Saturday, 7 November 2009

Who really believes the Bible?

In Exodus 31:15 it says: 'whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death'. This is one of many passages in the Old Testament laying down the death penalty, but while reading it the other day the thought struck me almost as if it were new. So many people say they believe every bit of the Bible is the infallible word of God, 'the Maker's instructions' and so on. But who takes passages like this seriously?

Of course, Christians don't observe the Sabbath anyway, which is strange when you consider it is in the Ten Commandments, which most Christians talk of as the 'core' set of God's laws. We observe the first day of the week as 'the Lord's Day', but many Christians call it the Sabbath and have all sorts of rules about it. But have you heard of anyone recently, whether Jewish or Christian, advocating the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath?

They accuse us 'liberals' of picking and choosing rather than accepting the whole Bible as the Word of God. But doesn't everybody?

Friday, 21 August 2009

What is God like, really?

In my reading through the Bible I am now in the middle of Exodus. In chapter 19 the Israelites are at the foot of Mount Sinai. The LORD tells Moses to go down and warn the people not to come near the mountain, not to "break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish". Then again "the LORD" says "do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them". It seems "the LORD" is talking about himself in the third person, and warning people that he is dangerous!

There are many passages like this in the Old Tstament. There is, for instance, the strange little story of how the LORD, having sent Moses into Egypt to tell Pharaoh to set the people free, meets him on the road and tries to kill him, and how apparently his wife saves his life by cutting off his son's foreskin and touching his feet with it (Exodus 4:24-26). What kind of a god is this who keeps trying to destroy people for no apparent reason?

We today like to dismiss things like this as ancient mythology based on a false view of God. But just think for a minute. Perhaps the ancient writers were simply being logical. If there is one God who controls everything, and bad things happen sometimes unexpectedly and without reason, then it must be God doing them - who else could it be? We, on the other hand, believe in a God who is all loving. But we are still stuck with the fact that bad things happen - not only bad things, but quite cruel, arbitrary and senseless things. Is the Old Testament picture of God just a way of recognising that God is beyond our understanding and can never be tamed into what we would like him to be? Were those writers perhaps more honest and realistic than we are?

If we believe in God as the Father of Jesus Christ, an all-loving God, we do so in the face of loads of evidence to the contrary. Perhaps these ancient images of an unpredictable, impersonal, dangerous God are a sobering reminder of this. Like the Bible writers, we struggle to believe that God is on our side, and sometimes it is really difficult.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

This one got to me!

In my reading of the Bible from the beginning, the first time I really felt emotionally grabbed was at Genesis 22. This is the story of Abraham being called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac.

On one level it is an appalling story. Would God be so cruel? Moreover, we are not told whether Sarah, the boy's mother, was consulted - probably not. Isaac certainly wasn't. He is treated as a thing to be sacrificed rather than as a person in his own right. My interpretation of this story, if it is an actual event, is that Abraham thought he should sacrifice his son. To sacrifice one's firstborn son was the most pious action imaginable in the culture of that time. Perhaps Abraham, aware of being chosen by God for some holy purpose, reasoned that he could not do any less than what other holy people did. Perhaps he was agonising in his conscience for years about this, and ultimately decided it had to be done. Then he experienced a sign - a ram caught in a thicket - which convinced him that God was telling him not to do it.

This in itself is suggestive. Often the only way a religious taboo is broken down is by some undeniable sign - some personal experience, or amazing coincidence, that convinces us that a moral taboo or "law" that we have questioned for some time is really no longer applicable. Peter had that kind of experience at Joppa. People today too are often changed by overwhelming experience, so that they feel at ease about setting themselves free from what they thought was an absolute prohibition - e.g., saying "yes" to a loving homosexual relationship.

But to come to the point of my finding myself emotionally involved - it is something about the way the story is told. It is a real human drama, understated (like all good stories) but saying enough to draw you into the situation. Reading it, I could feel the unbearable tension in Abraham, the innocent puzzlement of Isaac, and the appalling thing that was about to happen. Then the climax, when Isaac's life is saved at the very last moment, and God praises Abraham for his willingness to make that ultimate sacrifice.

Misguided it may have been - cruel by our standards today - but within the limitations of his culture and his understanding Abraham was willing to do the right thing no matter what it cost. That has to be admired, and we have to ask ourselves: how much am I willing to sacrifice for what I really believe in? What does God ask of me, and am I willing to give it?

