Sunday, 6 March 2011

Reading the Bible – what lens do you use?

The first thought I'd like to share from 'A New Kind of Christianity' (it's still shouting 'read me!' from its place by my bed) is about how we approach the Bible. Before I dive in, though, I want to quote from the book about McLaren's own view of the Bible, in an effort to reassure those who are wondering whether McLaren is a liberal who happily drops the bits of the Bible that he finds distasteful or awkward:

'I love the Bible... In my twenties, I planned to be a college English professor because I loved literature. When I ended up switching careers and becoming a pastor instead, in a sense I got the chance to focus on the collection of literature I loved most of all, and I've never tired of the Bible through all these years. The more I've asked of it, the more it has yielded to me. So, yes, I love the Bible. I'm in awe of it. At this very moment.'

McLaren goes on to say that 'we've got ourselves into a mess with the Bible', using the examples of science, ethics and peace. On the latter, he makes the rather shocking point that the moral justification for slavery (in the USA, but I expect it applies equally to Europe) rested on how the Bible was interpreted at the time. Obviously, this no longer applies and McLaren asks: 'Wouldn't it make sense for us to try to understand how so many Bible-reading, Bible-believing, Bible-quoting and Bible-preaching people could be so horribly wrong for so terribly long?'

The overall point that McLaren wants to make is that we 'read and use the Bible as a legal constitution'. So, in the way that lawyers do, 'we look for precedents in past cases of interpretation, sometimes favouring older interpretations as precedents, sometimes asserting that newer ones have rendered the old ones obsolete'. Here's a little example that I like, regarding how we should treat our enemies:

Matthew 5:44 – 'Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!'

Psalm 137:8-9 – 'O Babylon, you will be destroyed... Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!'

Romans 12:14 – 'Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.'

Deuteronomy 7:2 – 'When the Lord your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. '

I hope you get the point! The Bible gives us the same problem with many other issues, where one passage seems to completely contradict another. Indeed, viewing the Bible a a legal handbook or constitution, it is hard to reconcile some parts of the Bible with others. Brian McLaren proposes instead that we take the Bible to be 'the library of a culture and community... of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob'. He goes on to explain how he thinks this analogy is helpful but I shall leave you to read the book yourself. I'll just finish on this by mentioning what McLaren thinks of the Bible being 'inspired'. After noting that many historical figures have said 'interesting, brilliant and inspiring things', McLaren says this:

'But 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 that none of these other voices can claim.'

Going back to how we've got ourselves into a mess with the Bible and science, I'd like to share a quotation. Have a guess as to who might have said it and when:

'Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions... and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show a vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but... [that] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?'

Those words are quoted in a modern book ('The Language of God' but it was actually Augustine of Hippo who first wrote them, in his book 'The Literal Meaning of Genesis'. Augustine lived from 354 to 430 AD. Is it comforting or depressing to know that Christians have been interpreting the Bible overly literally and making the faith look foolish since the middle of the fourth century?

1 comment:

  1. wow - am stunned by the origin of that last chunk - and find it both comforting and depressing to recognise that we have been battling with the same 'contradictions' and 'interpretations' for over 1600 years. A little knowledge, as often stated, is a dangerous thing...God, let my thoughts and words only ever bring You glory.