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, July 14, 2009

Does the Church Own the Bible?

Thanks to Jim West for pointing out this important essay by Philip Davies, Who's Bible? Anyone's? Davies advocates for what many have been advocating for some time, the Bible does not belong to the church but to humanity and is the centerpiece of Western culture, so we ought to be familiar with it. Davies writes:
I know a lot of secular Jews (actually, as a group, among my favorite people). Very few of them can demonstrate the degree of ignorance of the Bible that Christians do. For them, being Jewish means knowing the Bible, even if not accepting its religious authority. Secular Jews are nearly all proud to be Jewish and know that their Jewish identity is defined by the Bible. There is no equivalent commitment among Christians because they share no ethnic identity. But they do share a cultural identity that is perhaps too pervasive for them to recognize. Imagine a national art gallery without any biblical scenes. The history of Western culture collapses without the biblical backbone that keeps it erect. And that is not to mention the political shape of Europe, gouged out of religious warfare and rescued by a secular ethic that still respects Christianity.
Davies also links to this site regarding Reading the Bible as An Adult by Julia O'Brien. In the section "Getting Started" she writes:

It’s my contention that most people’s problems with the Bible aren’t really with the Bible but rather with what they assume they are supposed to do with what they read. While of course the Bible does offer some explicit instructions, most of it (especially the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) is narrative and poetry. Reading a story or a poem only for its moral bottom-line not only leads to odd doctrine but also overlooks what stories and poems do best: incite the imagination and let readers lose (and find) themselves within the worlds they create. Stories have power, not only to entertain but also to confront us with ourselves.

Most people can testify to having seen their own lives differently because of a well-told tale. The story we read never remains on the page. It also plays itself out inside and around us. And we play out the dynamics of our lives in the process of making sense of someone else’s story.

The stories of the Bible can work like this. They can be read like novels—stories that invite reflection, imagination, and discussion. Reading the Bible as literature doesn’t demote a sacred text to “just literature.” Rather, it releases the Bible from the restrictive assumptions that have choked all the joy out of reading it.

It’s my contention that the Bible can be just as engaging as any novel on the best-seller list—and often more engaging. Its stories are complex, nuanced, and come with the seal of approval of countless generations of readers. The Bible may belong in church, but it also belongs in book clubs and reading groups. It belongs wherever individuals and groups are interested in engaging the questions that literature raises about being human. What makes people tick? Do people change? Which is more important, love or money? How does tracing the contours of a character’s life help me cope with my own?
This is the spirit with which I try to engage the Bible. Folks might be interested in my blog about reading the Bible as literature, Bible and Jive. Follow the month by month guides on the sidebar. Enjoy the quizzes too!

15 comments:

  1. Well Jews also have midrash to explain and elaborate on the Bible (especially apparent oddities). Personally I rather like the one that explains the Serah that shows up in

    Genesis 46:17
    Numbers 26:46
    1 Chronicles 7:30

    as the daughter of Asher.

    Note I'm all for people in America being familiar with the Bible and related literature even though I'm neither Jewish or Christian.

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  2. "Does the Church Own the Bible?"

    Well, that's why we rebelled, isn't it?
    :)

    I look at it this way. The love of Jesus cannot be contained inside a church. In many churches, it doesn't reside at all.

    But as far as the Bible goes, if we steal one from the pews and get arrested. The evidence is eventually returned to the church. So I'm pretty sure they do own it.

    :P

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  3. I'd just like to say that I've purchased each and every Bible on my bookshelf. So no, the church does not own the Bible. I may however have a hymnal at home owned by the church, but I'll return it! I promise!

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  4. Unfortunately I think these kinds of discussions are increasingly behind the curve. What I see is a culture that is rapidly losing interest in the Bible altogether--and not without reason. For more and more people it is, like most ancient literature, increasingly esoteric and/or incomprehensible. And the simple reason for that is because much if not most of it IS esoteric and incomprehensible. Just as much of the church's doctrine & theology is hopelessly out of date so too, I'm afraid, is much of its scriptures. Often now the Bible is as much a problem for the church as an asset.

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  5. Doug,

    You raise a good point. After I wrote this I have been thinking about it. Those of us whose careers focus around the Bible whether as scholars or clergy think there is something wrong with people or something wrong with the way we present it or whatever.

    I was wondering if there is a reason people don't know about the Bible and really don't care to know.

    Once we let go of the Bible as divinely created or superior to other books the incentive to read it is lost. The "book of Western culture" isn't enough incentive. Shakespeare is certainly a staple of Western culture but if forced, I don't know if I could provide the plot or main characters for more than a handful of his plays if that. No one berates me for that either.

