NOT to happen.

But conclude I will, because (as discussed in a previous post about (un)belief) I think it is time to step aside from the deconstruction of faith, and start to build again.

So here are my shallow, portable foundations- you could even say the flat surface for my fragiletent-

The stories in the Bible are open to our interpretation, to our questions even to our doubts. They are open in this way because God is open in this way. God is bigger than our understanding, or the understanding of the ancient writers of the Book.

There are many way to approach a reading of Bible passages- context is important, but Brian McLaren lists 10 other ways here– we have got stuck with a either/or approach- either literalism or myth. Perhaps we need to address this tired polarity by giving other things a try for a while.

This might steal away the mystique and sacred from the Bible for some- but this might be a good thing, as we could  have stumbled into a kind of idolatry, where we venerate a book, rather than who the book is about.

In trying to approach the book with this mindset, there are countless potential beartraps and cellar stairs to fall into. So we need to start with the body of knowledge within the church- both recently and more ancient. But be prepared also to work our understandings out as (Rollins again) “faithful skeptics”. And we should do this in community.

We do not need to have the answers to all of our questions. The questions too can be holy.

We are followers of Jesus- and we need to start with the stories about his life. This can be challenging enough after all! After that, we can then use our understanding of him to work backwards and forwards into history. But let us not try to make everything fit. It sometimes will not! And where it does not seem to fit- this can be a window for the Spirit too.

And speaking of the Spirit- he is present, NOW- not just in the pages of a book, but in all sorts of ways-

friendship

sunsets

dreams and visions

Kindnesses and moments of sublime grace

Music and dancing

Wisdom

Gentle promptings of guilt and remorse, as well as longing for things to be better

In the midst of us, and also in wild places, stirring the waters

Poetry

Silence

And because of this- we are not alone in this search. We are not powerless nor unenlightened. Rather we might expect the unexpected. The God of Surprises.

And finally- back to all that murdering and raping and child sacrificing. Did it happen in the way described? Well, perhaps. The times these things happened were full of such things. But as much of these stories were written down centuries after they happened, and survived through oral tradition, you would expect that there would be a reframing process- a self justification process. A God-on-our-side process.

Even if through the whole thing, there is a God-in-the-middle who still emerges as we read these stories.

Did it happen that way because it was what God commanded- what he demanded to assuage his lust for blood and vengeance?

My soft conclusion to this is-

No.

You might not concur, which is fine- but don’t lynch me please.

Because the other useful fact that has emerged for me came from Helen’s comment on one of the previous posts in this series- regarding the fact that our faith had overemphasised hard belief and doctrine- whereas perhaps more important than this is how we live- how faith sets us on a journey.

Travel on.

Bible nasties 4- that word ‘context’…

I was reading about a recent archaeological discovery at Fin Cop iron age hill fort, in the English Peak District, near where I grew up.

A mass grave has been discovered- full of the bones of women and children. The bodies appear to have been thrown into the surrounding ditch and the smashed remains of the fort thrown down on top of them.

To make sense of this story, we have to understand something of the context in which the events happened- the culture, the dynastic background, the history.

I read about the Fin Cop massacre at the same time as I was thinking about all that Old Testament bloodshed. The parallels are rather obvious.

In 500BC, most of the killing that the ancient Israelites indulged in with such apparent approval from God was over. They were then a defeated people, living under Babylonian rule. But what hit me again is the approach that many Christians make to the Bible, and the stories that it contains.

The stories tend to be imported into our context with a lot of fixed assumptions.

Firstly the assumption that they are ‘true’- in the sense of being 100% accurate factual historical records of real events.

Secondly, the assumption that God is speaking to us directly through these words, which then require no testing, no wrestling- rather our role is to be passive acceptors of heavenly revelation.

Thirdly the assumption that God himself wrote the words- each individual one, and therefore any challenge to either of the two assumptions above is a direct challenge of God himself, and is therefore heresy.

Perhaps you might think that these assumptions are just fine. I have struggled with them over the years- and coped by not allowing myself to ask questions.

Because once you start, it is impossible to stop.

One of the first questions that start to challenge the above assumptions is this one- context. The writings in the Old Testament concern events that happened around 2000 years before the birth of Jesus. The oldest evidence for Hebrew writing is around the 10th C BC, but most scholars believe that the books of the OT were first written down around the 6th C BC. What this means is that the stories were passed down by oral tradition for countless generations.

Many of these generations, like the people who lived at Fin Cop, were short and bloody.

So stories were told of Abraham, who started it all, and of Jacob who sustained the wandering tribe during slavery. Then there were the stories of the birth of a nation out of the years in the desert, and the rise of great kings and great kingdoms. Stories justified, sustained and unified- particularly during the hard times of exile and captivity.

And in the middle of it all- woven through the whole- is God. Hopes for God, encounters with God, fears cast on to God, prayers to God. A people whose stories are covered by the fingerprints of God.

What might we expect then of these stories, when we allow ourselves to consider something of the context?

Might we expect them to be historically 100% accurate- and ‘true’? Well, frankly no. That is not their point. They were living stories to bring breath to an exiled proud people- they were not eyewitness accounts of a traffic accident (which, come to think of it, are not necessarily ‘true’ either.)

Might we believe that God is speaking to us through the words, and that our role is just to accept them with no challenge, no test, no questioning?  To which I reply Yes, and no. Wrestling and questioning with textual meaning are spiritual practices, when done with honesty and integrity- and the certainty that whatever meaning we find will be partial, and certainly not the final version of truth that will emerge from the text.

Do we need to believe that God wrote/inspired every word, completed and whole, and that to question this is heresy? My answer to this is- no, we do not. But then perhaps I am a heretic. Because I have come to believe that this view of the text has more to do with the need that a modern context had for quantifiable, objective, rationalised evidence for God.

Context is important. As are at least 11 other ways of reading these ancient writings.

But there are many ways to approach this wonderful collection of writing- all of them flawed. Because the words are always filtered through the reader.