Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Let the Bible Be Human

I have had a discussion over at Two Friars and a Fool about the Bible. They do good work over there. Aric has made a couple of fine posts regarding the Bible, Thinking About the Bible and Firing the Canon. The friars also post about a number of other important issues and are respectful, intelligent conversation partners.

I have been pushing and poking regarding the Bible, particularly the notion of canon and its authority.

I should say up front that people should be familiar with the Bible. It is
the classic of western literature.

It is a best seller every year. It is packaged and repackaged for public consumption. There seems to be no end to the creativity of those who wish to profit by selling it.

So much other literature is based upon its themes and stories. If a person wants to be literate regarding western culture, they ought to know the Bible. To test your literacy take this interesting quiz posted on the BBC site, Do you know your biblical references?

To do my little part, I have had each congregation I have served devote a year to reading the Bible. We finished this project last year and I have kept a blog for it, Bible and Jive, complete with a reading schedule and quizzes.

I like the Bible. I have devoted much of my life trying to understand it.

However, I do not like most theologies of the Bible.

Before I go there, I should ask what is the Bible?

On one level it is a canon completed in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation and Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. That is when it became "a book." There is the Protestant canon and the Roman Catholic canon. Two books with a beginning and an end. The RC canon has some books the Protestant canon does not include.

Of course there are other canons as well, but for the most part these two are what people mean when they talk about "the Bible." Jews call the TaNaKh the Bible. It is its own book. It contains the same books as the Protestant "Old Testament" but the books are in a different order. It is a different book. If you change the order of the texts, you really have a different story altogether.

Obviously the individual books of the Bible were completed by various authors over time, edited, and so forth. But the product we have is a book from Genesis to Revelation and its order is part of what it is.

The authors of these various bibles or canons are the ecclesiastical bodies that determined what pieces of literature would be included and their respective ordering. This process also happened over time, building on earlier work and revising it.

I am perfectly happy having on my bookshelf a number of these various bibles. I think as I said earlier, that for sake of general knowledge and cultural literacy, we should be familiar with them.

Yet we all know that "the Bible" is much more than that. It is wrapped in theology. It is not merely a book on my shelf, but it is supposedly "the word of God." That phrase makes it a dangerous and a destructive book.

To illustrate, here is that firebrand infidel, Robert Ingersoll, from Some Mistakes of Moses:

Too great praise challenges attention, and often brings to light a thousand faults that otherwise the general eye would never see. Were we allowed to read the Bible as we do all other books, we would admire its beauties, treasure its worthy thoughts, and account for all its absurd, grotesque and cruel things, by saying that its authors lived in rude, barbaric times. But we are told that it was written by inspired men; that it contains the will of God; that it is perfect, pure and true in all its parts; the source and standard of all religious truth; that it is the star and anchor of all human hope; the only guide for man, the only torch in Nature's night. These claims are so at variance with every known recorded fact, so palpably absurd, that every free, unbiased soul is forced to raise the standards of revolt.
Notice Ingersoll's point. It is not the contents of the Bible, but the theology of the Bible, the halo it places around bad texts, and the authority given to it that makes it "palpably absurd."

Think of the damage that the authority of the Bible is doing in our culture.
  • Because of the Bible, religious zealots deny gay and lesbian people basic rights.
  • Because of the Bible, women are shamed into positions of subservience to their husbands.
  • Because of the Bible, science is under attack in our public schools.
  • Because of the Bible, holy wars are justified.
Granted, the Bible has been a resource for liberating movements. The Bible can be and is used to provide a critique of tyranny and injustice. Dr. King brought Amos alive in service to the civil rights movement:
Let us justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
I find much in the Bible that is inspiring and that challenges me to be a better person. But that is not because of but in spite of its supposed authority. The baggage of its supposed authority is doing more damage than good. Amos' critique of injustice is just as true whether or not he was "inspired by God" or not.

It is a book. Its contents were written by human beings, every jot and tittle. Let it be human. Let it be the creative work of our ancestors. Let us read it. Let us read it critically. Read it devotionally if you wish. Wrestle with it. Preach from it if you like. But let it be human.

I fail to see the benefit of finding ways to prop up its authority. I think I understand the psychology of this task. We still wish to cling to the apron strings of mother church with its dogmas, creeds, and watchful eye. To that I quote from the good book:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.