Monday, 24 September 2012

More DIY Biblical Criticism

Having looked at the Creation story in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a, let's now look at the other story that starts halfway though verse 4 of chapter 2.
If we are being really nit-picking, we could point out a contradiction in the first verse of this story: ‘In the day’, not the week. However, even this is a hint that we are beginning a different story.

More significantly, the Creator is referred to in a different way: not ‘God’ but ‘the LORD God’. ‘The LORD’, printed in block capitals in English Bibles, stands for the divine name sometimes rendered ‘JEHOVAH’ or, in the Jerusalem Bible (following scholarly theory as to the original form of the name) ‘Yahweh’. This is not just ‘God’ as a universal concept but an individual God with a proper name (this is how the whole JEDP hypothesis got started). 
There seem to be two reasons why there were no plants at first: there was no rain, and no-one to till the ground. This suggests that human beings came first, not last as in chapter 1.

This God, Yahweh, is much more of a ‘hands on’ creator than the God of chapter 1. He forms a man out of the dust and breathes into his nostrils to give him life. He plants a garden, brings the animals to the man to name them, and then performs an operation on the man to produce a woman.
Where is the Garden of Eden? Verse 8 says that is was ‘in the east’. Later (vs 10-14) it seems to be a garden that still exists: a river ‘flows’ out of it (present tense). and divides into four branches. The Tigris and the Euphrates are well known, but what about the other two? Are they meant to be major rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates, maybe the Nile and some other river? Or is this an attempt to locate the garden in some distant place by someone who had (in common with most people of that time) a very vague idea of geography?

In vs 18ff we see again a very personal, almost human God. He is not even omniscient. Only after creating a man did he realise that the man needed a companion. Then he made animals and brought them to the man ‘to see what he would call them’. God then seems surprised that not one of them is a fit companion for him, so at last he makes a woman out of the man’s own flesh.
But with all its primitive-sounding simplicity, this story makes some very true and profound observations. It suggests a relationship between humanity and the earth that is not just ‘dominion’: the man’s function is to ‘till’ and ‘keep’ the garden. It also recognises the fact that human beings are the only species that can ‘name’ creation: an idea that scientists and philosophers still ponder today. Chapter 2 ends with the statement that the man and woman were naked and not ashamed: a very simple and profound observation about our ambivalent relationship with our bodies and the issues surrounding mutual exposure and vulnerability.

The fact that these two very different stories stand side by side at the beginning of the Bible already points to the Bible’s nature as a mixed collection of writings by different people and from different cultures and points of view: a vital fact to realise if we are to appreciate the Bible realistically and not misunderstand it.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Is This Use or Abuse?

Trying to plan a service with a colleague for a somewhat unusual occasion has made me ask some difficult questions about the place of the Bible in Christian worship.
In thinking about the sermon, we knew what we wanted to say, and we had no doubt that it was close to the heart of the Christian message. The problem came when we started looking for a New Testament reading. Every passage we thought of seemed to be a poor fit. It contained an inspiring phrase or sentence that was right on message, but when we came to read the surrounding verses we thought, ‘No, that’s not quite suitable’. In its context it was not quite saying the kind of thing we wanted to say. In some cases there was a bit of doctrinal baggage or a bit of historical background that would have to be unpacked and possibly explained to people in the kind of congregation we were expecting, and this would be a distraction from the main point of the service.
This of course prompts the question: if we can’t find a place in the Bible that plainly declares this message, is it because the message is not actually biblical at all? Are we trying to make the Bible say something it doesn’t say, or trying desperately to convince ourselves that our message is the Bible’s message?

This is of course not necessarily so. If we really  believe that our message is true to the spirit of the Bible, or, more important, to the spirit of Christ who is the true Word, does it matter that there is no place in the Bible that spells it out in exactly the same way as we would?
We surely have a good precedent in the way the New Testament writers treated the Hebrew Scriptures. They quoted them frequently, and usually way out of context. The most extreme example of this is the way they sometimes took the Septuagint’s expression ‘the Lord’ (a translation of the divine Name itself) as referring to ‘the Lord’ Jesus. Because they saw Jesus as the fulfilment and the real meaning of all the Scriptures they had no hesitation in assuming that, whatever the context and whatever the original writer’s intention, they could draw on any passage in the Bible to back up what they believed about Jesus.