Friday, 5 June 2009

A Disreputable Incident - in Triplicate

In Genesis 12 there is a story about Abram and Sarai (as they still were then) going into Egypt, and Abram passing Sarai off as his sister because she was so beautiful that he was afraid people would kill him if they knew she was his wife. This is already a bit strange, considering that she was at least 65 by that time (cf. Gen.12:4; 17:17). Pharaoh takes her into his house (presumably as one of his harem), and the whole household is afflicted by plagues because he has committed adultery. He finds out the truth, hands her back to Abram and sends him away. Pharaoh is punished for something he did in all innocence, while Abram, having been a coward and a liar, goes away vastly better off because of all the gifts Pharaoh showered on him when he thought he was his brother-in-law! In the words of Abraham a little later on: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

Later on, in chapter 20 (by which time Sarah is at least 90!), Abraham plays the same trick again, this time on Abimelech, king of Gerar. In this case insult is added to injury. God tells Abimelech that he will die unless he takes Sarah back to Abraham and asks Abraham to pray for him to be forgiven! Abimelech willingly does this, taking with him a present of a thousand pieces of silver and numerous cattle, sheep and slaves.

Then in chapter 26 Abraham's son Isaac tries the same trick again with Abimelech, but not so successfully. Nevertheless, Isaac is blessed by God.

Again, what kind of God is this?

God and the Flood

As I was reading the Flood story, two things struck me.

The first was the extreme unlikelihood of it. My mind is not closed to miracles, but really! Can we believe that "all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered" (Gen.7:19)? In order to cover Everest the water would have to be more than five miles deep. There isn't that much water on the planet! And where did it all drain off to afterwards? And how could all species that live on the land be accommodated in the ark, including all the food they would need for 120 days, bearing in mind that many animals can only survive by eating other animals? There would need to be a lot more than one pair of some species, or even seven pairs.

The other thing that struck me was: what kind of God is this? He creates the world and the human beings in it. He then regrets creating them (does God change his mind?), so he decides to send a flood to destroy them all, and to destroy all the animals, reptiles and birds at the same time. What wrong had they done to deserve this? And what makes the fish so innocent? Then, when Noah comes out of the ark and offers a burnt offering of some of the birds and animals whose lives he has saved, God smells the pleasing odour and says "I won't do it again". The reason he gives is that "the inclination of the human heart is evel from youth" (Gen.7:21). Didn't God know that already? The story sounds like the experience of some abused women with their husbands - he's got a vicious temper, but the smell of a nice dinner in the oven soon cools him down! Is God really like that?

No doubt conservative Bible believers will think I am just a scoffer. But not so. My point is that if we tie God's authority to every story in the Bible we are idolising the Bible at the cost of belittling and insulting God. The Bible is a very mixed and earthy collection of writings, some of them by people whose view of God was rather primitive. If it is in any sense the word of God, it must be because God in his grace is able to use even wrong ideas to serve his purpose.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Reading through Genesis

I've just set myself the project of reading right through the Bible. I have done this once or twice, a long time ago, but this time I'm determined to enjoy it! Never mind about puzzling out its meaning or consciously asking "what God is telling me". I'm just reading it as a book, and letting myself react to it in a natural way. At the same time, I am sure God will tell me lots of things through it.

I'm actually reading it in Welsh, partly because being a late learner of Welsh I want to familiarise myself with the Welsh Bible, and partly because it means reading a version I have never read before. It comes very fresh in this way. I can recommend that if you have a second language you try reading the Bible in it.

One thing that jumps out of the page at me in the early chapters of Genesis is the obvious inconsistencies. The second chapter is quite incompatible with the first. In Genesis 1 God creates plants on the third day, birds and reptiles on the fifth day, and animals and human beings on the sixth day. In Genesis 2 he creates a man before there are even any plants. He then plants a garden for him, then creates the animals, and finally a woman. They are quite obviously two different stories, each beautiful in its own way, and we ruin them by trying to interpret them as literal.

Other inconsistencies are obvious too. Where did Cain find a wife? How could Cain's descendant Jabal be the ancestor of those who live in tents and have livestock, and Jubal the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe, when the whole human race except Noah and his family was wiped out in the Flood?