    People don't know the names of the four gospels because it doesn't impact their lives, even if they are church people.

    The Bible, except perhaps in fundamentalist circles, is becoming a cultural artifact.

    It is really the fundamentalist obsession with using it to control others that keeps the Bible as a best seller, that and the guilt and angst church leaders have regarding increasing disinterest.

    The impetus to read the Bible is so we know enough that others won't use it against us.

    This is where I was going when I wrote this post.

    I don't see this as a negative development. It could be that religion is evolving beyond its texts.

    I have been arguing with the post I made today in my head and your comment sparked me to write what I have been thinking.

    Thanks!

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  6. "It is really the fundamentalist obsession with using it to control others that keeps the Bible as a best seller, that and the guilt and angst church leaders have regarding increasing disinterest."

    John,

    I think it is the other way around.

    It is the Fundamentalists that keep the rest of the world from discovering the wonders of the Bible.

    Its a book that has changed to course of human history not once or twice, but often.

    How? Why?

    No, do not underestimate the power of its words, of the paradigm it holds within its pages.

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  7. Actually, the church does own the Bible, or at least, the NRSV and RSV. My alma mater used to have the RSV up and searchable online...until the National Council of Churches made a copyright infringement complaint. Sigh.

    @ Doug: Maybe you should stop going to a King-James-Only church. ;). Human beings are still human beings, and if you have an accessible translation, that's hard to miss. 1 and 2 Samuel are full of passion and intrigue. The Proverbs still give good advice. Jesus still has self-evidently important things to say. What strikes me whenever I read the Bible is just how much, after all these millenia, this is still a part of our story.

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  8. Hey Jodie:

    **It is the Fundamentalists that keep the rest of the world from discovering the wonders of the Bible.**

    That seems to be what Julia O'Brien argues as well when she says:

    "It’s my contention that most people’s problems with the Bible aren’t really with the Bible but rather with what they assume they are supposed to do with what they read."

    I agree. Then Doug says it is more than that:

    "For more and more people it is, like most ancient literature, increasingly esoteric and/or incomprehensible. And the simple reason for that is because much if not most of it IS esoteric and incomprehensible."

    This is a debate I have had going on for most of my ministerial career and publicly with this blog for three years. This debate goes on within myself and between others and myself.

    You wrote:

    "No, do not underestimate the power of its words, of the paradigm it holds within its pages."

    I try not to underestimate its power and try to understand its paradigm.

    The Bible is losing (and not just for me) its mystique. As it becomes for more and more people a human rather than a divine work, it holds a different kind of power.

    Rather than read and wonder about God, we read and wonder about the people who wrote these things about God.

    That is a very different way of reading.

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  9. @ kaptainkona & Alan: you literalists! :-P

    I experience this:

    The impetus to read the Bible is so we know enough that others won't use it against us.

    I've wondered in the context of a shared mythology: is much of the power and value of the Bible largely in having a canonically chosen set of texts known throughout your culture? Do we have too much fiction and entertainment and too diverse tastes to have a contemporary shared mythology? Would it be beneficial to have a canonical list of 66 movies and books (or 73 or 78 depending on your "denomination" ;) ) that everyone reads, so that we can share those stories?

    Responses to my own questions:
    (a) We still discuss Greek mythology, for example... we could draw on the classical texts, because they've proven timeless. Mostly because of their age and their origins in an age when there wasn't so much stuff available. That could work.
    (b) How about working the other way round? Little "congregations" forming based on who has read or watched what, to maintain diversity of material.

    *ponder*

    I've actually come across a suggestion of "history as your culture's mythology" - we all learn, in schools, a particular version of history, focused around our cultures and/or countries. I'm from South Africa, our "White Tribe"'s take on history, our mythologies, certainly shaped our perceptions. Our narratives of the "Great Trek" and struggles against the English probably shaped our culture as much as the events themselves did hundreds of years ago.

    Just like the narrative of the Exodus shapes Jewish culture, with some Rabbi's apparently saying (from vague untrustworthy memory here) "it doesn't even matter whether there really was an exodus", it is still the foundational narrative of the culture).

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  10. John,

    "The Bible is losing (and not just for me) its mystique. As it becomes for more and more people a human rather than a divine work, it holds a different kind of power.

    Rather than read and wonder about God, we read and wonder about the people who wrote these things about God."

    Yes, I agree. But for me, I never experienced a loss of mystique. Rather, I only marvel more and more at how advanced a form of literature it really is, unparalleled to this day.

    And at the ability of its authors to synthesize the fundamental questions of human nature that still haunt us.


    How does a book written by people of a culture totally foreign to us, in a language totally foreign to us, thousands of years ago, how does it do that?

