The Bible - why would you?
Today is 'Bible Sunday', and I thought I'd offer a few thoughts about the Bible this morning.
Some context. A couple of years ago many of us took part in the Church Life survey - one that looks at the demographics and practices of people in churches throughout New Zealand. Of the 48 Citysiders who answered the survey, over 90% of us felt as though we had grown spiritually in the past year and more than half of us engage in some form of private devotional practice several times a week. And yet 70% of us said that we privately read the Bible 'occasionally', 'hardly ever', or 'never'. So, if this survey is representative of the average Citysider, it seems we are engaging with God and deepening in our spiritual journey, but largely leaving the Bible out of it.
My own personal story is of reading the Bible devotionally through my late teens and early twenties, because I believed that I should. But at some point, and it happened gradually, my faith shifted. My view of God, my relationship to Jesus and salvation and the whole question of what the Christian life looks like, these all changed. But when I came to the Bible, I felt like I was forcing myself back into shapes that I had departed from some time before. When I read it, I could only hear the voices, and the theology, of my past.
The text seemed inseparable from all the assumptions of a narrow Christian framework. That is, while my faith had changed, I had no new tools for approaching the Bible. So, I stopped reading it. I left it alone for many years. For me, doing theological study broke the stalemate, and the Biblical Studies papers I did went a long way to helping me read and enjoy the Bible again.
Unfortunately, not all of us get that opportunity. So I'd like to share with you a few principles that I find helpful when I approach the Bible. As always, you are welcome to disagree with me.
Word of God?
Lots of people refer to the Bible as the 'Word of God'.' I find this phrase both helpful and unhelpful. It is helpful in that it reminds us that our religious tradition has Sacred Scripture. Our faith is more than just sharing our personal opinions and experiences with one another. We need a reference point beyond ourselves, our community and our time and place to help define what the Christian religion is and isn't. It is the testimony of Christians through the ages that when they read the Bible, they meet God, they hear from God, they glimpse and begin to understand who God is, and what God has done. The idea of the Bible as Divinely inspired helps us to keep struggling with texts that we find it easier to consign to the past, or to ignore.
And it helps us to remember that the authors of the text and those who compiled the various books were in relationship to God - spiritually attuned and inspired. The Bible is central to Christian spirituality, and is our sacred text, if we approach it with an open heart, and ears to hear. It is more than just another book.
However, this phrase the 'Word of God' is not helpful if it makes us think that God wrote the Bible...that is, that every word was set down by a supreme being by way of a human pen. And it's unhelpful when that phrase the 'Word of God' prevents us from talking about the human authors and the human context of the text. Too often, Christians talk about the Bible like it's the fourth person of the Trinity, elevating the documents to divine status equal with God. As Christians, we follow a person, Jesus, the Word made Flesh. The Bible is a way to access that life. But our relationship is primarily with God, not the Bible. And they are not the same thing.
Bible as Literary (i.e. human, in a good way)
For me, the Bible needs to be approached with a literary lens. That is, it's a text. A sacred text, but a text. Which means that it is good to understand about such things as the genre of the bit we are reading...is it a poem? Is it prophecy? Is it a creation myth?
Is it a letter? Was it intended for use in liturgy or worship? Very few of the Bible's books were written for a single person to read on their own. Almost all of them were intended for public hearing. Which means there are literary qualities of rhetoric, and oratory. And poetic qualities of image, metaphor, hyperbole and so on.
Comparative texts and imagery
I find it also hugely helpful to realise that the books of the Bible, and the imagery in them, often have non-Jewish, or non-Christian counterparts. Last week I talked briefly about how Israel's neighbours had creation myths to do with a god and a sea monster, which helps us to understand what those images are doing when they appear in our text. Israel's neighbours also wrote proclamations after wars, talking about how their god had brought them victory over the other nations. This helps us to get a sense of what literary conventions are operating when Israel makes the same claims about their God.
The stories around the birth of Jesus are illuminated if you know that the Roman Emperor was also thought to have descended from a divine being, and carried the title son of God, and that the Roman Emperor was said to have brought peace to the earth. Regardless of what we believe literally about the virgin birth and the angels singing 'peace on earth' and so on, it adds something crucial to the story to realise how some of its elements are responding to political and religious imagery outside the story.
Is it factual history?
