Friday, November 15, 2013

The Bible: A Biography by Karen Armstrong

A while back, way before I ever even knew what a blog was, I began to read books about the Bible.  I'm an avid reader, and usually stick to nonfiction.  I love God and the Bible, but have always felt I could learn more about both. 

In particular, I always felt ignorant about the Bible.  When I was younger, Southern Baptist churches were the ones I attended most because of my family and friends.  But I didn't attend regularly and when I did go, I always felt like I had missed some basic lessons and didn't know as much as everyone else who were memorizing Bible verses like crazy.  I've never been good at rote memorization, so that never worked for me anyhow. 

I'm also more of a big picture learner.  It is hard for me to make sense of something when all I have is information on the micro, not macro, level.  So a while back, I began to pick up books on the Bible which helped give me more of a big picture understanding of the Bible.  It was really helpful.  And I think that is a good place for us to start here, as I take a step back and ask us to consider what Christianity is.

One of the first books I read in this genre was a terrific book whose name and author I unfortunately did not take time to write down.  Urgh!  I've gotten much better about that sort of thing since then, but I vaguely recall that the book was named something like A Biography of the Bible.

I've done some internet research and am not quite sure which book it was that I read, but I think it might have been Karen Armstrong's 2007 book, The Bible: A Biography.  I found a blurb about it on the NPR website:  I encourage you to take a read.

Whether it was Ms. Armstrong's "biography" or some author's book, a couple things in particular struck me as I read this mystery book whose title and author I don't recall with precision.

First, the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament have not been the same static documents over time.  The excerpt from the link above states:

"The Jewish scriptures and the New Testament both began as oral proclamations and even after they were committed to writing, there often remained a bias towards the spoken word that is also present in other traditions. From the very beginning, people feared that a written scripture encouraged inflexibility and unrealistic, strident certainty. Religious knowledge cannot be imparted like other information, simply by scanning the sacred page. Documents became 'scripture' not, initially, because they were thought to be divinely inspired but because people started to treat them differently. This was certainly true of the early texts of the Bible, which became holy only when approached in a ritual context that set them apart from ordinary life and secular modes of thought." 

Later, the excerpt continues,

"From the very beginning, the Bible had no single message. When the editors fixed the canons of both the Jewish and Christian testaments, they included competing visions and placed them, without comment, side by side. From the first, biblical authors felt free to revise the texts they had inherited and give them entirely different meaning. Later exegetes held up the Bible as a template for the problems of their time. Sometimes they allowed it to shape their world-view but they also felt free to change it and make it speak to contemporary conditions. They were not usually interested in discovering the original meaning of a biblical passage. The Bible 'proved' that it was holy because people continually discovered fresh ways to interpret it and found that this difficult, ancient set of documents cast light on situations that their authors could never have imagined. Revelation was an ongoing process; it had not been confined to a distant theophany on Mount Sinai; exegetes continued to make the Word of God audible in each generation."

A second major point I took from the book is related to the first: judging the factual truth of the Bible is not something that has been of interest to our spiritual forbearers.  As the excerpt at the link above notes:

"When their sacred texts tell stories, people have generally believed them to be true, but until recently literal or historical accuracy has never been the point.  The truth of scripture cannot be assessed unless it is--ritually or ethically--put into practice." 

The excerpt goes on to state,

"It is, for example, crucial to note that an exclusively literal interpretation of the Bible is a recent development. Until the nineteenth century, very few people imagined that the first chapter of Genesis was a factual account of the origins of life. For centuries, Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive exegesis, insisting that a wholly literal reading of the Bible was neither possible nor desirable. They have rewritten biblical history, replaced Bible stories with new myths, and interpreted the first chapter of Genesis in surprisingly different ways." 

Aren't these points fascinating?  That blew my mind that the Bible was written and frequently rewritten as new understandings arose.  Wow.

We fight so much about literalism these days.  It impacts bitter theological arguments, as well as legal and political battles over school curriculum, foreign policy, and the rights of women, sexual minorities and others.  But maybe this focus on literalism misses the point. 

Maybe when we insist on literal interpretations we are copping out and looking for easy answers.  However, no one said being a person of faith--or a Christ follower in particular--was easy. 

I believe that Jesus came to earth in part to put into human language important teachings our Heavenly Father wanted us to learn.  Human language is an important tool to impart information and meaning.  But it is imperfect.  Whenever I read the Gospels in the New Testament, I am continually amazed--and frankly comforted--at how even Jesus's closest disciples who lived with, worked alongside and learned from him directly did not understand his words. 

This is not easy stuff.  I wish I had a magic wand to make it all crystal clear, but I don't.  I don't think anyone does.  However, I can appreciate wishing that literal interpretations make it all clear.  Based on my study--which I'll explain more in future posts--I don't think literalism makes everything clear and simple.  It leads to plenty of contradictions that then require lots of creativity to resolve.  More on that later.

But a second thought concerns me about this apparent modern focus on literalism.  Perhaps when we insist on literal interpretations of Scripture, we are not just being lazy and refusing to do the heavy lifting necessary to find the truth of God's Word.  Maybe we insist on literal interpretations--at least in part--to justify our own prejudices and hardened hearts.  After all, if we assert that God is on our side in verbally condemning, systematically oppressing, or outright physically harming people, that can seem to give legitimacy to actions that otherwise might seem clearly wrong and cruel, or even outright un-Christian. 

I don't like to think the worst of people, but the more I study, the more I worry that this type of justification is one reason for the insistence on Bible literalism.  This is frankly a scary thought to me.  I find it horrifying to think that people might distort the gift of Scripture to serve ungodly and even evil ends. 

But maybe if that is what is going on, it is not done consciously.  Perhaps no one goes around thinking, "I know that God loves all his children equally, but I'm going to come up with arguments based on literal interpretations of passages taken out of context to justify finger wagging and discriminatory policy."  I suspect that people who insist on literalism in ways that harm others do so earnestly believing that is God's will. 

In life, I find we mere mortals are often not fully aware of our own motivations in how we react to different situations.  As a result, I think it is important for us to focus on examining our own lives.  I think that was one reason at least for Jesus's teaching on the Mote and the Beam in Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-42.  Terrific food for thought.

I also find the following passage from the above excerpt fascinating and relevant to today's debates:

"Some of the most important biblical authorities insisted that charity must be the guiding principle of exegesis: any interpretation that spread hatred or disdain was illegitimate. All the world faiths claim that compassion is not only the prime virtue and the test of true religiosity but that it actually introduces us to Nirvana, God or the Dao. But sadly the biography of the Bible represents the failures as well as the triumphs of the religious quest. The biblical authors and their interpreters have all too often succumbed to the violence, unkindness and exclusivity that is rife in their societies."

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