After generations of people who lived more than 900 years, we read in Genesis 6:3 that just before the Flood God determined that from then on no-one would live more than 120 years. And yet in Genesis 11 we find the descendants of Noah for several generations living for more than 400 years, and for a few more generations at least 200.

All this makes it quite incredible to me that anyone can interpret the Bible as literal history. It is a huge collection of stories, and we enjoy them best by reading one at a time.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

So you believe the Bible is the Word of God. Really?

At a service I attended recently, the Bible readings were done by two teenagers. Both made a mess of it. They were reasonably intelligent young people, but had obviously not bothered to rehearse the reading beforehand. One of them got hopelessly tongue-twisted on a fairly simple biblical name, and the congregation laughed sympathetically. And this is an "evangelical" church where people insist they believe the Bible is the Word of God!

Readings are often taken by young people, children, or lay people. Why? To give the minister's voice a rest? To encourage someone who might otherwise lose interest in coming to church? Or because, while you need a properly educated and ordained person to preach the sermon or administer the sacraments, anybody will do for the "Word of God"?

Even worse perhaps, many "evangelical" services these days have little or no Bible reading at all - it's crowded out by loads of sentimental choruses and self-centred prayers.

When people say "I believe the Bible is the Word of God", the first thing I want to say is "Have you read it? and if not, why not?" If it really is God's Word, how can you possibly be so casual about not having read much of it? What more important things do you have to do?

And then if people do read it, how much do they actually believe it? We easily get round many of the Old Testament commandments - not eating pork, stoning adulterers to death, feeling OK about owning slaves etc. - by saying these are laws abrogated by Christ. But if they are in the Bible they must be the Word of God. So what do we mean? That they are (or were?) the Word of God, but not to us?

Even parts of the New Testament are treated in this way. Women preachers shout about the Bible being the infallible Word of God, conveniently ignoring the fact that according to the New Testament they shouldn't be preaching at all! There is increasing acceptance in "evangelical" churches today of divorce and re-marriage - a good thing in my opinion, but not exacly biblical. So how much do people really believe this is the Word of God?

The way some people shout about the Bible being "the Word of God" makes it little more than a slogan with no practical implications. Perhaps we should all - "evangelicals" and "liberals" alike - stop this silly posturing and start really reading the Bible and treating it with the respect it deserves. Better to disagree with it respectfully than to "believe" it without bothering to read it.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Memory and Law

I have just finished reading Barack Obama's book Dreams from my Father - a marvellous book. Much of it is concerned with identity, background and memory. After recounting his first visit to Kenya to meet his extended family and see his ancestral home, with all the conflicting emotions that brought up, he tells how he went on to become a law student. He remarks that law too is memory: it "records a long-running conversation. a nation arguing with its conscience".

This is only one of many great turns of phrase in the book, but it occurred to me that it suggests something very important about the Bible. The Bible too is a long-running conversation, a nation arguing with its experience of God. This is the meaning of the "contradictions" found in the Bible, both in the stories and in the "legal" bits. It sets the model for the conversation that still goes on in the Jewish and Christian communities. God has not laid down a law. God's activity in the world sparks off a conversation.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

My Love Affair with the Bible

I first recall being really interested in the Bible when I was in Grammar School. "Religious Education" lessons were a bit hit and miss in those days (as they probably are today), but one year our history teacher, Percy Williams, who was a keen Methodist (it sometimes showed in his history lessons too!), took us through the Acts of the Apostles. In those days we hardly ever saw anything except the Authorised Version, which was difficult for a child to understand, but Percy Williams taught us to read it slowly, thinking about every word, and the whole story came alive. Using that technique, I went on to read even the Epistles of Paul, and found I could understand them most of the time.

At 17 I started preaching. My usual way of preparing a sermon was to pick a text that jumped out of the page at me, and build my ideas around it. Sometimes, needless to say, my ideas (good and Christian as they might have been!) sometimes had little to do with the actual meaning of the phrase in its context. This was a concern I was first taught when I went to theological college. My sermons then became careful expositions of the text in its context.

