Thursday, October 27, 2016

What on earth is the Bible for?

What on earth is the Bible for?

A sermon preached in the Chapel of Queen's College, Oct 16th 2016
(Queen's is a residential college attached to the University of Melbourne)

During the week I was driving through that most tranquil of middle-to-upper class Melbourne suburbs, Ivanhoe, with its comfortable houses, trimmed gardens and tidy footpaths. Suddenly a very angry looking billboard claimed my attention. In big bold letters: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And then below that in even bolder capital letters:  “READ YOUR BIBLE.”


During the 2013 election campaign, then PM, Kevin Rudd, was questioned on Q&A by a  ‘pastor’from Queensland who challenged Rudd on the issue of same-sex marriage. The pastor claimed that he couldn’t support Rudd since his policy was ‘contrary to what the Bible says.’
A couple of years ago, Andrew Bolt, someone who is probably not often quoted in the hallowed halls of Queen’s College, wrote a column about his discovery of the fact that there are two quite different creation myths in the Bible’s first book, Genesis.  For reasons that were not clear, Bolt was troubled by the content of this discovery, and the fact that he’d only just discovered this.
* * * *
Three little cameos that remind us that notwithstanding the decline in allegiance to Christianity in Australia in recent decades, the bible still has some vague kind of cultural presence, even some kind cultural currency.
I point this out not to gloat about the fact.
In fact I find each of these cameos quite disturbing.
I am indifferent to whether or not the bible still possesses any cultural currency.
But as a Christian minister and theologian, I am not indifferent to the way the bible is used.
The angry ‘Read Your Bible’ on the billboard assumes not only that everyone has a bible but also that you can pick it up, read it and that its meaning will be obvious.
The pastor from Queensland assumes that the Bible's words are clear and unaware that the bible is a text that needs to be interpreted before it can be used in Christian teaching.
Andrew Bolt appears to assume that the Bible should be more coherent than in it is, unaware that the bible is a collection of literature which derives much of its literary power precisely from the fact that is filled with tensions and diverse voices.
If there is confusion about how to use the bible, then Christians have to bear much of the blame.
Christians have been too quick to use the bible as a ‘rule book’, a ‘guide for living’, a kind of religious encyclopaedia, some sort of compendium of doctrine, or even as a divine oracle that conveys God’s voice directly to the reader.
More disturbingly, many have used it as a battering ram to inflict their own beliefs on others or to demand others agree with them.
Of course, during the 1700 years or so that what we recognise as the Bible has existed, it has been used and misused in all sorts of ways.
In this respect its fate has been no different than that of the authoritative literature of other communities.
Think how the American Constitution is used and misused, not least in discussions on its Second Amendment. Or listen in to Marxists making contrary appeals to Marx’s writings.  Or think how different directors instruct their respective casts to perform Shakespeare.
All authoritative literature bears its authority in the midst of disputes about its interpretation.
So can we say anything about how the Bible should be used?
Are their criteria for deciding some ways are legitimate ways of using it and some are illegitimate?
Well, what bearing does tonight’s reading from the text known as 2 Tim chapter 3 have on our questions.
This is one of the texts which has often been used as a battering ram to decide the question of what the bible is for.
All scripture is inspired (or God-breathed) by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correcting and training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
It seems rather straightforward: teaching, reproof, correction, training, being equipped.
But is it actually quite so straightforward?
In fact there are all sorts of ironies here:
What this letter was written – sometime in the second half of the first century of the Christian era, neither its author or initial readers would never have thought of this text itself as ‘scripture’. The writer wrote it and the reader read it as an exhortation to read the Israel’s own scriptures. For when this letter was written, there was no Christian bible.
It is hard to take this, therefore, as a comprehensive answer to the question of what the Christian Bible is for. 
* * * *
An answer to the question of what is the Bible must be shaped in part by our knowledge of what it is and how it came to be.
So, a few facts and figures, and a plea that you put aside Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code explanation of the  Bible as an imposition on the church by the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine.
Perhaps the most basic thing to say about the Bible is it that it is a two-volume work. The first, 37 different documents, consists of the canonical literature of the Jewish people. The second, 29 different documents, consists of the the authoritative literature of the early Christian community.
The first testament includes literature generated over perhaps a millennium, but collated in more or less its present form when Israel was held captive in Babylon during the sixth century before Christ.
This literature draws on a vast range of genres: myth, law, liturgy, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic, doctrine, tragedy, and royal ideologies.
It is held together by a cluster of convictions that God had called Israel to a special vocation for the sake of the  world, and that despite Israel’s repeatedly dire circumstances, God would be faithful to Israel, and through Israel, to the whole world.
