08 March 2009

reading and relationships.

Sunday, and here in the American Midwest, we have flash flood warnings. Streams are over their banks, drains are backed up. Our backyard is part of a flooded area that stretches through several neighbor’s property for about 400 yards. Neighbors are joking as the water creeps towards our houses about starting a co-op fish farm.

Somewhere, Texas I think, there is drought.

What are we to say about the world? The ancient Hebrews would look at the local weather and tell stories about what God was doing. When some modern preachers try that, as for instance blaming the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the tolerance of homosexuals in New Orleans, the response from our culture is dismissive. We do not tell such stories, and we have considerable disdain for those that do.

Part of this is probably the instant nature of our information systems. The “explanation” of what God was doing when the last independent Hebrew kingdom fell to the Babylonians was written long after the events. Stories may have been circulating among the people exiled to Babylon; in fact it is likely they were. What we know as the second book of Isaiah and the book of Jeremiah took decades to emerge. The “explanations” of Katrina on the other hand were in our news before the waters fully receded.

But there is something else going on here. In the day of the ancient Hebrews, God was seen as very active in the here and now. Today’s lectionary tells of God appearing to Abram and renaming him and his wife Abraham and Sarah. God, they believed was doing things then.

We do not see the hand of God in drought, we see weather systems. We do not see God flooding Midwestern cities; we see foolish land use policies permitting the paving of flood plains.

And that is one of the problems in reading Scripture. The authors brought a very different culture and a very different set of assumptions about God’s activity to the writing than we bring to the reading. We have to understand how they saw the world, what they thought they were doing when they wrote, or we are doomed to misread.

There are multiple ways to misread. Fundamentalists misread by seeing the ancients’ stories as reportage. Secular fundamentalists (atheists) and religious fundamentalists (evangelicals) do this together. When the secularist reads the scripture as a literalist, he finds inconsistencies and concludes the Bible is a fraud. When the evangelical reads the same way, he simply ignores the inconsistencies and claims to find, “inerrant truth.” Of course neither admits they are misreading in exactly the same way.

Modernists misread by applying their contemporary morality to the text. Did Joshua pray for the sun to stop so he could slaughter women and children? Clearly the Bible shows us immoral people and a false god. This of course means we can ignore the troublesome commands of God we do not want to keep. If our modern understanding of God makes us uncomfortable with the (incorrect in my view) idea of ‘substitutionary atonement” rather than questioning the dogma, simply dismiss the “supernatural” elements of the Gospels. This has been going on a while. Thomas Jefferson published a heavily edited version of the New Testament which he claimed was an improvement because he deleted all of the miracle stories. It is very thin volume. It is amusing that contemporary people think they are new and modern when they do what he did two hundred years ago.

Probably the worst ways to misread the Scriptures are to search for the hidden magic and to seek the ‘connections’ that attempt to treat some seventy volumes as a single publication. There are no hidden meanings. There are as noted above, issues of culture and the process of story telling that require study and understanding. And it is possible to go wildly wrong by thinking of the Bible as a single book. Stories of one era may inform us of the cultural heritage of later eras, but to try to link specific stories is perilous as there is no over reaching norm to which the various authors adhere. Isaiah seeks to explain the Babylonian conquest not pre-figure Jesus.

So how then to read the Bible? Several points:
• Suspend twenty-first century social norms. Neither Paul nor Jeremiah knows of our feminism ethic, or the war in Afghanistan. If we judge their writing by our ideas, we will err.
• Spend the time to understand what we know of their time. If we are to understand their stories, we must have a sense of the context in which they were told.
• Ask what we are attempting to understand. The Bible is a set of stories about the relationship between God and God’s people. If we read asking ourselves what we can learn from the stories they told about that relationship, we have a chance to get their point.
• Finally, do not go looking for a verse to prove a pre-determined point. Let the text speak in its context not our doctrine or dogma.

All of this is not easy. In fact a life time of study may not be enough. My own thinking is that my life time is not enough. But, giving up dogma before opening the book, letting it speak with the best understanding of the context we can find, and paying attention to the relationships between God and God’s people and between God’s people, is what is required to get where the text can take us.


Song in my Heart said...

Thanks for this post; I struggle with the relevance and authority of scripture. Thinking of the Bible as a library of inspirational material, I had already managed, but I had not considered thinking of it as stories about the relationship between God and God's people. I think this might be another piece of the puzzle for me.

Phil Snider said...

Hi Jim;

This is a good piece. My thinking has been heading in the same direction, as you probably know. The hyper-literalism of both varieties of fundamentalists or the anachronisms of modernists has been rather more popular in the publishing media than the measured approach you set out, but I think what you are proposing will lead to deeper readings.

That said, I'm cautious about your assertion that the Bible isn't just one book, but 66 books. It's not that you're wrong. Of course, each book of the Bible are separate and, except for those books which are explictly connected (I and II Samuel, for instance), should be discussed with a view to their cultural and historical background. That is just good reading.

Yet, I would hesitate to agree if someone took your argument the next step: that these books have nothing to do with each other and we shouldn't regard the Bible as a whole. That doesn't do justice to the dynamic interconnections between older and new books of the Bible which we find at almost every step in Scripture. So, we find Psalms repeating the salvation of the Hebrews or the Prophets recalling the language of Genesis or Paul playing with the story of Abraham in Romans. While the books are separate, they also cross interpret each other in such a way which encourages viewing the Bible as a whole.

Besides, let's remember this is a canon- selected by the Church as a coherent whole. I'm not saying that we simplistically assume this unity, but we should, along with the other recommendations you set out, be able to recognize it when we see it.


JimB said...

Hi Phil,

The Bible is indeed selected. The church fathers did a rather good job too -- praise heaven neither Philip nor Thomas made the cut!

I agree that it is over stating the premise to suggest the books have nothing to do with each other. The premise includes the existing books informing the authors of later ones. Eliminating especially Torah and Psalms from the cultural history and context of later books would be simply wrong.

That is what I mean when I argue for an informed reading.

By the way, what do you mean 66 books?


JimB said...


I am glad you found the piece helpful.


Phil Snider said...


That would be the count of all Old and New Testament 'books', at least, according to the Protestant count. Perhaps you want to include the Jewish Apocrypha?


JimB said...


I live on the anglo-catholic side of the block. We have those 'other' books of the Apocrypha.


plsdeacon said...

Hi Jim,

I think you are erring on the side of secular fundamentalism. The truth (like almost all truth) is that the Bible was written by men (primarily) at specific times and in specific places with specific cultural meanings. It is also the Word of God written. It is inspired (God breathed) and is the authoritative record of God's self-revelation to us.

The Bible is composed of different "books" and is an integrated whole. There is one overarching message in Holy Scriptures and that is that God loves us and searches for us and will not let us go quietly. God calls us into relationship with Himself, but we prefer to be our own boss. That includes ignoring God's desires and designs as He has revealed in Holy Scripture.

Having said that, Scripture contains myth, morality stories (such as Job and Jonah), poetry, and history. These need to be read as myth, morality stories, poetry, and history. The question comes down to what is what? How do you identify myth and distinguish it from history or history and distinguish it from myth?

Phil Snyder

JimB said...

Deacon Phil,

I am utterly unable to understand how a methodology of reading Scripture that relies on the basic idea that the theme of the canon is God's relationship with God's people can be dubbed "secular."



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