Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bible Answer Book?

One of the great privileges of being where I am at is that I am seeing more and more of the leadership of the American church at closer and closer proximity.  As a Biblehead, this also means that I increasingly get frustrated at faulty thinking that is perpetuated from American Christian voices.

For example, I have always tried to make hermeneutical space for the way Christians generally read the Bible as a single book from God to them--and thus by definition read its individual books out of their historical context.  I continue to affirm this "directly to me" way of reading the Bible as valid and even as perhaps the most important way God speaks through Scripture.

However, as the default Biblehead at my denomination's only seminary, I also feel obligated to try to point out how to read the Bible for what its books actually meant.  There are some very simple truths involved here that I have tried to point out over and over again, and just within the last week a couple things lead me to reiterate them:

1. In terms of what the books of the Bible really meant, they were not written to us.  The "Y-O-U" of the Bible is not, in its original meaning, me at any point.  That means there is a historical distance between me and the books of the Bible in their initial revelation.

2. The individual books of the Bible themselves do not have the same audiences.  That is, the "Y-O-U" of each book is often different from each other.

3. If you understand how culture and situations change, the implication is that we cannot simply assume that the Bible's categories or commands should be directly applied to today.

"It was written for all time."  Pertinent language just doesn't work that way.  The categories of biblical times are not our categories.  They must be translated.

"God doesn't change."  Yes, but people do, and assuming that God wants to be understood (isn't that what revelation means?), then he is going to speak in different ways to different people in categories they can understand.  Principles play out differently in different situations.

I heard someone say recently (perhaps jokingly) that we need to call church boards a "board of elders" not a "Local Board of Administration" because where do you find the phrase "Local Board of Administration" in the  Bible.  Frankly, I like the term elders better, but this argument just doesn't follow.  [For one thing, even before I get to the point of this post, it confuses description with prescription, a fundamental distinction to make when reading the Bible.  Jacob is described as taking on several wives and concubines.  Is that something I should model too?  Sheez, welcome to the American church]  This is the same sort of lunacy as those churches that don't use organs because organs aren't mentioned in the Bible.

Doing what they did may have a completely different meaning in our context.  That means there may be things they did we should not do and there may be things they did not do that we should.  This is a fundamental and incontrovertible insight.  The question of whether we should drink, for example, is not automatically answered on the basis of whether they drank in biblical times, any more than the fact that the OT fully allows for polygamy means that we are allowed to be polygamous today. 

Bottom line: a mature understanding of the Bible will know how to read it in its original socio-cultural contexts.  That means a regular intercultural experience greater than travelling to Africa.  The books of the Bible were "answer books"--but they were answer books for people who have been dead for 2000 years and more.

Translating the answers is a major task that is not simply a matter of some formula.  It is a spiritual task.  It is a corporate task.  The result is that the Bible is not a crutch with easy answers to hard questions--not if you really understand it. It is a means of grace, yes, an appointed place for divine encounter.  It is a place of joy and edification.  It is a place where the Spirit may speak directly to you.

But when things get serious, the community of faith has to get down to business and struggle to "work out its salvation with fear and trembling."  Next time when someone makes fun of another Christian who disagrees with them and references the Bible as obvious on that matter, the thought that should appear in your head is, "Hmmm, he or she probably doesn't know how to read the Bible in context very well."

15 comments:

Scott F said...

The case of polygamy is a good illustration. If you read the Bible as a single "book" then you have here an example of the behavioral context shifting just within the book itself.

Dave Warren said...

Thanks Ken!! Wish the whole church would read this post.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

DAve, Unfortunatley, the Church reading Ken's blog won't change a thing, really, as long as the Chruch remains a corporality... and defends its stance within different sects, unless one goes back to Catholicism, OR Judiasm, or myth-making (anthropological terms)....

Just this morning my daughter and I had a conversation about a wedding she is attending. I asked if the girl was Catholic, and she said "no, she didn't convert". I said that ususally "convert" means to a different religion but she insisted that the Catholic are the ones who speak of conversion..I said that the Protestant movement was a resistant movement against Catholicism and that it was based on "Faith", but as the Protestant Principle describes, all sects think that their definition of "faith" and what "saves" is the reality fo the situation!

Does one walk the aisle, believe in the literal text, do good works, be baptized, believe that Jesus was God, have some emotional experience, take communion regularly, ETC...there are so many ways that one can understand faith, much less religion...so who is "right"? That is a matter of "faith"...tautological defense of "faith". Faith in faith, is that reasonable? Only if one believes that God truly exists and is not an "idea" that the Church used for political purposes....

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I might add, that the Church had poloitical power at the time they were defining the faith, which became creedilized.

In our nation, the original intent was the personal faith was a matter of conscience and was not to be a matter of "the political" (individual believers all should have a voice, but the First Amendement protected society from government affirming "a faith" or a "State Church"..an official stance of the State toward faith issues...)...but recently, our society has become split over faith issues....in the public square and it has destoyed our ability to hear one another, as it has become emotionally driven by personal faith and understanding of "God"...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And then, there is the issue of science. The Enlightenment principles are resisted by Reformation types because the Enlightment believed in self-governance, not a spiritualized experience that governed the individual. The Reformation believed in faith as a "gift of God", while Enlightenment believed in reason and empiricism.

And science has created a critique of biblical texts, de-mytologizing, but where does the myth end? Some believe that the "story" of Christianity is mythologized experience of the underclass within the Roman Empire. It was a fill in the gap, over many oral transmissions, that was written down by different writers to different audiences, over a wide time span.

