Friday, May 8, 2009

The Blessing versus the Bane of the Bible

As a liberal Friend (as in progressive Hicksite, Beanite, Anthonyite, Woolite;-), I am very biblically focused, which sometimes confuses people who tend to think of the Bible as every thumper's rigid rule book which he uses to chastise others, bludgeoning them over the head, trying to drive out a legion of modern liberal ideals.


Isn't living Scripturally, fundamentalist?

And there is, too, right up front, the chameleon-likeness of how Scripture often changes into different meanings according to which religious group is quoting it.

This compendium, of sometimes contradictory, ancient spiritual and ethical texts acts as a Rorschach inkblot of squiggles, worded phrases where any and all humans find whatever they wish to see.

Slave owners see justification for human bondage, but abolitionists see the truth of liberty.

Augustine, Luther and Calvin see mostly a God of sovereign power and self-centered glory, creating a reality of damning theological determinism, but
Pelagius, Origen, and George Fox see God as empathetic father with limitless love for everyone, lighting all of reality with creativity and beauty.

One can even become fluent in Greek and Hebrew and read enough tomes for a PhD. and still fall victim to the humor (or is it the tumor?) of proof-texting:

A person wants to know God's will. He opens his Bible and reads:
>And he went and hanged himself.

The person worries; there must be more than such an awful command.
So he opens to another verse:
>Go and do thou likewise.

Surely that must not be God's will.
The person flips to another page:
>What thou doest, do quickly.

Also, for many Christians (not many Friends), the Bible is a flat inerrant book.

Immoral actions in I Samuel are given equal weight to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Joshua and Judges carry equal weight with Jesus and Acts.

That is why Bernard of Clairvaux, Oliver Cromwell, Stonewall Jackson and R.L. Dabney, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman could justify the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of humans in the name of Jesus.

They, actually, were following Joshua, not anything that Jesus did or said. They held that O.T. actions and commands are still valid for Christ-followers. According to them, Jesus' words only apply to personal relationships, while the O.T. orders for slaughter, slavery, conquest, theft, deception apply to government and us as a nation.

Evangelicals think the Bible must be inerrant because Scripture is the very words of God, and God wouldn't create a book of errors.

In sharp contrast, thank goodness, early Friends realized that the words of the Bible witness to Christ, who is the Word of God, who represents true reality (like an ambassador represents a nation in the UN). Scripture must be interpreted by Christ's Spirit, not by a theological flat literalism.

We are to reject texts that contradict Jesus' life and words.

So how then is one to be instructed, guided, and inspired by Scripture as a liberal Friend?

Here are a few suggestions that I learned the hard way. I kept bumping into the low theological literal doorway until I finally realized there was a wide-open-to-the-heavens alternative. Some of this came by the help of wiser persons of hope.

#1 Written by humans (as well as inspired by God), the Bible is ancient literature which needs to be interpreted like other writings. For instance, in Genesis 1, a reader doesn't assume this poetic praise to God for creation is a modern scientific explanation of the cosmos. Rather it is a symbolic hymn to the Divine, a celebration to the wonder of existence, and a declaration of the importance of the Sabbath.

#2 Unlike much secular literature, within Scripture there is a witness to God--to Truth, Goodness, and Love.

This is true sometimes in spite of the literal meaning of various texts, not because of it.

And there are many key passages throughout the Bible which will transform our lives if we live in them. For example, try this. Read I Corinthians 13 every day for a year. Whenever the subject refers to love, insert your name.

[Dan] is patient;
[Dan] is always kind;
[Dan] is never envious or arrogant with pride...

Practice those words of ethical truth.

I'm still working on the very first one;-)


#3 The whole Bible is not one consistent theological treatise using 21st century standards of rationalism and logic.

On the contrary, the books of the Bible (the book is a library of ancient texts) often disagree and are filled with symbolism and much paradox.

Hebraic thinking was mostly image-based and concrete, while modern people often expect information to be logical and abstract.