    I think I have always seen the Bible as a work of man. But it has been consecrated to God, and Baptized by the Holy Spirit. Like a loaf of bread, made by human hands and placed on the Lord's table, it is broken and eaten for the nourishment of our souls.

    That to me is the greater mystery.

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  11. John said: "The Bible is losing (and not just for me) its mystique. As it becomes for more and more people a human rather than a divine work, it holds a different kind of power. Rather than read and wonder about God, we read and wonder about the people who wrote these things about God. That is a very different way of reading."
    Bingo. I think you've hit it right on the head, John. I don't want to be misunderstood here. I find the Bible fascinating, challenging, inspiring, etc. It is also confounding, embarrassing, objectionable, boring, confusing, and just weird. This mixed bag leaves the average untrained reader very frustrated, very quickly.
    Perhaps being a lectionary preacher I am more aware of this than others. Not being able to pick my texts, I regularly encounter readings that as often as not I am explaining away as expounding. And even when I am trying to use a text, I find much of my time gets consumed by trying to explain it enough for it to just make sense, let alone be inspirational in some way.
    One result, from by observations, is that there really isn’t a lot of biblical preaching going on, despite claims to the contrary, even in so-called Bible churches. Texts become pretexts for orations on all sorts of topics, most of which ancient biblical writers couldn’t have even imagined let alone had an opinion about. Then the laysheep smile and nod, saying: “S/he makes the Bible so clear!” Yeah, right.
    In The Mythical Past, Thomas Thompson makes a point that has stuck with me ever since I read it: The Bible wasn’t written for us. As a result, our insistence nonetheless that it be for us leads interpreters to twist and distort it into a bizarre literary creature (aided and abetted by compromised translators) like something out of a movie mad scientist’s laboratory. Much of what passes for exegesis today is Bible abuse of the first order. As Thompson goes on to say, the Bible has been muzzled by our theology, doctrine, and selfish need for it speak to us: people that its writers never knew, living in a world they could hardly understand.
    By demanding the Bible be something other than what it is--a profound book yet severely and inevitably constrained by its ancient heritage--we are unwilling and unable to let it speak for itself, hearing instead only an oddly accented echo of ourselves.

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  12. Hugo,

    **Do we have too much fiction and entertainment and too diverse tastes to have a contemporary shared mythology?**

    I remember taking a course on Shakespeare in college in which the professor said that in Shakespeare's time it was possible for a learned person to have read everything ever written in English.

    I can't even keep up with those who I follow on Twitter!

    I think a shared mythology may be our evolutionary history. In that larger story, the Bible is one part of our human cultural history.

    Whereas, perhaps in Shakespeare's time, the Bible was the grand story of our history (including our cosmological history), now it is a small story within a much grander, greater story.

    So, with Jodie, the Bible doesn't have to lose its power to inspire, and it still has its truths to tell, but it along with other cultural histories and sacred texts are now nested in a larger cosmological story like Russian Nesting Dolls.

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  13. Ah, the lectionary.

    In my tradition, I don't (thankfully) have to preach or design services around it, although for my first 10-12 years of ministry I did.

    I slowly began to realize that it (the lectionary as whole) was too small of a story.

    A scientific theory (such as Newton's theories of motion) is true within certain parameters, and is true for most of life's problems. With larger questions we need a larger theory.

    That is kind of how I now see the lectionary and the Bible. In my great grandparents' time, it was the world. Now, we have to make a conscious decision to enter its world. It is an ancient world that is not ours. Doug has pointed out the problems with that very well. We use the texts as jumping off points to talk about something else.

    So why not just talk about something else! That should be a clue as to what we are interested in and need.

    I am now reading The Evolution of God by Robert Wright. It is a fascinating account of the evolution of religion and how it has adapted to our cultural and material needs.

    What I like about his book and his tone is that he is not bashing religion (like the "new atheists" do), but showing how humans use it and change it in order to manage life.

    Another book coming out in September along this theme is Lloyd Geering's From the gods, to God, to Gaia. Just from the title and what I read before from Geering, I think he is thinking along the same lines.

    Our needs are Earth care, species care, and meaning within this life, and Religion is beginning to adapt to those needs. In this sense, we are drawing from, including, yet evolving beyond our inherited texts.

    Interestingly, it is laypeople who are telling us this, not necessarily voicing it, but simply by showing less interest in the Bible and more in finding meaning in caring for Earth, social justice, etc. In short, life.

    We clergy are perhaps the last to know as we want to keep pushing the Bible on them!

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  14. John, I've just started Evolution of God. Thanks for the heads up about Geering's new book. I've also appreciated his earlier books very much.

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  15. Thanks for the prod to get this conversation going. Thanks to all. Please keep at it!

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