Saturday, 19 March 2011

'Do whatever you want with everything he possesses'

In this post, I want to look some more at Brian McLaren's view that we can take the Bible as an inspired cultural library, rather than as a legal handbook or constitution (see here and then here for my earlier posts). McLaren uses the book of Job as a case study for this idea.

The title of this post, from chapter one of the book of Job, forms part of a dialogue between God and the devil. Here is the full exchange, from Job 1:6-12:
One day the members of the heavenly court came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Accuser, Satan, came with them. “Where have you come from?” the Lord asked Satan.

Satan answered the Lord, “I have been patrolling the earth, watching everything that’s going on.” Then the Lord asked Satan, “Have you noticed my servant Job? He is the finest man in all the earth. He is blameless—a man of complete integrity. He fears God and stays away from evil.”

Satan replied to the Lord, “Yes, but Job has good reason to fear God. You have always put a wall of protection around him and his home and his property. You have made him prosper in everything he does. Look how rich he is! But reach out and take away everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face!”

“All right, you may test him,” the Lord said to Satan. “Do whatever you want with everything he possesses, but don’t harm him physically.” So Satan left the Lord’s presence.

So what do you make of this? Did God really permit the devil to cause Job all sorts of grief, taking away all his livestock, killing all his children and most of his servants, and giving him 'terrible boils from head to foot'? If we accept the Bible as a legal handbook then I suppose we do have to think that this conversation and agreement between God and the devil really did happen. But is this the only way of understanding the story, while retaining respect for the Bible as inspired by God? Brian McLaren thinks not...

Through the book, three of Job's friends try to comfort Job and explain why such tragedy has befallen him. McLaren notes that the book of Job concludes with a long speech from God himself, in which God asks Job a lengthy series of questions, rather than giving an explanation (for readers or for Job himself) of the bargain that God made with the devil. God also says of Job's friends, 'I am angry with you... for you have not spoken accurately about me, as my servant Job has.' Here's McLaren's idea:
Perhaps, for the author, or authors of Job, that whole explanation [i.e. God's deal with the devil] for Job's suffering is thus dismissed right along with the pious platitudes of Job's so-called friends. Perhaps?

God has just told us that a large proportion of what is uttered in the book of Job [all the stuff that Job's friends say] is false and foolish. Yet we are taught that the book of Job, being part of the Bible, is the Word of God and is inspired by God. Does that mean that God inspired the introduction and conclusion, but not the middle section where the pious windbags speak? Or does it mean that God inspired the pious windbags' false statements? Or that God was pretending to inspire that part, but was crossing the divine fingers behind the divine back, so as to come out later on to say, 'I was only kidding in that part'?

For McLaren, this makes it clear that we cannot say that God's revelation to us occurs 'independently in every verse of the book of Job'. Instead of occurring in the words and statements of individuals, McLaren believes that God's revelation comes to us in Job through the conversation among individuals and God:
Revelation doesn't simply reside in this or that particular verse of Job like cereal in a box, waiting to be opened and poured out into a bowl. Instead it emerges through the whole story of Job, through the conversation that unfolds among these many voices, like meaning in a novel or perhaps even the punchline in a joke: it creeps up on you, sneaks its way into your thought process and then, when least expected, it surprises you.

So, taking the Reformation cry of sola scriptura ('by scripture alone', or 'scripture is enough'), we should ask what the scripture is enough for. Thinking of the Bible as a legal handbook, we might wish to say that the Bible has given (by itself) enough clarity to resolve all questions relating to following and pleasing God. McLaren again:
From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn't meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversies. If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably. (This fact must be faced.) But if instead it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way.

Let's go back to how the book of Job ends, with what McLaren calls a dazzling blizzard of questions. What are these questions for? Certainly not to reveal answers or an explanation or a solution, McLaren says. Rather, the revelation of God comes in these questions as 'a sense of wonder, humility, rebuke and smallness in the face of the unknown'. What if, McLaren asks, that is the truest and best kind of revelation there can ever be for creatures such as us?

Finally, in explaining his view that perhaps the whole story of Job is 'a kind of archetypal theological opera' and not an account of actual events, McLaren says the following:
Through stories like this, gathered in a library like this – not articles or amendments gathered in a constitution – God can self-reveal, so that the Word of God, the speaking and self-revealing of God, can burn like fire in the branches, twigs and leaves of the text.

I know this is a radical departure from the traditional evangelical treatment of the Bible. But it's a departure that, to me, still seems to view the Bible as inspired by God, just with a very different understanding of what that means. I'm sorry if this post is unclear or meandering or just too long, but I'm grappling with and trying to work through McLaren's ideas. They've unsettled me but I also find them compelling and, I don't know, somehow very attractive, so I feel I can't just shrug them off as unorthodox or even heretical.

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