Thursday, May 28, 2009

Continuing the Conversation: Why Read the Bible at All?

Continuing the conversation about theological interpretation, Christopher Spinks commented on my most recent entry, "toward what end(s) are these people of faith engaging scripture?" and "why do they feel the need to engage this particular set of texts and not another?" Two different questions, but good ones.

Oddly enough, I'm speaking on this very topic Monday night in Lancaster's Theology on Tap series at Annie Bailey's pub. Some quick thoughts, beginning with the second question, why this Bible?

My basic reply is pragmatic. We turn to the Bible because it is our book. When I read David Tracy's The Analogical Imagination, gosh, 15 years ago, I didn't like his concept of the Bible as a "classic." I wanted to be able to say that something inheres in the Bible that makes it special. However, I can't find a meaningful way to articulate that. (More on that below.) So I return to a more pragmatic understanding.

The Bible is our book because we continue to practice the reading and interpretation of it. We continue to invite scripture to shape our imaginations and conversations. But we do not -- and have never -- given the Bible the final or only word. One might add something else, but this claim has some problems: The Bible provides our primary witness to the story of God and our people. That's sort of true, but spelling out the qualifications would take more time than I can give. Anyway, this understanding of the Bible as our book implies some responses to the first question, "to what end" we read it.
  • We read it because it connects us with the church through the ages and around the world.
  • We read it in search of the transforming power of God, because the church frequently testifies to the power of God at work on our reading of scripture.
  • We read it to find inspiration, transformation, challenge, and comfort.
  • We read it to shape our imaginations and our questions -- that is, to shape us.
None of those claims can avoid challenge. On occasion the Bible has been used to great harm. It hasn't even taken a lot of effort to turn the Bible toward the legitimation of slavery, apartheid, misogyny, and heterosexism. Thank God, a neat thing happens: even in those painful conversations the Bible challenges the Bible, and in the long run things work out. (Here I'm influenced by cultural studies on African American biblical hermeneutics -- see essays by Clarice J. Martin and Allen Dwight Callahan in Semeia 83/84, Slavery in Text and Interpretation, ed. Callahan, Richard A. Horsley, and Abraham Smith.)

I would argue that this pragmatic understanding is grounded in history. We got the Bible because people went to great pains to copy it. As Jewish and Christian literature multiplied, we find Christian leaders saying, "Here's what we'll read in church (and not the other stuff)." That's essentially what Luther is doing in translating the Bible. He includes James and Hebrews, but he notes his major problems with both. On James, he describes the problem in precisely a pragmatic vein: It's okay to read it, even if Luther could do without it. In other words, we do in fact read the Bible because our ancestors have read it.

I also made a negative claim, that I can't make sense of saying meaning, inspiration, or authority inheres to the Bible. What about that?
  • The church, ecumenically considered, does not have a single Bible. For most NT authors, the Bible was Greek versions of Jewish scriptures, not the Old Testament we have today. For the author of Jude, the Bible included the Book of Enoch. For the Ethiopic church, Enoch remains in the canon. What Bible are we talking about, and how do we defend the definition? (Quick footnote: Of course we Protestants read scripture in the context of the whole. I'm simply saying that whole isn't "natural" or inherent.)
  • To ascribe inherent value to the Bible implies something about the status of biblical books in relation to other books. I have no desire to change the canon of my church. However, I defy anyone to explain how the epistle of Jude offers more wisdom than, say, 4 Ezra.
  • Many, many persons have lived exemplary Christian lives without ever reading the Bible -- or hearing it in any level of detail. Obviously, the Bible is a huge part of the context, but the authority for their Christian lives did not reside in the Bible.
  • I avoid attributing properties to the Bible because believing the "right things" about the Bible has never guaranteed healthy interpretation. In fact, I'm not sure there's any evidence that such belief would foster healthy interpretation.
  • The main reason I don't believe authority inheres in the Bible is spelled out in my recent entries. The Bible doesn't speak with a unified voice, nor can we assume that taking the Bible as a whole will result in a coherent voice. If we're honest about the Bible, we know that there are dimensions of it (notice, I didn't say "parts") that we privilege and others that we don't. (This is not to say that we have any business skipping by dimensions of scripture -- or parts of it, for that matter. I'm committed to engaging the whole of scripture.) Such decisions are not -- and cannot -- be traced to some inherent pattern we find in the Bible. They are instead the product of communal discernment, usually informal discernment, over a long period of time.
One sometimes hears the dramatic story of a hotel room conversion. On the brink of despair, sometimes suicide, a person opens the nightstand and pulls out their Gideon Bible. Upon reading it, God's love breaks through to them and they find salvation.