The Bible does have historical elements, it does set down things that actually happened. But it is more than this. The Bible expresses religious convictions and religious truths about these events. It goes beyond the literal setting down of facts into the realm of devotion and worship, by showing us what these events mean in terms of the nature of God and God's relationship to humanity. And to do this it draws on image patterns, figures of speech and religious conventions.
When I was studying some books from the Hebrew Bible, I had a post-it note over my desk saying 'when it says 'Thus says the Lord', it doesn't mean that God actually said it'. "God" says and does some pretty toxic things in some parts of the Bible. And I needed to remind myself often, that just because the text is drawing on the convention of 'God says', doesn't mean that God is actually like that. The writers put words in God's mouth, or attribute actions to God, in order to reinforce a social or religious idea, or to put a historical event in the context of Israel's story about itself.
An Interpretation principle.
Whatever God is said to have said a few thousand years ago, it does not necessarily follow that God still says exactly that same thing now, or to us.
Because the text is rooted in its historical context we can't cut and paste. We can't just extract phrases and apply them to ourselves. We need to go through an interpretation process that is more like: 'what did this mean to the people in their time and on their terms? Given that, are there understandings or principles that we can carry forward to relate to our own situation? What are the enduring convictions that apply? There are times when out of our cultural perspective we critique a biblical assumption...such as slavery as a social norm. There are times when we need for the Bible to critique our cultural perspective. How do we know which is which? Well, often we don't, but some things are helpful, such as an acquaintance with the whole Bible, not just a few passages, and ways of reading that invite God into the picture...prayerful discernment, not just knee-jerk habit or familiarity.
Consistency, or otherwise.
Another thing to remember about the Bible is that it's not a book that one person sat down and wrote from cover to cover. It's not a single, systematic work of theology, telling a single story about God.There is a big story in the Bible, but it comes to us across a range of angles and voices. The Bible is an assemblage, a collage, put together by different people and different communities across hundreds of years. The various parts reference and question and interpret each other. The Bible isn't blanketly consistent in what it says about God and the nature of reality.
As well as being different genres, the books represent different perspectives, even different beliefs. The wisdom of Proverbs and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, for example, are coming from really different angles. Job and Deuteronomy give apparently contradictory impressions about whether a person's right behaviour will lead to them being blessed with good outcomes. Meaning emerges out of the overall picture and continues to emerge in the light of our own culture and society. If we want to grasp a true story of God and humanity, we can't take every passage at face value.
The fact that we have four gospels is a useful example of this. The four gospels all tell the story of Jesus' life and teaching and death and resurrection. But they have very different angles on this story, due to their particular audiences. A few tiny examples: Luke has a strong social justice slant, referring often to rich and poor. Matthew spends a lot of time demonstrating that Jesus fits Israel's prophecies about the coming Messiah. Mark, early, brief, and earthy, focuses on how the disciples 'got it', or didn't 'get it'. John, a quite distinct gospel from the other three, re-works the source material into a series of recognition events...teaching and signs folding together to reveal Jesus' divinity.
It is a mistake to ask these four texts to be entirely factually consistent, or to be telling the same story in the same way. We need to take a much subtler approach, to see their variations as creating a deeply nuanced overall vision of Jesus. Just as we all experience Jesus uniquely, we have a text that offers different snapshots of Jesus, enabling us to go on growing and deepening in our relationship with him over time.
Heart, Soul, & Mind (Right and Left Brain)
This is all very well, you might be thinking, but who, outside of a theological college, has access to the commentaries and books and teaching that helps us to interpret this stuff? How am I, in the ten minutes I have available to me to read the Bible on my own, supposed to take all that into account as I read the Bible? Well, fair enough. The reason I've talked about it is not so much that I expect all of us to be biblical scholars, but to help shift us on from expectations that we should just read and directly apply the text as a guidebook for living, as though it was a contemporary, non-fiction text by a single author.
If you have any guilt around not doing personal Bible study, it might help you to remember that for most of the church's life, and still in many countries throughout the world, people haven't sat down on their own and read the Bible as a devotional practice. It is a set of documents produced in oral cultures, and even when mass produced, illiteracy, and lack of translations have meant that lots of faithful Christians have never had a 'quiet time' that involves personal Bible reading.
But I do want to briefly consider how we might relate to the Bible in personal, reflective and creative ways, allowing God to meet and speak to us through it. Because Bible reading is as much about encounter with God, as it is about learning truths about God. And for this to happen, we need to approach the Bible not just with our analytical left brains, but with our hearts, and our right brains...the part of us that responds to imagery and metaphor, and that intuits what God is saying to us by way of the text. It's a spiritual exercise.