The Bible doesn't try to philosophically prove theism. It assumes God IS
and focuses on images of what God is like--a father, a mother,
a romantic lover, a shepherd,
a just king, a strong tower,
a shield, a consuming fire...

(Thanks to Professor James Kallas for showing the paradoxical nature
of literature in the NT.)

#4 When interpreted by people of hope, an individual can find true guidance from God. This isn't easy. But when was Life ever easy?

Are any of the other ethical systems of ethics reliable?

Too often they amount to the "end justifies the means."

Life is a dangerous journey not a walk in the park, not the Garden.

But if we seek transcendent Truth with our whole self, we will discover new vistas of living.

#5 Much of the Bible is filled with stories of individuals encountering God.

These encounters (and even some ethical rules) are told from the humans' point of view and often display distorted, at times even evil twists.

For instance, the devout Jewish Pharisees and Scribes (textural scholars) said that divorce was okay because Moses had gotten the Jewish law from God, and then they quoted the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible)

In contrast, Jesus countered that divorce had never been God's idea, not the Truth, but Moses permitted divorce because of the "hardness" of humans' hearts.

Mark 10:2-12:
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away."

5 But Jesus said to them, "For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh.

9 What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder."

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

Jesus held to very strict ethical ideals! For a primer on how to live as a Friend of Jesus, read the Sermon on the Mount.

On the other hand, Jesus is very compassionate when we fail. When he met a woman at the well--an immoral one who had had five husbands and was living with another man-- Jesus didn't launch into a condeming speech.

He asked her for water. Imagine that!


A Jewish rabbi asking an immoral woman in public for water.

Furthermore she was an enemy of the Jews, a despised minority and a heretic too, but Jesus loved her and shared with her Living Water.


#6 Scripture is not the end of revelation but the foundational beginning. Revelation continues.

For example, early in the biblical narrative (I Samuel), the text claims that God "tempted" David.

Later, however, in Chronicles, the biblical text changes the story and states that "the Adversary (the satan) "tempted" David.

And James in the New Testament totally contradicts all of the past literature, emphasizing that God never tempts anyone.

In the O.T. according to the text, God ordered Israelites to slaughter every single human in villages, including children and infants.


Indeed, Psalm 137 blesses people who bash babies onto rocks to kill them!

But in the New Testament, the son of man says to let the little ones come unto him and that if anyone hurts a child, it would be better if the person were hung with a millstone and dumped into the sea.

Every child is precious to God. All ancient texts need to be interpreted by Christ's ethical insights.

As one leader stated, God sent a prophet, not a proposition.

The key to understanding the Bible is to remember, the book (written over thousands of years) demonstrates increasing truth, increasing ethical insight.

What is condoned or ordered in the O.T. is often strongly condemned in the New.

David kills 200 men and mutilates them--cuts off their foreskins--as a present for his first wife! (1 Samuel 18:14-28)

But in the NT, Peter doesn't mutilate or kill others. On the contrary, Peter blesses and encourages the Roman jailer who had him tortured!

Who among us today, even the most literalist fundamentalist would encourage or order soldiers to behave like David?

In total contrast to David's actions, we are supposed to live in peace with everyone, even love our enemies.

James says violence and war come from selfishness, not from the Spirit of God (James 4:1-7). How many of us pray for the Islamic State leaders and the Taliban bombers every day?

Are Friends making an effort to give the Good News to them?

Would any person of hope in modern time
(excluding Christian soldiers of the Spanish Civil War under Franco and some Muslim jihadists) think it morally right and the will of God to kill others and mutilate them?

Yet in 1 Samuel verse 14 says "David behaved himself wisely in all his ways; and Yahweh was with him."

What a LIE!

Evidently, one has to judge such a declaration as not true when evaluated by the Spirit of Jesus.

A good interpretive method is to remember that what is ethically condemned in the Old Testament is even more stringently true in the New and now in the present.

Jesus said the act of adultery had been condemned in the OT., but he emphasized even lusting in one's heart for a woman who has committed her life to another man is sinful.