I don't doubt the storyline, but let's think about that critically. What drives someone to open the Bible? There's already a context of a faith community that has somehow implanted the thought that the Bible might contain answers. If they open the drawer to find a Dear Abby anthology, or even the Gita or the Qu'ran, the story would work differently, yes? And what about that Bible? Are we to think they just randomly open to, say, Hosea and the love of God broke through to them? Mark? But wait a minute. Gideon Bibles always come with packaging. There's a guide to how to read the Bible there, complete with recommended verses (and page numbers? I'm not sure). In other words, we don't have the Bible speaking on its own to a lone individual; we have communities of faith and conventions of interpretation surrounding this event. That's how the Bible comes to life.

One final thought. The things I'm saying are not the result of modernist historical criticism, nor of postmodern linguistics. I'm a product of both, of course. However, these concerns go at least as far back as Augustine and Origen. Early Christians knew the Bible was messy; for that matter, neither Augustine nor Origen had a fixed canon that matches ours. That is why they developed principles of interpretation to guide communities in their reading of scripture, including allegorical exegesis and the law of love. Scripture comes to life when we read it in the context of walking the path of faith along with our brothers and sisters.


Luke said...

ooohhhh. love the response and the things raised here. thanks for writing this.

the bible is messy... just like our existence. to know one is to know the other.

Anonymous said...

registry cleaner freeware , A utility system that scans the Registry and looks for out-of-date and sick records.
Software often generate Registry entries for temporary data and pointers along with other files, but never erase them. Additionally, , [url=registry cleaner freeware][/url] if ringbinders are manually deleted by the user.
Registry entries may indicate files that won't exist. A Registry cleaner software can ahtvniwxnjnjnjnnjaw participate a arrangement of program utilities or perhaps a stand-alone, registry cleaner freeware system

Anonymous said...

In the modern fiscal situation, typically the cash loans happen to be getting increasingly well known. This also is because a majority of these [url=]short term loans instant cash[/url] personal loans assistance individuals to deal with unforeseen personal emergencies. For those who at the same time have to deal with revenue challenges, comprehend that will wonder regardless of whether any such bank loan provides the best option to suit your needs [url=]cash loans[/url] and also not necessarily. As a way to consider the most likely verdict, you need to understand a handful of necessary highlights that usually get along with typically the cash advances on the internet.

All the pay day loans inside an hour in most cases give a small range, which unfortunately doesn't necessarily [url=]bad credit loans 24 hours[/url] go above and beyond £1, 500. Therefore, when you need more than £1, 500, it is advisable to definitely take into consideration an alternative financial loan optional. As well as, you skill is always to get this lending product along with get a bundle by family or perhaps good friends. An additional fundamental difficulty might be the reality that the cash advance loans can be credited for a special stage, which unfortunately draws to a close the moment you'll get your future wages.

Likewise, it is quite necessary to realise that if you can't use a dependable activity, have the ability to have many of the payday cash advance solutions. The biology behind this is often since not often covered provide a warranty, which often in such a case need to be a set salary. Thereby, usually, the bank don't grant the application especially since he can't be confident that you’re able to payback a payday loan. Then again, in case you have a steady work and the loan company approves anyone app, you might have [url=]describes it[/url] the cash taken on your akun around regarding one hour.

Another sort of things you must look at are definitely the rates of interest and additional prices, an individual's credit ratings and therefore the provisions within the mortgage. By simply taking into consideration every one of [url=][/url] elements, it is easy to choose or possibly a obtainable payday cash advances on the internet can be well suited for everyone or possibly not likely.

Anonymous said...

top [url=]casino online[/url] check the latest [url=]casino games[/url] manumitted no consign reward at the best [url=]no deposit tip

Anonymous said...

ghd baratas yknpmhrn ghd españa nuzkzttf ghd planchas mtaeyydf ghd rqvjtewf planchas ghd nowsfazw