Part of getting into this way of relating to the text is to keep aware of its metaphorical dimension...the 'more than literal' aspect. (Thanks to Marcus Borg for this phrase) That is, what are the images doing? How does the story of the healing of the blind man in John 9 relate to Jesus' claim to be the light of the world? Where else in the Bible does light and darkness imagery operate? What is the link between the feeding of the 5,000, and the manna in the desert, and the communion meal?
What is the link between Jesus being baptised in the Jordan, and the Israelites crossing the Jordan into the promised land? This is my favourite approach to Scripture...tracing images, motifs, themes, patterns. All the biblical authors were soaked in a set of images that would have had immediate resonance for their hearers: motifs of sea, desert, mountain, exile and homecoming, lostness and foundness, escape from bondage, living water, sheep and shepherds, trees of life and death, gardens and cities and so on. It's a whole world of imagery and it's all connected. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the Biblical authors were unlettered fishermen, and couldn't possibly have intended anything literary in their writing. They carried the imagery of the Hebrew Bible within them in ways we can barely comprehend, and their own crafting of the Gospel stories draws heavily on it.
Here are a few practical things that you might like to try out, if you want to start engaging, or re-engaging, with the Bible.
Firstly, not all parts of the Bible are equal. If you only have time to read tiny fragments, stick to the Gospels and the Psalms.
Bible reading is part of our community practice here at Cityside. When we gather together there is always at least one Bible reading, and when I do the sermon I usually try to draw on at least one, if not several Biblical texts. Maybe you could consider re-visiting those readings once during the week, to see what further thoughts you have to bring from your experience to connect with the passages we have heard together.
When reading on your own I recommend using some kind of inner process like lectio divina...meditative reading...where you read slowly and contemplatively, dwelling with words and phrases that particularly snag your attention, and praying as you read - inviting God to nudge you. It's too easy for us in our culture to start 'thinking about' the text in an analytical way, rather than allowing the text to be a sacrament that mediates God to us.
The lectionary is a little booklet put out by the Anglican church that has readings for every day of the week. The fun thing about the lectionary is that when you use it, you know that you are reading the same texts as others throughout the whole world. It's a nice communal vibe. You by no means have to do the readings every day, but it can give a structure if you're inclined to be random. Also, the sacred space website (www.sacredspace.ie) has a daily guided reading, if you are near a computer in your day. How about visiting it instead of facebook once a week?
Sacred art, such as icons and stained glass windows and religious paintings...these all help us to encounter the Biblical characters and stories. Maybe get out a book of sacred art and look up the stories that they refer to. Put the story together with the image and see how the artist has interpreted it. This is the process that our presenters for Advent in Art go through each year. There's nothing to stop you from engaging with it for yourself.
The Biblical text can act on us from within if we take it deeply into our hearts. Memorising parts of the Bible, such as parts of psalms, or parables, or verses that have stood out for us, is a way of having those texts on hand when we need some reassurance or inspiration. Also, chanting or singing the psalms, or other texts, is a way of combining the written words with our breath and our voice and getting it inside us. The repetition, and the sonic vibrations, have a way of working the text deep into our bloodstream.
Bible interpretation can be rewarding in a communal context. I don't think there's been a small group Bible study at Cityside for years. Maybe you would like to start one? If you do, I have a method of doing group lectio divina that might be a helpful way of sitting with, contemplating the text, before sharing ideas about it.
Write, draw, paint, garden your responses to what you read. Or, maybe the text challenges you to act in a certain way...go do it, and see what happens.
What really matters in all of this is not argument and flim flam about the literal facts and truths of the Bible text, but a genuine engagement with the question 'what does it mean to me and us now?' How will this book change me? What will be different because I have read it? Jesus said, 'the person who hears these words of mine and puts them into action is like a man who built his house on the rock. The rains fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell - and great was its fall!'
If we are stuck in ways of relating to the Bible that come out of a narrow theology and a literalist approach to text, then our faith will probably remain stuck at that place. Or, if failing to find any sustenance in the Bible we ignore it altogether, we risk our faith becoming entirely subjective and individualist. But if, over the years, we are formed and shaped by a mature relationship to the Bible, then I believe we will live authentic Christian lives. That's our challenge and our hope.
The Bible - why would you?