Wednesday, November 29, 2017

our partner in an ongoing dialogue about our life here and now

It will be one of the greatest regrets of my life that I spent several decades when I could have been seeing the light, instead being led down the dim cul de sac that the secular left encouraged us into starting when I was young.   Its elevation of a series of rather empty but bracing slogans to replace truth, generally in service to a pretty awful set of related ideologies is what accounts for the long detour they led American liberalism on.

But, I guess, better late than never to see the light, or at least to catch a bit of a glimpse of it.  If only, instead of picking up the stuff I was reading in the 70s, leading down one philosophical rathole after another,  I'd read The Prophetic Imagination or The Bible Makes Sense.

I am thinking of that because RMJ wrote an interesting post about the Washington Post review of the recently opened Museum of the Bible in which he notes that the simplistic view of The Bible taken by the Museum and the various journalists writing about it is true of only a small margin of fundamentalists who are nothing like even contemporary Christians in their thinking on the scriptures.   I'm still not feeling well and I got some bad news about my oldest friend's health so I don't feel like writing, right now.  So I'm going to type out some of the third chapter of The Bible Makes Sense, the best beginners book about the scriptures I know about.  It begins by describing why a simplistic, fundamentalist notion of The Bible is false and inadequate and will not lead to any understanding or good use of it.

Chapter 3  Making Sense as an Insider

The Bible is a strange book which is put together in an odd way.  It seems to have no order at all but is a jumbled collection hard to penetrate.   I t will not do to read it from "cover to cover" as faithful believers have often done, and it is not much better to try to read it chronologically (even if we could date all of the materials, which we can't).  It is not helpful to try to impose on the literature an order which reflects modern scientific understandings.  As much as we are able we can try to read the Bible like insiders and let the material itself determine the order for us.  Of course that is not completely possible, but if we take seriously the shape of tradition, we may discover clues which will let us see the material from the inside.  In what follows I shall try to be sensitive to the function of the literature.  It is likely the case that if we can determine the function of the literature,  we shall understand how it stands in relation to the other parts of the collection. 

The Primal Narrative

I suggest that the place to begin in determining the shape of the tradition is with the primal narrative, that most simple, elemental, and non-negotiable story line which lies at the heart of the biblical faith.  Such a narrative is presented with the passion of fresh believers and with the simplicity of a community wch had screened out all uncertainties and felt no reason to explain.  It is an affirmation in story form which asserts,  "This is the most important story we know, and we have come to believe it is decisively about us."  That story is clearly for the insiders and no effort at all is made to persuade or convince outsiders.

I will break in to point out that that alone means that unless someone is willing to take the Bible on the terms it was written in, by the people who wrote it, the people whose insights and beliefs and convictions it represents, you won't "understand it".   You might appropriate the material for your own use but, doing that, you can't honestly claim that you're representing the meaning of the authors but of yourself, for your purpose.  That is, of course, what fundamentalists do more than others who make more modest and self-effacing and limited and contingent claims about it, which is, actually, what many believers do and have done.  But the same is true of all human culture, even the sciences when those are brought outside of their narrowest focus on the simple physical phenomena that science treats successfully.  The farther outside of that narrow physical subject matter scientists and the sciency go, the more perilously liable to disaster they go.  If you want a practical example of that, consider that the North Korean missile test was a product of science as done by scientists.   Their scientific success could easily get tens, hundreds of millions or more killed in horrific violence, which would dwarf that which atheists love to point to in the narratives of the scripture.

Gerhard von Rad, noted German scholar, has suggested that Israel's primal narrative ( his word is credo)  can be located in three texts" ( By "credo" he means the root story which is most deeply and consistently believed and recited.  It is the story a community relies upon in crisis and one by which the truth or falseness of every other story is judged.)  

a) Deuteronomy 26:5-9, a liturgical confession which Israel recites before the altar as she brings her offering.   The offering is a crucial statement o loyalty and allegiance, and in that context Israel asserts her deepest and most precious story. 

