Monday, May 17, 2004

What about the Bible?

I've recently made a few posts that may need a bit of clarification. Specifically, I have suggested a less than orthodox (there's that "right beliefs" stuff again) perspective of the bible.

I am by no stretch of the imagination a biblical scholar. I studied scripture in seminary, although such classes were far from my favorite. I took bonehead Hebrew and Greek, which gave me the ability to stumble around in a lexicon now and then. I read the bible daily, within he context of the Daily Office. I preach on an average of every other Sunday, usually on the Gospel lesson appointed for that day. But I am by no means a scholar.

If you would like a more thorough and scholarly (although still very accessible) treatment of the particular approach I use regarding the scriptures, I commend to you the work of Marcus Borg, specifically Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally.

My undergraduate degree was in English and History. I have always loved stories. Literature is the only medium I know of that can speak of philosophy, psychology, theology, mysticism, and politics without becoming a lecture that makes my eyes begin to glaze over. A well told tale is literally dripping with truth; the kind of truth that a painting or a piece of music can brings to light. A story knows that it can never capture the truth in the words, so instead it dances all around her, sometimes holding her close, other times spinning away.

Today, in a time when Science is Lord, many of us assume that truth can be captured; that we can put her in a testube, lock her into a mathematical formula, force her to reveal herself when summoned by the Scientific Method. I don't want her captured in that way. I don't want such a bleak reality to be her fate. I'd rather dance with her, and worship her from afar, than see her held prisoner by dissecting minds.

Often, in various settings, people will ask me, in regards to a particular passage from scripture, "But is it true?" I always hesitate. I have trouble understanding the question. Of course it is true. The bible tells us many wondrous things about our relationship with God and one another. It is the testimony of people throughout the ages that have considered those relationships the very ground of their being.

"But did it really happen just like that?" Here's where I get in trouble. Did Joshua literally stop the sun? Well, if the sun would have been rotating around the earth, I suppose didn't happen. Does the birth narrative document the actual itinerary of the Holy Family as they travel to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, then back to Nazareth? I don't know. Looks like a marvelous bit of midrash to me; going back to the prophesies in the Old Testament to fill in the blanks. I suspect he may have been born in Nazareth.

But, don't change the stories! Heaven forbid! Joshua is a heroic figure; larger than life. Keep him that way; he wears it well. The birth narrative is a marvelous story, that works on so many levels. The authors of that story were doing some serious waltzing with the truth.

But in regards to the queries as to if Jesus actually said this or that; if this miracle "really" happened, if that teaching was meant to be universal and for all time; I really don't know. What I do know is that it's not Memorex. No recorders, no photos, just words on paper.

About those words...let's keep in mind that the Church functioned just fine for at least 60 years (I suspect more like 100 years) without what we now call the New Testament. Paul's letters were passed around, and in some places read aloud when the community gathered. The Gospel accounts were most likely the work of scribes who wrote down the stories of some of the apostles so they didn't get lost when they died. John is probably the stories of an entire community. Many early Christians thought that Jesus was coming back any day, so the idea of saving the stories for posterity didn't even come up until the hope of Jesus' imminent return began to fade. In other words, they were written a few years, possibly a few decades, after the actual events had happened. Thus, they were stories, and were always intended to be stories, not historical documents.

The Old Testament contains the story of ancient Israel and their God. It was written by them. The New Testament is the story of the Christian people and their God. It was written by the Christian Church. In some ways, our Anglican understanding of the three legged stool of authority; scripture, tradition and reason, is a bit misleading. I would suggest that scripture is actually a part of the tradition, not a separate source of authority. We have a Christian tradition, which includes a treasury of stories. We discern the truth within this tradition by the use of reason (which includes using the heart as well as the mind to glimpse her dance).

What it boils down to is this; is the bible a human product or a divine product? I am convinced that it was written by humans, in some cases divinely inspired humans, but still finite humans, with all the baggage each of us carry contributing to their authorship.

It is those inspired bits; the places where the writers dance so gracefully with truth, that makes the bible, to me, the most cherished collection of writings I have ever encountered. I would never abandon it, or change one word in it.

To me, the bible functions sacramentally; it is an outward and visible sign of God. But, it is not God, nor the dictation of God. As in the old Zen story, I think it is essential that we not mistake a finger that points to the moon for the moon itself.


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