‘The Book of Eli’- the view from there…

I have just watched this film;

It is a troubled, mixed up mess of a movie-  a kind of religious Mad Max with swords. What makes it interesting (if not necessarily entertaining) is the theological underpinnings of it all.

I use the word troubled, as a more dystopian, distorted version of religion than the one portrayed in the film is hard to imagine.

The central character (Denzil Washington) is walking through a post apocalyptic world. He meets lots of low life’s and chops many of them up. He ends up in a town ruled by a despot who is sending out murderous road parties in search of ‘the Book’. The book will give him the power and authority.

The book in question is a Bible, and Denzil happens to have one.

Casual sex is offered, and turned down. Sex is bad (but chopping people up is fine.)

Denzil has a mission you see- to take the Book to a place where it will be received properly. By nice people who chop people up but do not have casual sex.

Denzil gets shot, and it goes all mystical. Turns out he is blind and knows the whole book by memory.

Why the book of Eli?

Why not Matthew, or Mark, or Thessalonians?

Perhaps in part this is to do with an Old Testament perspective- all that violence, polarized good and evil. Bad things justified by the mission of God. It simply fits better into the world view of the the culture that the film grew from.

There is something else however- the centrality of The Book.

As if the only means by which God could inspire and engage with people was through the written pages of the Bible- owned and interpreted by a country full of good people- Americans, British people- like you and me.

Nothing about the Word of God made flesh to dwell amongst us.

Or the Spirit who fills us.

Or the presence in the midst.

Nothing about the central vitalising idea called love.

Nothing about the way of peace making and the open hand to the stranger.

This is the ‘prayer’ at the end of the film;

Watch it if you will (you may already have done so.) But watch for what is missing, and watch so you can look through the eyes of the machine that made the film.

And remember that they thought they were giving us what we wanted- what would entertain and engage us- not to shock alienate.

It is all hollow.

The uncertainties over the emergence of the New Testament…

Above is an image of fragment p52– first half of the second century after Jesus- a credit card sized fragment of the Gospel of John- possibly dating from less than 50 years after the book of John was written.

However, we do not have a complete book of John until hundreds of years later. How many copies of copies of copies of copies were made before P52 came into being? How many since? How many different language barriers crossed? How many different cultural contexts mixed within?

A couple of hundred years ago, John Mill looked at 100 early manuscripts written in Greek- 30.000 places where the Greek texts differ from one another. Most do not matter- accidental mistakes by scribes. Leaving out words, verses- even pages.

Some matter rather more- some appear to be intentional variations from the copied text- where the text appears to be changed to match with a developing theology. The changes get rid of potential problems in subtle ways.

Does any of this matter?

Well if you are a follower of Jesus- YES. Even if you are not- it matters too, as the building blocks of so much of our culture were made from understandings (or sometimes misunderstandings) of these scriptures.

Christians from my tradition were schooled in the idea that the collected works of the Bible are the inspired complete and sufficient work of God. The writings are reliable, and contain no contradictions that we are not capable of coming to some understanding of, given the correct interpretive goggles.

The problem, of course, with this way of interpreting the works of the Bible, is that it is all or nothing. The Bible is either the BIBLE, or it is nothing. It is either sacred, or it is worthless. We are back into the range of what Richard Rohr, and others, calls the error of ‘non dual’ thinking.

But other Christians will point to a different way of understanding scripture- as a gloriously imperfect set of writings that record the attempts of people to engage with a mysterious Living God, and to live in the ways of his son Jesus. In these writings, we see mirror images of ourselves, and saturating the whole- is the love of God, and the call to adventure in the cause of the Kingdom of God.

In this understanding- it is not either or- but both-and. The books of the Bible were written by people whose work was inspired by engagement with the Spirit. But they might also contain elements that are flawed, partisan and from a cultural and historical context alien to ours. The writings might well have been shaped by translators and copyists over the years- because they were always invested with such meaning- or employed to support a meaning that may never have been there in the first time. Some of this shaping is subtle, and may even have not been intentional.

This debate is contained really well in this debate (the voice seems to be out of sync with the images though!)

 

I recently confessed to a leaning towards what I would describe as a more human origin in the authorship of our scriptures- and how accepting this is not a negation of these writings, but might also bring a sense of release and freedom from an ill fitting straight jacket of legalistic religiosity. Most of this was in relation to a reflection on the Old Testament passages that I had found so difficult. How about the works that record the words and deeds of Jesus?

Because this is even more important for we, his followers.