But perhaps there is a difference. In the Christian Church today, and for many centuries past, there is a tradition of reading a passage of Scripture as the ‘lesson’ for the day and then preaching on it. The sermon is meant to be an exposition of the Bible passage, and, as the old saying goes, ‘a text without its context is a pretext’. Honesty demands that we take seriously what the text means before we start asking what its relevance may be for us today.
However, when we look at the preaching of the early disciples, especially as we see it in the book of Acts, this was not the style at all. In most of their public proclamation of the gospel, they did not read a Bible passage and then expound it. They preached their message and backed it up with any snippets of Scripture that occurred to them. It is our tradition of formal worship that demands that there should be a ‘reading’ as well as a ‘sermon’ in every service, and that the two should be closely related.

Perhaps we should recognise more clearly that there are two kinds of sermon, and be more honest about both of them. There is the expository sermon, when we take careful note of what the Bible actually says and wrestle with its meaning for us today. Then there is the topical or situational sermon, when it is a current situation or concern that sets the agenda. In this kind of sermon we still try to be true to the Christian message in spirit, but are free to use any part of the Bible, even if only a striking phrase here and there, as back-up and illustration. With this kind of sermon there really doesn’t need to be a ‘reading’ as such. And even if there is one it need not necessarily be from the Bible.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A DIY Critical Study of Genesis 1

In my book Chasing an Elusive God (to be published soon) I make the point that the ordinary reader of the Bible can to some extent be his or her own biblical critic. It is not necessary to know all the latest theories of the scholars: the scholars themselves have difficulty keeping up with each other. What is important is a curious, questioning approach to the Bible: not assuming it means what we have been taught it means, but seeing it as it is, and noticing the oddities, the inconsistencies, the ‘seams’ where different things have been stitched together.
One of the first things academic Bible students learn about the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) is that they were not written by Moses, but consist of four strands written at different times, and known as J, E, D and P. This theory, though scholars differ about the details, is still fairly generally accepted more than 130 years after it was first formulated by Julius Wellhausen. Ordinary readers cannot be expected to know which passages belong to which of these strands. Scholars still disagree about it, and about how and when they each came into being. What I suggest, however, is that the ordinary non-scholarly reader can find fascinating insights simply by noticing that there are differences and thinking about them.
The same principle applies to the historical background of the Bible writings. Most people who read the Bible have some vague idea of the historical and cultural background, but nobody knows all the facts: they are constantly being modified by archaeology and often disputed between different scholars. However, it can be interesting and fruitful simply to read a passage of the Bible and think about what sort of person wrote it, or what sort of community produced it, and in what sort of situation. Hints of this can be found just by studying the passage itself and stopping to think about anything in it that looks odd.
Here is my attempt to do this with the first chapter of Genesis (strictly speaking, Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 – the chapter division is odd here). I cannot pretend not to be influenced by the odd things I have picked up from  scholarly commentaries, but I am trying as far as possible to stick to what any reasonably intelligent readers could work out for themselves.
Some people still take this as a literal, factual account of the creation of the world. One of the strongest arguments against this is that it talks of God creating day and night on the first day but not creating the sun till the fourth day!
But even if we do not attempt to take the story literally, this is still puzzling. Assuming this was an imaginative account of creation based on the state of human knowledge at that time, it would surely have been obvious even then that the alternation of night and day has something to do with the sun: day begins when the sun rises and night comes when it sets. Not only is this a common-sense perception, but at the time when this story was probably written the Babylonians and others already had a very sophisticated understanding of the movements of the sun, moon, stars and planets.
The obvious implication is that this story was never meant to be a literal account of creation at all. Its writer was fully aware that there could be no day and night without the sun. If we look more carefully at the pattern of six days, and what happened on each day, we find that the order is not chronological but thematic.

The story begins with chaos: ‘the earth was a formless void’. It describes how God sorted out the chaos, separating the spheres and putting them in their proper place, and then fills them. So it works out as follows:
Day 1: God creates the separate spheres of light and darkness.

Day 2: God sorts out the waters, making the separate spheres of sea and sky.
Day 3: God sorts out the earth, separating the dry land from the sea and making the land bring forth vegetation.

Having told how God created these spheres, the account then returns to each of them to fill in the details.
Day 4: Within his creation of light God creates the sun, moon and stars. Their function is ‘to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness’ (v 18, repeating the words of vs 4-5).

Day 5: God gives his attention to the sphere of water, the sea and the sky: he fills the sea with sea creatures and the sky with birds.
Day 6: God then deals with the dry land, filling it with animals and reptiles, and then  creating human beings.