American culture has different situadedness than the early Christian community. They are empowered by their citizenship and the Founders vision of liberty and justice for all, not under the Divine Right of Kings. Christians can have a voice in the public square because of our liberal government, but we are not a theocracy, being run by the Church or the Church authorities.

Today, science leaves little room for a "creation story", so the church sanctions the faith by using a literary device, "metaphor". But, is such metaphor really different from Greek mythology that taught about human defiencies, virtues, and desires, and the universals of justice?

The values of our country are the principles of justice, based on equality under the law and the rule of law. Humans are humans, as to their nature. People all have similar needs. But, these needs are met in different ways, depending on cultural values and cultural resources. And America's values are prioritized in different ways, which has led to the diversity in our cultural climate. We just have to question what is the best for society, in regards to what science can defend, and what is best for society as to values that make for a better climate for human flourishing...

JohnM said...

Quibble with some wording: Not only has God not changed, people haven't changed either. The socio-cultural context has changed. The distinction matters.

Is "Hmmm, he or she probably doesn't know how to read the Bible in context very well." a one size fits all response for all references to Scripture, 'cause that could come in handy ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, John, it would "come in handy" to those that want to be obedient to Scripture, as inspired, or to be a part of a Christian community...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

that means submitting to the "ruling authorities" of the Church, and not to one's liberty of conscience as a self-governing individual....

Ken Schenck said...

If by saying people haven't changed you mean they still have two arms and legs, they still eat, drink, sleep, breathe, and mate, I agree. If you mean they still tend to pursue their selfish desires in ways that go contrary to love of God and neighbor (=a sinful nature), I agree.

I'm not sure that the above comes anywhere close to exhausting what people are, though, and the rest has varied widely.

On the other, the exception is when the collective guild of experts on a particular biblical subject consider something beyond reasonable doubt. ;-)

John C. Gardner said...

Queries:
The application of Scripture has always been potentially difficult. Witness the use of Scripture to both attack or defend slavery prior to or during the Civil War by both sides(or for that matter to support racism and segregation).My query is how do we apply Scripture today? For example, denominations look and read Scripture differently(a Wesleyan reading vs. a Calvinistic reading). Is there no underlying truth or just variant readings(or can we use consensual readings across time) to understand a Christian reading today under the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

JohnM said...

Right. Pride, anger, lust, greed, jealousy, fear, doubt, despair. All observed, described, and even somewhat explained in Scripture - people then like people now. Longing for better, hope that it's possible, trust in promises, ability to love and understand love, forbearance, the concepts of mercy and justice, recognition of neediness before God. These are all things the Bible speaks to, things we can recognize in the Bible no more or less than in our world, and things we have in common with the original audiences. Fundamental human nature and the human condition are more significant than cultural differences, important as it is that those differences be understood.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And that is "love of neighbor" or one's enemies, which means that one can use "Hebrews" as an experiential experiment in forming according to Tradition...am I not close?

That supposes that an individual's self-interest, meaning personal interests, are to be sacrificed on the altar of another's interests, or the Church's interest, for the "common good" or "public good". Such collectivity goes against our cultural value of liberty of consceince, even a secularized conscience, as there is no difference between the sacred and secular. The sacred is what one considers as one's personal identification.

I thought in a free society such as America, that one could pursue what one desired within the bounds of law, because we understood that all were equal, which goes for all authorites.

People were to be self-determining and not determined by outside authorities who socially engineered how one "Fit or what one was to do"...Choice is of primary importance for there to be any virtue at all, otherwise, it is called tyranny...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I would say that balancing power. that is Church authorities or the Academy, or our national government, with humility would be a start! Defining another's place is a little persumptuous...but serves the interests of organizations doesn't it? Is such determination based on any greed, lust, self-interest, etc.? Or is the Church's interest above reproach, just like Kings were above the law? Or do such "sins" pertain just to the "lowly common person in the pew"?

What about power corrupting and how the neoconservatives in our country divide over those that are elite (elect?) and those that should "know their place"?

Is treating someone as if they don't have an opinion or that they might change over time have any value for the empowered? And what about good ole boy systems...how about those that get "in" and have compassion shown in numerous ways because they serve the interests and play the part of submitting to those that control the organization? Is that loving? Kind? Is this not similar to those that serve the interests of our nation but to their personal advantage? If one is seeking personal advantage is that particularly wrong, or is it just wrong when it oversteps its boundaries into another's arena? If so, then where are the lines that define where one or the other has gone beyond the right boundary? Is serving up good gifts to one's enemy not holding the terrorist accountable? Is it giving the illegal immigrant amnesty? Is it not distinguishing and distintifying between where personal, social, nation, and human values lie?

What about those that know the discrepencies of Scripture and yet "use" it to control the "masses"? Is control a value in the Christian community? Inquiring minds like to know.

Does everyone have an equal right to information, that is, plans that are being formed? Or do some of the leaders like to make plans without the consent of the governed? Don't our Sunshine Laws speak about privite governing, in public policy, such as happened inthe Clinton adminstration? Concerned minds like to know.

The Tea Party response to Obama's healthcare, and the disregard for those that sought to speak out at the Town Hall Meetings is similar to what I'm talking about....How is leadership to act, respond, and govern????

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Denominations prescribe how one is to behave based on their belief structure and such behavior defines if one belongs.

Our Constitution, on the other hand, does not prescribe "love", as one must choose to associate, but describes the protections for the individual to prescribe it for himself, under and according to the law.

So, religious communities want to play the conscience of men, whereas our nation-state doesn't play a particular prescription of conscience...

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for the reminder. It is needed.