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!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Higher Criticism in the Pew

Higher criticism from the pew usually refers to things like:
"Church ran over again and I had to pee." Or
"It would be nice for once to sing a hymn I actually know."
My present congregation excepted of course. Actually all of them excepted.

The higher criticism I am referring to is higher criticism of the Bible. How well versed are you? Take this quiz. Higher criticism looks at texts from an historical-critical point view as opposed to say a devotional point of view.

I think it is important to present higher criticism in preaching and in teaching so I try to keep up and I try to find creative ways to do that. My three congregations have been receptive to it (at least the vast majority of the people in them). While some were initially uncomfortable with the information I presented, most came to view the challenge as helpful. They didn't want to be "fed" they wanted to be challenged to think.

In fact, the most common complaint about my preaching has been from those who are not
fed. Those folks either have caught on or moved to another feeding trough. You can't please everyone (one of the great truths I learned early) and so you go with your gut and your mind.

It is nice when you find someone who writes well and who agrees with you. I am enjoying the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them).

Here are a just a few paragraphs to get a feel for what this book is about:

One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did....

They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf. For reasons I will explore in the conclusion, pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary....

The views I set out in this book are standard fare among scholars. I don't know a single Bible scholar who will learn a single thing from this book, although they will disagree with conclusions here and there. In theory, pastors should not learn much from it either, as this material is widely taught in seminaries and divinity schools. But most people in the street, and in the pew, have heard none of this before. That is a real shame, and it is time that something is done to correct the problem." pp. 12-18
Of course, Bob Funk set out to do this very thing when he established the Jesus Seminar in the mid-80s. Bob has gone on to his heavenly reward yet Westar continues to publish books and periodicals and hold events to help the public become religiously literate.

But today is Bart's day. We share the same alma mater, Princeton Seminary, where we both learned higher criticism of the Bible. Bart went on to become a pro at it while I wondered how I could share this information without being crucified or simply boring people to tears.

It isn't boring. It is exciting. It is challenging to our cherished beliefs. It is a risk. You could rest comfortably with the same old bowl of mush you've believed for the last forty years or you can be challenged. Your faith could be destroyed. Or, it could be broadened. Whatever the case, your mind will have been freed from the shackles of rigidity and dogma.

I found that it is exciting and rewarding to share it with folks in my congregations. The message I received at seminary was that sharing this information wouldn't be such a swell idea. Just give them the old tried and true. I had tried it and it wasn't true. Bart and I came to a similar conclusion. Bart writes:

Unlike most of my seminarian friends, though, I did not revert to a devotional approach to the Bible the day after I graduated with my master's of divinity degree. Instead I devoted myself even more wholeheartedly to learning more about the Bible from a historical perspective, and about the Christian faith that I had thought was taught by the Bible. p. 16
I am glad he did. We preachers need all the help we can get from our teachers who not only teach us the stuff, but encourage us to present it to our congregations. The biggest help for me has been from scholars who have written books for the general public, such as those involved with Westar, Bart Ehrman, and many others who I have mentioned on this blog.

In this book, Ehrman is not offering off the wall ideas. This is the basic stuff your minister knows if s/he went to a mainline seminary and wasn't too stoned to attend class. Now of course you may have a fundamentalist for a minister. In that case all bets are off. Their central mission in life is to
prove that Ehrman and 200 years of historical-critical scholarship are wrong, lost and of the devil and that you are better off to read some apologist like Lee Strobel or William Lane Craig.

If you are stuck in a church like that, you ought to switch. Unless of course, you just want to be fed. They'll feed it to you all right.

Who wrote the Bible? Did Jesus say the things and do the things attributed to him? How did the Bible come to be? Who invented Christianity anyway?

Again, this is not fringe scholarship. This is what is taught in mainline seminaries. It is higher criticism 101.

Here is an idea. Buy the book. Give it to your minister if you sense or know that he or she is interested in this but might be afraid of teaching it because of the sharks who just want to get fed. Encourage and support him or her in an adult education program that is not about spiritual mush, but really challenges people to think. Set it up that way. Say we want to learn what is taught in seminary. Ehrman's book is a good place to start.

Believe me, your minister will appreciate that and so will your congregation.

OK, I just noticed something. Bart looks like Jesus. Check it.

Similar mouth and nose. Brown eyes. Cut Jesus' hair and give him specs and he is Bart Ehrman! Bet you didn't learn that in church!