The second testament includes literature generated over , by comparison, an incredibly short period: at most five decades in the second half of the first century. It begins to be recognised as authoritative for the later Christian community in the second and third centuries. 
This literature of the second testament draws on a much more limited range of genres:  summaries of Jesus’ life (which we called gospels), letters from various Christian leaders to various Christian communities scattered around the Mediterranean, and some sermons and apocalyptic. 
This second testament is held together by a cluster of convictions that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and risen, and that as such was Israel’s promised Messiah.
The two volumes are put together in the one collection because of the conviction that the story of Jesus told in the second testament was the climax of Israel’s story. This, of course, is a conviction that remains contested by Jews and Christians to this day.
So, the bible didn’t just fall out of heaven.
It’s diverse literature and its collation was driven – however informally – by certain convictions about God, Jesus, creation and the world.
This, I think, helps us, to answer the question ‘what is the bible for?’
* * *
When we read the bible, we are entering into a narrative of witness to diverse views about the events and ideas which generated Christianity.
And those ideas are often in tension with each other. There are debates going on within the pages of the bible about how best to be faithful to the events to which it points.
For instance, take the verse which last year Donald Trump declared as his favourite: Exodus 21: 25.
But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
According to press reports, he applied the verse to mean that the government should treat in kind those who have taken American jobs, money, and health.
Quite apart from the fact that Jesus invited his followers to turn their back on this teaching, Jewish scholars will say that even in its Jewish context this text is not actually a straightforward teaching of retribution in the first place. In fact, they take it as a rejection other texts which seem to condone outright retribution. So, the very presence of this text is itself a kind of argument for some form of proportional justice.
On the basis of Jesus’ teaching about this very text, however, Christians are called to an even more radical restorative justice. But the point about the Exodus text is, I hope, clear. It has a context and it reflects that Jews were debating amongst themselves the very character and nature of justice.
It is possible to offer similar readings of the New Testament material.
The mere fact that we have four gospels, each with clearly different interests, also points to the fact that the early Christians were exploring the tensions inherent in their generative cluster of convictions. And they were quite comfortable in holding them in tension.
The coherence and consistency in the Bible, the absence of which was such a disappointment to Andrew Bolt , is not what the Bible provides. And, more importantly, it is no less persuasive for that.
The Bible emerged because people were re-shaping,  or re-imagining, their worldviews on the basis of these core convictions about Jesus as Israel’s messiah.
* * *
That helps to tell us what the Bible is for. It is collection of literature into whose diversity and tensions we are invited to enter to see how our own imaginations might be re-shaped.
The Australian writer Margaret Wertheim, has said:: “From Homer to Asimov, one the functions of all great literature has…been to invoke believable ‘other’ worlds.  Operating purely on the power of words, books project us into utterly absorbing alternative realities.” She includes the bible as an example of such literature.
One theologian has developed a similar line of thought.
…Scripture [is] itself a body of literature that does not primarily describe the world but rather imagines a world, and by imagining it, reveals it,
Please note that I am not proposing a sacrificium intellectus by which we retreat to a biblical cosmology and psychology and pretend that they are adequate to our present day sense of science.  Just the opposite:  I suggest that we expand our minds by entering into the imaginative world of scripture.
…To live within this imaginative world is not to flee from reality but to constitute an alternative reality. (Luke Timothy Johnson)

To understand the bible in these terms invites us to come to it with the question, ‘What if…”  What if God does exist….. What if God has entered the world in Jesus of Nazareth... What if in him there is reconciliation and new life. What if……
Then to read the bible is to re-imagine the world,  God, and our lives as something of inherent value and grounded in the love which is at the heart of all reality.
So, instead of an angry 'Read your Bible', there is an invitation to imagine the world of God and creation that the Bible imagines. And to read the bible like this is to begin, at least in part, to read it for what it’s for. AMEN.


One point of the compass said...

Thanks for this, Geoff. With your permission, I'd like to draw my congregation's attention to this piece - not because they're in need of any kind of correction. Far from it! But I think this would be a nice reassurance that we're coming at scripture from the right direction.

Geoff Thompson said...

Sure. Very happy for it to be used. (And once on the blog it's a public document, so permission not needed, but I appreciated you asked.) I'd be interested to hear what reactions it might get.

Pamela said...

Luke Timothy Johnson's words recognise what every reader looks for: an imaginative and personal interaction with the text. What more can we ask?

Rod said...

Geoff, Thanks for another exposition that ought to be unnecessary in a church whose Reformers shed blood to preserve such an understanding of the Bible and to make the text available to people in their own languages. But interpretation is another thing...