So- here is my current take on these things too…

Jesus is described in the book of Peter as a ‘Stone to make men stumble and a rock to make them fall.’ This possibly applies more than anything to our religion- given Jesus’ intolerance of the rigid doctrines of his day. Therefore we might expect our religion to be tripped up by- Jesus. And out religion is often codified by our interpretation of the Bible.

The New Testament is a collection of some outrageously revolutionary books written by early seekers after the New Kingdom. They did not get it all sorted. They were not God-parrots, but God-seekers.

Our role is to test scripture, as well as to be tested by it. We are to be not passive receivers, but active engagers, listening for the voice of the Spirit, and paying particular attention to the life and examples found in the stories told about Jesus.

All scripture is USEFUL- said Paul. He was not able to say ‘essential’ in the same way as others understand it now- as much of it was not yet written in his time. Which suggests yet again, that we might sometimes be guilty of over emphasis- even idolatry.

But it remains our starting point, our rudder and our trampoline.

Lets bounce.

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 5- a little discussion about ‘truth’…

OK, I have been avoiding this a little, but perhaps it is time to dig into a few philosophical ideas about the nature of truth.

It is a long time since I studied philosophy as a student, so this may well be a little low rent- but I hope it’s relevance to our discussion about the nature of the Biblical truth will be obvious.

Correspondance theory

Thirteenth Century philosopher/theologian Thomas Aquinas said this “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality”, which is a posh way of saying that if what you say of an object is correct, it is true.  Truth is a matter of accurately copying what was much later called “objective reality” and then representing it in thoughts, words and other symbols.

This kind of truth is the common sense kind- the see it, touch it, smell it kind. It is the kind of truth that we assume that the Bible uses.

Coherence theory

Truth is primarily a property of whole systems of propositions, and can be ascribed to individual propositions only according to their coherence with the whole. In other words, truth is only testable when understood within a wider system of ideas and concepts. To understand what is true, we have to approach it from within a set of wider propositions.

Which is exactly what we do with the Bible, even if we do not always acknowledge it. We read the book of Revelation not with the cultural assumptions of a first Century Jewish follower of Jesus, living under oppression and well used to the literary format of apocalyptic writing, but rather from the truth system of a 21st C people, in the shadow of all those end times theories.

Or we read the Gospel of John and the book of Romans, then reinterpret the rest of the Bible from a perspective gained just from an understanding of these two books.

Constructivist theory

Truth is constructed by social processes, is historically and culturally specific, and that it is in part shaped through the power struggles within a community. So the truth we encounter is an amalgam of the culture and context we live and walk in, and is rarely neutral- rather it tends to be shaped by those who have the most power.

So we see the the Bible used to justify war, slavery, racism, oppression of minority groups.

Consensus theory

Truth is what ever is agreed upon by a specific group.

There have always been groups whose readings of the Bible have been idiosyncratic and sometimes downright loony. The Westboro Baptist Church come to mind for example.

Pragmatic theory

Truth is verified and confirmed by the results of putting one’s concepts into practice. So it is only when we test our ideas and concepts in real life situations, or scientific method that we can engage with truth. In this way, truth is self corrective over time.

A recent refinement, known as ‘negative pragmatism’- “We never are definitely right, we can only be sure we are wrong.”

These two ideas of truth as also closely mirrored in theological approaches to the Bible. The 19th C enlightenment sought to prove God, with the Bible as it’s source material. CS Lewis and his huge intellect might be seen as a logical outcome of Pragmatic theory applied to theological truth.

More recently, apologetics have become less fashionable. We have been forced to accept that arriving at a final understanding of truth is always going to be problematic. Alfred North Whitehead,  said: “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that play the devil”.

Next, a wee trip through some of the philosophical heavyweights to see what they have to say about truth-

Descartes

Truth is available to us as we apply our reason to external objects. But the ultimate arbiter of this external truth is- God. I think, therefore there is God.

Kant

Kant suggested that the problem with correspondence theory is that if an external object is to be ‘true’ then it has to be recognised, and considered internally- at which point it is no longer external, no longer objective. So our encounters with truth are changed by our own interaction with them- by the person that we bring to that truth.

Kierkegaard

For Søren Kierkegaard, objective truth has real limitations, in that it cannot shed any light upon that which is most essential to a person’s life- Objective truths(mathematical, scientific, physical) are concerned with the facts of a person’s being, while subjective truths are concerned with a person’s way of being.

He is also strong on the division between objective and subjective truth- objective truths are final and static, subjective truths are continuing and dynamic. Values, faith and ethics, according to Kierkegaard, can only be understood when filtered through an individuals subjective experience.

Some inconclusive conclusions…

So- where does all this take us to, in relation to the Bible?