The next step I owe largely to Henton Davies, Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford, while I was there. He was a great believer in "concordance work". Up to that time I had thought of a concordance as just a handy reference book to look up a text that was on your mind but you couldn't remember where it was. Henton Davies taught us to browse through the concordance to see how a particular word was used in different parts of the Bible and how the theme was developed. My sermons then became the tracing of a theme from the early parts of the Old Testament to its culmination in Christ. Browsing the concordance and exploring the Bible became one of my greatest pleasures.

After I had been in the ministry for a few years, a conference speaker whose name I can't remember left me with a powerful message. He stressed that the whole Bible, every bit of it, is important, and if we take it all seriously we will never be short of preaching material. From that time on I began going through the Bible book by book and chapter by chapter, alternating Old Testament and New Testament books. By the time I left that pastorate I had got as far as Daniel in the Old Testament and 2 Corinthians in the New. Since then I have usually followed a lectionary, but still with the attempt to deal seriously with every part of the Bible, including the most difficult bits.

After nearly 20 years in the ministry I had a year off to study, and did a thesis on the question of the New Testament Canon. I had never been a conservative Bible believer (or at least not since childhood, when I was unaware of any alternative). However, that year of study and thinking brought home to me something that had never quite hit me before, namely that there is no logical halfway position between strict fundamentalism and complete scepticism about the authority of the Bible. However we dress it up with high-sounding theological contortions, the idea of a partial authority of the Bible is untenable.

We may say it is inaccurate in its history, biology etc., but infallible in what it says about God. But most of the things it says about God are about God's actions in history - if they didn't really happen, where does that leave us? Worse than that, many of the things said about God's actions and commands in books like Leviticus and Deuteronomy are morally appalling. Unless we are absolute fundamentalists (and I have never yet met one), we have to recognise that the Bible writers could be just as wrong about God as they were about history and science. If we do not take every word of the Bible as infallible, there is no reason why we should believe anything just because it is in the Bible.

Does this mean we need not bother with the Bible because it is unreliable and misleading? "God forbid" as Paul (in the AV) would say! It is in the Bible that we have the story on which our faith is based, and all sorts of wonderful statements to which our faith can respond. I know from experience that newspapers are full of exaggerations, slanted news, and sometimes even statements that are blatantly untrue. But I still read the paper to catch up with the news and occasionally find some wise analysis and sound opinions. So with the Bible.

To use another analogy: we can relate to the Bible like we relate to our parents. Most of us love our parents. We owe to them the fact that we are alive at all. quite apart from all the love and kindness they have shown us. When we were children they were infallible. When we were teenagers they were always wrong, boring and hopelessly out of touch. Now we are grown up we appreciate them for what they are. We don't agree with all their points of view or share all their tastes. Perhaps we remember things they did that were really wrong. But we appreciate and love them for what they are.

It was out of this love for the Bible, anger at seeing it abused and twisted, and determination still to take is all seriously, that I wrote "Let the Bible be Itself".

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Welcome to my Blog!

This is a blog about the Bible - how we read it, how we think about it, how we cope with it in all its mixed-up reality, what it means in today's world. It is also about preaching, and may stray into more general concerns about Christian faith and spirituality.

I hope it will attract comments about my recently published book, "Let the Bible be Itself". The title, I must confess, was an inspiration fairly late in the production process, but I feel it is an ideal expression of my central concern about the Bible. Some people think of the Bible as a dead, static collection of "divine" oracles. Others distort its meaning by enslaving it to one traditional interpretation, the "Evangelical" or the "Catholic" one, and either ignore or twist the bits that don't fit in. Some "liberals" try to pretend it says what they want to hear, and conveniently ignore the fact that much of the Bible is not liberal or humane at all but cruel, militaristic, patriarchal and at times racist.

Why don't we stop trying to create a Bible in our own image, and just let it be what it is - a huge, marvellous jumble of human stories, dreams and ideas that somehow relate to the human experience of God, and especially of the God known by Jews and Christians? Sometimes it makes us what to say "Amen". Sometimes it comforts us. Sometimes it challenges us. Sometimes it puzzles us, annoys us, or puts us off religion altogether. But there is no point in pretending it is something other than what it is. I believe that the best way we can appreciate the Bible, and be inspired by it, is by reacting naturally to it, coming as ourselves to the Bible as itself.

I want to explore, and discuss with you readers (if any!) what will be the shape of biblical interpretation along these lines. So - comments please!