The closer one comes to the Truth of God, the holier one must seek to live in the Light.

Since the closing of the NT canon, there have been many further developments in ethical truth.

Most humans (except for a few Reformed and Muslim thinkers) now hold that slavery is inherently evil despite the fact that neither the O.T. nor the N.T. claim slavery is wrong, let alone evil.

This new ethical truth finally shown forth with clarity among the Mennonites/Brethren of the 16th century, then eventually among the Friends of the 18th century after the witness of John Woolman, and among some Methodists of the 19th, etc.

Finally the total ban on slavery was accepted by most people (though a few Christians and some Muslims still defend the slave system).

Torture was practiced by Christians for centuries, justified by Augustine, the Reformers, etc. and is still held to be good by many American Christians today such as Evangelicals, but many humans now realize torture is contrary to the Light and Love of God.

Then there is the case of equality of the sexes and races...

To be continued

In the Light,

Daniel

10 comments:

Hystery said...

My approach to the bible is very similar to yours in many ways. I will review this when I am preparing to teach this topic to my students. You do a wonderful job making both the scholarly and spiritual perspectives (and their intersection) accessible.

Hystery said...

Woops! I was not quite finished. I also thank you for writing so clearly and beautifully about the liberal Christian perspective which is so much at the heart of what I believe.

Diane said...

Daniel,

Good post. Like many today I read the Bible in the context of the larger story or trajectory, which aims towards the peace, forgiveness and love exemplified in the NT. I have, however, found it fruitful to "sit with" the parts of the OT I find most uncomfortable.
For example, I find the thrust of the Bible from beginning to end to support the peace testimony, but I can't do this without first acknowledging the ultraviolence that's often described in the OT.

Chris M. said...

I agree with Hystery!

I like to describe the Bible as a handbook for liberation. First, physical liberation -- "Let my people go!!!" is the foundational story of the Hebrew scriptures.

Second, spiritual liberation -- the freedom found by putting down one's net or other encumbrances and following the Teacher. (Not that I'm there yet myself...)

Jim714 said...

Thanks for this helpful post. I approach the Bible with the kind of mind I have when I'm listening to music. Music is meaningful, but musical statements are not true or false. I don't mean to dismiss the discursive teachings, but there is another dimension that I find I can access that for me is, again, more like music. The Bible is a kind of song.

Thanks again,

Jim

Daniel Wilcox said...

First, thanks to everyone for the comments. I'm committed to writing, convinced God has called me to write, but the last couple of months I received few comments; began to wonder if I was only talking to myself;-)

Thanks Hystery for the encouaging comments. I am glad you think I do well at both the scholarly and the spiritual. Sometimes those two sides of me don't get along.

Diane, Thanks for writing. It's interesting that you find "the thrust of the Bible from beginning to end to support the peace testimony." So far this time through reading the OT, the opposite is happening for me. I see how Christians from the Crusaders to the Puritans to present day Evangelicals can be so pro-war, since the OT seems to be so. Of course, being surrounded out here by so many hard Calvinists doesn't help me. I feel like I am in a losing battle (rather an ironic metaphor for me to use;-)

Hello Chris,
Thanks for commenting.
I would agree that the Exodus story is inspiring, especially that Moses and the Israelites don't escape through violence but by waiting on God to deliver them. However, when they get to the promised land and slaughter men, women, and children as in Joshua and Judges, I despair. For these are the kind of passages in the OT which American Evangelicals now use to justify all the killing in Gaza, Israel,Iraq, etc. Since I lived over in Israel, I identify with all the people there. It grieves me to see Americans using Joshua to justify killing others now.

Thanks for your response, Jim. As for the Bible being musis, song--Yes and No. Scripture is song, is poetry, but I do think its key ethical statements in the NT are true in an essential sense.

In the Light,

Daniel

Hystery said...

