Tuesday, 15 March 2011

More on how we read the Bible

I wrote just over a week ago about how a lot of Christians read and understand the Bible as if it's a legal handbook or constitution. Brian McLaren suggests in his book 'A New Kind of Christianity' that this approach has led people down all sorts of unhelpful avenues, including the example I wrote about of using the Bible to defend slavery.

McLaren instead prefers to think of the Bible as a library, a 'carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to the community of people who seek for God, and in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and Jesus.'

I said that I'd leave you to read 'A New Kind of Christianity' for yourself in order to delve into the analogy of the Bible as inspired library, but I've changed my mind... Thinking of the Bible as a library not a legal document has led McLaren down an interesting and disturbing path which I wanted to write about, mainly to help me process his idea and work out just what I think of it.

Firstly, though, let me try to explain why this question of library or law book actually matters. So what if we think of the Bible as a library? Well, you would expect a legal handbook to be consistent within itself, whereas a good library would surely reflect the arguments and debates within a particular culture. McLaren offers the idea of a culture being 'a group of people who argue about the same things over many generations', meaning that if we think of the Bible as a cultural library then 'we would expect to find vigorous internal debate around key questions that were precious to the theological culture in which it was produced'. The very consistency that should be evident in a legal handbook would raise alarm bells in a library, suggesting that the library is only offering an incomplete picture.

Next question, then: what does it mean for the Bible to be a divinely inspired and authoritative library? McLaren says that 'an authoritative library preserves key arguments; an authoritative constitution preserves enforceable agreements'. So, repeating the quotation that I used in my previous post:
To say that God inspired the Bible is to say that, for the community of people who seek to be part of the tradition of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Moses, Ruth, David, Amos, John, Mary and Jesus, the Bible has a unique and unparalleled role.

Now this is quite a shift, isn't it? McLaren is inviting his readers into a fundamentally different way of reading and understanding the Bible. He freely acknowledges that, for many, the shift will simply be too great. I'll post again in a few days' time with a concrete example of where this alternative way of reading the Bible might take us but, for now, here is how McLaren sums up the challenge of making this transition:

Even for those of us on this quest, breaking out of centuries-old habits won't be easy; first, because it is hard for a mind well trained in one way of seeing to learn a new way, and, second, because the religious thought police stand ready to raid places in which theological conversation strays from the familiar constitutional way of reading the Bible.
After all, this approach to the Bible is institutionalised in many of our theological colleges; constitutional reading is the main skill many teach. In addition, the constitutional approach is implicit in many, if not most, of our historic denominational and congregational doctrinal statements, and it's modelled 24/7 in religious broadcasting to boot.

And just in case you're wondering about that 'religious thought police' comment, here are a few criticisms of McLaren and his views that I found in a quick internet search:

a significant attack on orthodox Christianity

outright Bible twisting... postmodern liberal heretical cult

no qualms about using fabrication, exaggeration, disinformation, misrepresentation, vilification, prevarication and even falsification to achieve a complete brainwash in their followers

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