Monday, October 15, 2007
Taking Back the Bible
I am reading a new book: The Highjacking of Jesus. It shows how right-wing evangelical religionists have taken over what Christianity means to the larger audience of the non-churched or the minimally churched in the US. It also shows how this has been a calculated and well planned onslaught that tears at what it means to be a Christian in present day.
Now, I am not taking political pot shots at the conservatives! There is a significant difference between what I understand as good ole, conservative Republican upstate NY politics and right-wing religion. What I understand right-wing religion to be is fundamentalist, anti-intellectual, and a non-apostolic distortion of the Christian message as it has come down through either mainline Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. It is often concerned with the New Dispensation, the Rapture, the Second Coming very soon, and a type of evangelism that is down-right scary. It advocates the “bringing in of the kingdom” by creating the war that will bring about Armageddon and the Return of Christ. Much of the theology comes from a 19th century evangelist who invented the “Rapture”. The “Left-Behind Series” has promulgated this theology that does not connect with the apostolic faith that has come down to us from the followers of Jesus. Part of the problem is that the Bush administration and the Republican Party tied itself to the coattails of this kind of Christianity and now the world believes that American Christianity is of this ilk.
For me, there is no place for anti-intellectualism in faith. God gave us gray matter. In fact it is this gray matter, our ability to think, remember and communicate, which gave us an ability to worship God. When we have to bend out intellect around an article of faith, then it is time to address such an issue with our intellect. Can we look at the parting of the Red Sea, the Virgin Birth, walking on water, etc. as articles of faith, and can we address those wonderful stories with an intellect that allows us to see the allegorical weight of such stories to tell us what God has done for humanity and creation over the centuries? Can we look at the Bible as books of various authors which have told the stories of God’s acts in the world without making them historical fact books? Can we not find in them the truthfulness of human experience without having to have them be factual? I believe we can, and must, so that our faith does not fly off into some realm of fantasy. Faith in God requires suspending factual credibility but not taking fantasy as fact.
One of the failings of mainline Protestantism over the past 50 years has been in teaching its members the Bible. The study of the Bible is difficult. For clergy, we have learned how difficult scripture scholarship is. It requires biblical language fluency that most of us have not mastered. Computer helps are making it easier, but it is still a daunting task to unpack a Scriptural passage for the congregation each week. And teaching lay folk the depth of the meanings of the Bible is often a thankless work. Many would rather just stick to the stories and deal with the surface rather than enter into hard work of interpretation of Scripture. It is so subjective, we say. Clergy too, want solid facts we can pass on. But God is always revealed to us in the in-between-ness of life: in-between fact and speculation. Also the difficulty with teaching the Bible as something that is not factual takes a great deal more work. It means that members of our parishes have to be willing to place their trust in God rather than the facts of the Bible. Once again faith must be based on something that is not tangible. It is what faith really means, after all.
Over the past 150 years or so—ever since the beginnings of scholarly Biblical study began, the reaction to Biblical scholarship has been to literalize the Bible. This was never a traditional way of interpreting Scripture. Even in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the early Greek theologians and preachers understood that stories in the Bible were allegorical descriptions of how God acted in the world. The kind of mindless literalism that we find in Biblical interpretation in fundamentalism is not historical; it is not rooted in the ways that the apostles or the early church approached Scripture. It is, in fact, a post-Enlightenment type of proof that is rooted in the scientific method rather than in the rich symbolism of literature.
I am challenging every member of St. Luke’s to read a book of the Bible before Christmas. (I told them also that Philemon was not fair—its just one page!). I want them to get used to reading the Bible for themselves. I want them to know the wholeness of reading a book in its entirety rather than the way that the lectionary chops it up. I want them to know the authors of various books of the Bible and see the differences that each one brings to the experience of God. I want them to find a version that they enjoy reading. I want them to have some common experience to share that is rooted in Scripture. I asked some folks on their way out of church yesterday what book they were going to read –nothing like putting someone on the spot! One said, John because she felt that the people she met who were new to faith might need that book. One chose Revelation—my most un-favorite, mainly because it IS my un-favorite! Another said Job, somewhat factiously, because of where he may be emotionally at the moment. Another said First Kings because he didn’t know that history very well. We all have different beginning places in reading the Bible. I guess I am going to read Revelation too simply because I don't know it well.
But all Christians need to be reading the Bible. Those of us from mainline Protestant churches need to know the Bible to keep the fundamentalists from high jacking the Bible—making it solely their purview. We need to take back the Bible from the fundamentalists by being willing to study, by being willing to do the hard work of faith—knowing the stories and myths that fill out the faith in a God who is beyond all knowledge, description or fact.
I would invite any readers to choose a book of the Bible to read in the next couple of months. I would invite you to study the book you choose, not simply take it for fact and allow God’s words to take root in your heart. You can share your learnings here if you would like.