This conversation brings to mind the Woman's Bible which was edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the close of the nineteenth century. It was not truly a bible but a commentary by women involved in the women's rights movement. Most of them maintained that if the Bible were interpreted correctly, it was a true supporter of equality between the sexes. Others strongly disagreed. That debate between Christian feminists and post-Christian feminists continues.

My own thinking is that any such discussion must seriously consider the canonization process, the historical/political context in which the canonized writing was executed, and the cultural and linguistic differences between the writers and ourselves. Even if one assumes that the entire Bible is divinely inspired (which for honesty's sake I'll disclose is not my position), one may question if the messages therein are all meant for us. If we think of God as a parent we might also imagine how a loving parent knows that a message for one child in one set of circumstances is wholly inappropriate for another child in a different set of circumstances. In short, do we really need to read the New Testament back into the earlier Scriptures? Is that historically and culturally appropriate?

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

Well I have a bunch of responses to your response:-).

First, (why not start with the most difficult),
I do think the Bible is divinely inspired...
not because of the usual arguments given by most Christians, from fundamentalists to Barth.

The NT, at least, leads some people to change and become more loving, peaceable, gentle, patient, etc.

At least it helped me when I sought to live by it.
The words of the Sermon on the Mount, I Corinthians 13, James, etc. changed my life.

Before I read them, I was pro-war, wanted to bomb Hanoi, supported Goldwater, was plenty selfish...

Without the NT words' guidance I would be more selfish, ethnocentric, proud, etc. than I am (and it's bad enough as it is; just ask my wife:-)

Of course this is my own personal answer. It doesn't answer why other people who read the NT become more ethnocentric, more pro-war, more self-centered, more proud, etc. I think part of the reason is that they read the NT through the lens of the OT.

But that still doesn't explain why they do so. Nor why the OT has lead to so many slaughters in history. Nor does it explain why even George Fox, who later became peacable, early on urged Cromwell to kill more people:-(

I'll write on the other stuff to you later.

Daniel

Hystery said...

What you say makes some sense to me but I must hear more.

I do not look at the Bible as a single document so much as a collection of documents. I think it is possible that some of the people who wrote some of the included documents may have been inspired but I think it also probable that other parts of the bible were not inspired but were political and self-serving.

I am not qualified to discern whether or not the writer of the biblical texts were truly inspired or merely clever and poetic any more than I am qualified to discern whether or not another Friend's message which does not speak to me is egocentric or is truly holy. I am not witness to their soul, merely to the artifact of their creation.

It does seem clear to me that you and a good number of other people are inspired *through* the text. That is to say that the text awakened in you that which was latent. The text is a remnant of another time. We read it (interpreted and compromised as it must be) through the lens of our own experience because we cannot know as the ancients know. At best, we can only approximate. We know that frequently, we've had the whole thing wrong for generations until we find more archaeological or literary evidence to correct our assumptions about even the smallest word which can change the entire meaning of a pericope.

If any words change our lives, if they inspire us, it is because the breath of God was already within us and has the power to move us in spite of our limited understanding. It is not surprising that the words of the Bible can inspire us despite our inability to understand the original meaning fully. The Spirit inspires people every day in the most unexpected and unlikely ways because it is the Spirit's nature to do so and it is in our nature to receive the gift.

But my thoughts on this are not complete. I look forward to your words which always move me and change my course even if only by inches. I see things through your words that I cannot see with my own. Perhaps this too is the way inspiration works.

forrest said...

"I'm committed to writing, convinced God has called me to write, but the last couple of months I received few comments; began to wonder if I was only talking to myself;-)"

So, when might thou be tempted to join me, talking to ourselves in solidarity, over on kwakerskripturestudy.blogspot.com (not my choice of a name, but I'd been searching for a meaning for "gospel" and found what a former contributer there had to say about that, then moved in & (via dangerously sharp mind plus negative charisma?) soon found myself the proud curator.)

Bogged down in the aftermud of the Flood, I am calling for people to please suggest passages they might prefer to go through. (The invitation is open to Hystery etc as well, please!)