For me, the philosophical approaches to truth open up the idea that any ‘facts’, when viewed from a human perspective are likely to be nuanced, complex and to serve hidden human purposes. If we believe that the Bible is a human document- even allowing for heavenly inspiration- then we have to accept that it is laden with these same questions.

There will continue to be those who will assert that the truth of the Bible belongs to God- and as such it is not contingent on our engagement with it, or understanding/belief of it- it just is. The trouble is that people who assert this often appear to be willing to commit themselves to a claim to understand this truth.

As for me, I am left with two useful starting points-

Karen Ward differentiates between ‘small theologies’ (or you could say small truths)- worked out in community, and ‘big theologies’ (big truths)- belonging to academia and the church hierarchy. In this way, I think that an idea of truth can be negotiated with your friends, in humility, and in respect of the tradition. Getting it all 100% ‘right’ is not an option, or even an aspirational goal. Rather we should expect to be teachable and open to transformation by the Spirit within us.

Then there is also that bit in Romans 14 where Paul talks about ‘disputable matters’-

1 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Paul is speaking to a church in the middle of a truth war, and he says, more or less- there are more important things to be getting on with…

Bible nasties 2- the excuses…

Following on from my previous post, I have been thinking about what more recent theologians have made of these darker passages in the Bible- how have they been explained or discounted?

(N.B. Some of the themes echo previous discussions on this blog about suffering- see here for example.)

As far as I can see it, the apologetics have gone along these lines;

Firstly, there are those folk who seem to see God as red in tooth and claw-

God is a wrathful God, whose justice is sometimes swift and unpredictable.

His purposes and his focus are on eternal matters, not temporal ones- therefore any God-action (no matter how brutal) has to be understood in this context. Suffering is temporary- this life, for all of us, is all to short- but eternity is for ever. Therefore, some shock tactics in the cause of higher spiritual causes are a price worth paying.

Some people, regimes and religions are evil, and deserving of wrath. We only escape by the skin of our teeth- because of Jesus.

After all- he made us all. He designed the Universe about us- we belong to him, and he can do whatever he likes with us.

It is easy to dismiss these kind of theological statements out of hand. It is this sort of mindset that allows people to justify all sorts of activities in the name of God- wars, pogroms, ethnic cleansing. Then there are those who suggest that tsunami’s are Gods way of sorting out Islamic nations, or that AIDS is a God-plague on homosexuality.

All of this was smashed forever (or should have been) by the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew chapter 5.

But then perhaps it is still for those of us that pendulum swing too far towards the ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ to remember that the Lion of Judah is not a tame lion…

The next set of explanations people reach for are the spiritual/mystical ones-

There can be no good without the presence of evil- in the same way that there can be no light without darkness. How else can we make choices for good?

‘My ways are not your ways’ declares the Lord- how can we ever understand the mind of God?

We must focus on the big picture- the great cosmic clash of Angels and Demons that are at war in these, the last days.

The light and darkness bit makes sense I think- the choices we make are sometimes murky and ambiguous in their morality- but many others are much clearer in terms of what is right, and what is wrong. But many of the passages referred to in my earlier post appear to suggest that God himself is commanding, or assisting, acts that to our modern eyes appear evil. Almost as if God is himself capable of both good and evil?

I have little patience with the end times theorising of the ‘Left Behind‘ sort. But that is a whole different issue…

Next we have the structural/dispensational arguments-

Most of the passages described in in the first ‘Bible nasties’ post are from the Old Testament- at which point God was dealing with his people according to the old covenant– when God worked with and through his Chosen People, the Israelites.  This covenant was swept aside by the coming of a new one- brought by Jesus not just for the people of Israel, but for everyone.

Others, following on from John Nelson Darby have gone further, and argued that God has dealt with humanity in different ways over the years, which they divide into dispensations.

What this argument seems to suggest is that God used to be angry, vengeful and violent, but then he cleaned up his act. He used to act out of anger, but now he favours mercy. He used to be jealous, but now he relaxes into love.

Is this the same God? This argument does not hang together for me.

Then there is the liberal/ intellectualist excuse-

God is simply not an interventionist God at all. Sure, he started it all off in Creation, but then pretty much he stepped back and let the whole thing unfold, with a few nudges here and there from the prophets, and finally by sending Jesus as a last gasp hope to sort out his errant creation. The Bible itself is mostly myth and manipulation by previous religious leaders- and it’s application now has to be understood through our own intellect and understanding.

But what sort of faithless faith is this? And what of our experience of a God who is present, and incarnated in us, almost despite what we often are?

Here was see for the first time an attack on our primary theological source material- the Bible itself. Is it ‘true’? What does truth mean when applied to such ancient scriptures? More on this later…

Ponder onwards friends.

