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!