 Deut.  6:20 - 24,  a teaching recital in response to the stylized question of a child.  It has been suggested that this is a formula for catechetical instruction,  though it is the child who asks and the parents who answer (not a bad catechetical method). 

c)  Joshua 24: 1-13,  a speech before a national assembly in which Israel is constituted as a self-conscious covenantal community, some think for the first time.   The assembly consists in all kinds of people with diverse stories.  Here is declared to them the one story which is now to be the shared ground for their common life. 

d)  Since von Rad, other scholars have suggested that Exodus 15: 1-18 may be a much earlier and more convincing example of the primal narrative than those cited by von Rad.  It is likely that Exodus 15 is the earliest presentation we have of such a normative statement of faith,  but that difference from von Rad is not important for the point being made here  It is a recital just after the deliverance from slavery in which Israel asserted her deepest confession in an exalted mood of jubilation. 

Von Rad has made it clear that these assertions come behind and before any reasoned theology or any apologetic concern to justify faith to outsiders.  They are the assertions which Israel knew intuitively to be true and which she eagerly asserted in situations of urgency when it was necessary to announce her peculiar historical identity.

And that's just the beginning of one way into The Bible, something which I doubt any of the exhibits in The Bible Museum will either start or encourage, much.

In his criticism of the temple that American journalism built for itself, the "Newseum" Jack Shaffer said that it was a distortion of journalism to try to capture it in exhibits and material artifacts, reporters dresses,  even entire offices.  Believe it or not they've got Tim Russert's entire office which would be a better monument to celebrity and bad journalism than to anything else.   And if you can say that about American journalism, it's far more true of  the far more varied far more obscure and poetic collection, composed over many varied centuries which is The Bible.

I have taken to encouraging people to read The Bible Makes Sense, not because it comes to any kind of definitive and exhaustive explanation of The Bible but it shows how those are not part of it and are not the point.  Even with that beginning (if you want to start there) it showed the early Israel explaining themselves to themselves in terms that they would have known and agreed to and it is not sufficient for us to explain ourselves to ourselves and our relationship to the Hebrew scriptures and the later Greek ones.   Brueggemann's book is, rather, what the introduction by its editor said,

... it is a unique how-to book about the Bible. Brueggemann proposes that Christians should approach the Bible not as a collection of ancient documents, but as our partner in an ongoing dialogue about our life here and now. This book explains how to enter into this dialogue, how to listen, and how to respond.

It's a beginning of a dialogue, not a summation of one.


  1. The primary issue with reading scripture is that it wasn't written to be a modern novel, or even a blogpost (both of which assume a community we are a part of, which is not the communities of the people who penned the scriptures). It was written for a community, not for people to find in their hotel rooms in 21st century America. Sure, you can proof-text it for all kinds of nonsense, and plenty of religious people (hem hem Roy Moore hem hem) do.

    But that's not the fault of the scriptures, nor of religion in general. But if you don't understand what scripture is for, what it's about, where it comes from; if you don't approach it, in other words, on the right terms, you get it all wrong.

    Which, if that's what you want to do, is fine; just don't keep telling me I'm the one who doesn't understand. Life's too short for that.

    1. Or using it like a recipe book or a book of divination.

      It's a lot like the pretenses of reading the Constitution for the "original intent" of the "founders", which, if you look into the context of the "founding" was hardly uniform or often sordid enough that anyone who would want to follow their intentions would be more likely to cause an insurrection of those who were intended to be oppressed and those who don't want to oppress them.

      I think that's the kind of "modern scientific understanding" that is unhelpful in either case, trying to discern one single final answer to it. In one of his talks Brueggemann talks about how wonderful the rabbinical commentaries are with their many windows of commentary on a single page, reflecting different facets of understanding.

    2. The books themselves are a collection of voices (J,E,D, P). It's a multiplicity of views and responses to the presence of the Creator in the life of the people (and of individuals). To treat it as a singular "Word" is to distort even the meaning of "logos", which is partly where we get the idea of "God's word."

      I find it a book of people, by people, for people, about experiences of people and the source of all things. Take it that way, it's illuminating. Reduce it to divinations or recipes or stories as we understand the term today (you don't want my lecture on narrative voice and its historical development across the threshold of the Romantic revolution), and you get it all wrong.

      As the rabbis understand, no sound (i.e., approved by the community) understanding is wholly right, or wholly wrong. It, too, is part of the scriptures (in its way).