The Good Book- AC Grayling…

A C Grayling, secular humanist/atheist has taken it upon himself to re-write the Bible- as a secular, moral document. It seems his motivation was to make available the ‘good’ stuff whilst editing out the ‘God’ stuff.

Fair play to the bloke, people have accused me of the same. The whole emerging church conversation has often been accused of sanitising the unpleasant judgmental side of the Bible in favour of a more accessible and cuddly message.

I do not agree with either Grayling, or the assessment of EC critics of course…

Because the God we encounter in the stories of the Bible is capricious, glorious, confusing, challenging, forgiving, condemning, war making, peace bringing. Because of this, no matter how hard we try, systematising and defusing our ideas of God always fail.

It might be possible to read the Bible as a book of moral fables, of quaint historical interest, but also vaguely character building in indefinable ways. You will have to ignore whole bits of the Bible to do this of course, and along the way may come to wonder whether the Bible can be regarded as ‘moral’ at all.

What makes the Bible vital, engaging and alive is the spine tingling possibility of- God. What transforms the reading of the Bible is the fact that we use it to approach- God.

Without God- there would seem very little point in reading this miscellany of stories of ancient people.

So sorry AC- I will not be reading your ‘Good book’, I will stick to my not so good one, in all its messy challenge.

But then you did not expect me to do anything else did you?

 

Is it possible that we overemphasised the Bible?

perspective

Emphasis is all.

I had a conversation tonight with my friend Nick. We were talking about some planning he was getting into for a programme of Bible study for young people. He was talking about the need to get into the basics of Christianity, and how many of the young people (and some of the older ones) had very little basic knowledge of the tenets of our faith.

I thought about this for a while, and genuinely wondered about what these tenets were- and what I would teach young people if I was in Nicks shoes.

The ’emerging’ conversation has shaken loose a lot of fixed positions for me. It has helped me see that a lot of the things I held to be basic building blocks for faith were perhaps not always so solid- but rather required robust examination. It made me wonder again about an approach to faith that started with one small group of people telling another larger one what it needed to know- facts and figures of faith that they needed to internalise in order to be a proper Christian.

In my discussion with Nick, I found myself making the following statement-

“I think we modern Christians made two particular mistakes in our attempts to engage with God.

  1. We overvalued the Bible- wanting it to provide for us a textbook that creates a Christian, in the same way that a blueprint could make a balsa wood model plane.
  2. We overvalued the need to get our doctrine sorted- the finding and adopting of correct positions in relation to all aspects of faith.

That is not to say that these things are not both wonderful and important- but simply that we over-emphasised them- making them perhaps the only way that Christians could discover God. In order to make this stick, we had to pretend that there was only one way to read and understand the words, and to suppress all less tangible and less ‘objective’ spirituality- rendering it untrustworthy and dangerous.

Sure, the Charismatic movement came along and added a whole new experiential encounter with the power and wonder of God, but ultimately, I would argue that the modern Protestant faith was grounded on the two points above.”

This statement is shot through with faultlines, but I think, on the whole, I stand by what I said.

bible-page

If I am right (and many would strongly disagree!) does it matter?

Does it matter as we seek to engage with young people? Do they not just need to be given some basic truth before we get all post modern and mystical? Perhaps they do. Perhaps the trampoline bouncing that Rob Bell talks about as an image of theology can only really begin once we have set up the trampoline.

But alongside the importance of the written words of the Bible, and the need to establish doctrinal beginnings- I think I would gently suggest that the emergent conversation might challenge us to add in other emphases too. Because people of faith have always encountered God through many other means.

So I am convinced that rightness of doctrine is not the precursor to being acceptable to God. It may be a consequence of this, but as far as I can see, God seems to tolerate a fairly wide spectrum.

And the Bible is wonderful- but many have lived lives in the name of Christ but have never seen one- either because they could not read, or because the canon of scripture as we know it today simply did not exist, or because the Bible was not available to them.

So what other ways to encounter God should be emphasised?

Perhaps we can only start by looking back to the spirituality of pre-moderns, and use this as a set of goggles to consider our own culture. There is much there that we would reject, and count our blessings that we are this side of the reformation- but still…

We see people seeking to engage with God through living encounters– through hardship, pilgrimage and through community. We see lives of service and humility. We see the importance of shared ritual and engagement with God in the passing of seasons and in connection to every day experience.

So might we learn from this as we seek to encounter God in our new changing context? Might we learn again the vitality and meaningfulness of the mundane, and the wonder of small adventures in which the wind of the Spirit blows us into the path of all sorts of opportunities to be shaped and changed?

The Bible will continue to be a gift to our new generations. There will be others too.