Sacred Writings Tell Us About Ourselves

Many people my age are being classified as "nones", i.e., someone who does not affiliate with any established religion. I sympathize with their desire to go unattached to certain labels. When I say that I'm a "Christian" this doesn't mean one obvious thing. It means whatever the hearer understands it to mean. Often, when I confess that I am of a particular religious persuasion I must prepare to provide a thousand qualifying remarks. I tend to be one of those Christians whose more into apologies than apologetics. 

If I'm honest, as an introvert, I dread Sunday mornings when I join others in public worship. I prefer to sit at home with coffee and a book, or if I'm in a place where nature is inviting, I'd like to go outdoors to take a walk where it is quiet and sparsely populated. Usually, I leave as soon as possible once a service has ended. I struggle with "doing religion" in community. And this is part of my struggle with reading the Bible "in the Church" (if you will). 

When it comes to the world of ideas I find discussing matters rationally to be more inviting than debating proof-texts from a holy book. This is due mostly to the fact that literature can be very polyvalent. It can be interpreted and used in a variety of ways. It isn't static. And while sacred writings, specifically, may give us the words to express ourselves, providing us with some sort of meta-narrative into which we can insert our own life-story, the multiplicity of interpretations of any one section of say the Bible (or the Qur'an, or the Book of Mormon, etc.) should prevent us from adopting ideas such as the so-called "perspicuity of scripture". Whatever this idea means in theory, it is non-existent in practice.

These days, as a Christian, I hold to a very vague, fluid understanding of the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture. It is probably rooted deeper in experience than dogma.  I received an education from institutions that called the Bible "inerrant" or "infallible". Again, whatever these doctrines mean in theory, they're rarely relevant in practice. A perfect Bible is meaningless since interpretation is always a factor. While it is true that one's view of holy scripture will influence how one interprets it, it is equally true that we tend to find ways to interpret it as it fits into our understanding of what makes scripture "holy". (Anyone can claim that the Bible gives them justification for their world-view.) I'm not saying that the Bible is dictated merely by reader-response, but if anyone says they're objectively reading the Bible they're a liar. All of us read the Bible subjectively.

Yet I advocate reading the Bible. In fact, I encourage it. As a Christian I want more and more people to read it. If people were more—what we call—"biblically literate" then maybe, just maybe, politicians couldn't quote passages out of context to defend their pet-peeve projects. Maybe pastors wouldn't be as comfortable with manipulating the lives of their parishioners. Our problem isn't that we admire the Bible. Our problem is that we don't admire it enough. (I speak to Christians here.)

The Bible has often challenged me. Stories about Jesus concern me. He rebuked the rich. On a global scale, and from my perspective in the history of humanity, I'm fairly wealthy. The Torah and the Prophets frequently challenge readers to care for the orphan, the widow, and disabled, the sick, the sojourner, demanding hospitality from everyone. Jesus commanded that we forgive others to a degree that is quite uncomfortable. John the Baptist said that if we have more than one of an item we should give away our second, third, fourth ones (according to Luke). Israel's proverbs warns us against frivolous life-styles and their psalms condemn the unjust. The Book of Job cautions us against judging those whose lives fall apart before them. All of these writings challenge me, caution me, and also encourage me. 

But I'd be wrong to deny that there are passages that can be used to defend the opposite ideologies. There are passages that encourage saving one's wealth, rebuking the poor as lazy or short-sighted. There are narratives the advocate for divinely inspired warfare and the slaughtering of enemies. There are examples of bad things happening to bad people because of divine judgment. Even Jesus is depicted, at times, as one who will exact vengeance (e.g., the Apocalypse of John).

These contradictions make some dismiss the Bible as having any authority. There are others who spend their time reconciling every passage of the Bible until it no longer causes them cognitive dissonance. While I don't mean to go all Origen of Alexandria here, I will suggest that maybe the Bible contains both poles in order to serve as a mirror. Maybe part of the "inspiration" of scripture is that it asks us to admit that we prefer certain depictions of the divine over against others. Maybe we're prone to judgment rather than mercy?  Maybe we're prone to destroying our enemies rather than turning the other cheek? Maybe we're prone to blame the oppressed and marginalized rather than asking how we may help them? Maybe sacred writings tell us about ourselves as much as they tell us about God, or heaven, or the afterlife, or whatever. 

In Christian circles the Bible is frequently referred to as "the word of God". While some theologians make a big deal about John 1:1-3 arguing that this title shouldn't refer to the Bible, but to Jesus, and while I see what they're trying to do, it ignores the fact that the word "word" can mean more than one thing. I get what people mean when they call the Bible God's "word". They are saying it is divine speech. But is all divine speech equal? That's the question.

This brings to my mind passages where God says something and God is challenged by God's human counterpart. In fact, the human's argument is better, even more just, than God's. Abraham's advocation for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18:23-25 is one example. Moses' advocation for Israel in passages such as Exodus 32:9-14 and Numbers 14:13-20 is another. In these passages God does say something. God plans to destroy people. Abraham pushes back on God for a while, but relents. Moses pushes back until God relents. (Fyi: I highly recommend Robert M. Franklin's convocation, "The Vocation of Argument", for an exploration of this theme.)

These narratives from scripture have often made me ponder what God wants from us when we read scripture. Do we take everything at face value ignoring when our gut tells us that this seems wrong, like this can't be true of God? Or, do these passages force us to stop and retort, like Moses, "Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people" (Ex. 32:12b)? Or, like Abraham in Genesis 18:25b, might the Bible challenge us to say to God, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" More importantly, when we find passages that allow us to preserve our own self-interest, might we challenge those? And when we find passages that urge us to go beyond ourselves, our comfort, and our self-interests, might we be hearing what our Creator really wants from us? Maybe we can speak of the Bible as the "word of God", but maybe that doesn't mean mindlessly accepting what we read at face value? Maybe it means being selective? Maybe a "canon within a canon" isn't something we should deny, but maybe seek? Maybe the different visions of God and our world found in the Bible are there to force us to ask, "Who is God?" "What is just?" "What is right?" Maybe.