From this pattern it emerges that the account of the second half of the week is meant to fill in the details that were not mentioned in the first half. This has nothing to do with the order in which things were created, only with ‘order’ in the sense of arrangement and tidiness.
There are a few other odd things in this passage that make us stop and think. For instance, why does it refer to ‘the greater light’ and ‘the lesser light’ rather than using the obvious words ‘sun’ and ‘moon’? The most likely answer is that these expressions are meant to drive home the point that the sun and the moon are not gods, as most people thought at that time, but merely created things like everything else.  Something similar probably lies behind the reference to ‘the great sea monsters’ (v 21). If we were asked what creatures live in the sea, our first thought would not be whales nor things like the Loch Ness Monster, but fish: so why do the ‘monsters’ feature so prominently in this account? Probably because most of the creation myths of that time talked of the sea as a great monster that had to be subdued in order for dry land and human life to exist. This story points out that whatever monsters there may be in the sea they were simply creatures put there by the one and only Creator God.

Another oddity is that the creation of human beings, represented here as the crown and climax of God’s work, does not have a day to itself. Is this a way of saying that, important as we human beings are, we are not in a category completely separate from the rest of the animals? This is an important theme of the Bible: the tension between the dignity of human beings and the infinite superiority of God. Though God loves us and gives us ‘dominion’ we are still creatures just like all the others.

Two other themes that are important to this story are probably related: the repeated reference to God seeing that his creation is good, and the Sabbath rest on the seventh day. It is as if God sets the example to us human beings. Work is essential: it is part of what we are. But it is not everything. Along with our work we need the leisure to appreciate and enjoy the fruits of it. Seven is a number that symbolises perfection.  Work is the major part of life, but rest is the crown that makes it complete. It is also evident that for whoever wrote this passage the Sabbath was very important. Its institution is the climax of the whole story.
At this point we find the first obvious ‘seam’ in the Bible. After a formal statement, ‘These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created’, we read ‘In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens’… : the beginning of another, very different story.

Monday, 16 July 2012

A God Too Hot to Handle

They’ve done it again! Like last week, the Lectionary gives us an Old Testament reading with the “nasty” bit left out. And once again, that bit has a salutary and necessary message. 

The story is of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6): an important story, because it is the point at which Jerusalem becomes “The Holy City”. It is described as an occasion of great joy and celebration – except for one thing, the bit the Lectionary leaves out. Uzzah, one of the guardians of the Ark, reached out his hand to steady it as the cart carrying it swayed over some rough ground, and he was struck dead on the spot for daring to touch the Ark of God. 

How many of us, when we hear of an act of outstanding sacrilege – like defacing a grave stone or vandalising a memorial – have not thought, “It’s a wonder God doesn’t strike them dead”? But we know that we wouldn’t really want a God like that, and stories like this belong to a more primitive and superstitious age. And in any case, poor Uzzah wasn’t committing a deliberate act of sacrilege – he only wanted to protect the Ark. We don’t want to believe in a God who could be so wrathful and unfair. 

So does the story have anything to tell us today? 

It could of course be just an incidental tale, originating in the need to explain the place-name Perez-Uzzah. However, in its context it is quite likely to be intended to make a point. It is interesting that there is no reference to the effect of this death on Uzzah’s brother and father, who were there when it happened. Whether he had a mother, a wife or children we are not told. The story is focussed purely on the effect of the incident on David, how it frightened him into temporarily calling off the whole idea of bringing the Ark into Jerusalem. 

What David was doing was a political move. The Ark of God was the most sacred symbol for all the Israelites. In fact, is was often identified with God himself. To have it in his new capital city would unify the kingdom and consolidate David’s power. Perhaps the point the narrator is making is that this incident was a warning to David that God was not there to be used for his political ends. 

That message is as necessary as ever. When Alistair Campbell, in 2003, made the blunt statement “we don’t do God”, some people were shocked. But perhaps after all there was a sound instinct behind it. Whether you are a believer or not, there is something hypocritical and essentially blasphemous about using religion to sanctify one’s policies or to catch votes. 

This applies in other spheres too. Religious people are always tempted to use God: to bring God to their aid when they want children to behave themselves and leave the adults in peace; to talk of “God’s will” in order to justify what they want to do anyway; to bring “the Lord” into the conversation to show how pious they are. Like David, we often forget what a serious and risky thing it is to deal with the real God. So much harm has been done, especially to sensitive young people, by glib evangelism and careless religious talk. In talking of God, we are dealing with people's souls, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. 

When we think about Uzzah rather than David, there is another important point. Uzzah committed sacrilege while trying to protect the Ark. What happened to him seems grossly unfair, but in a way it is symbolic of the wrong that religious people have so often done in their attempts to protect God. 

The central event of the Christian story is the greatest act of sacrilege ever committed, and that too was done by religious people. Yet, in contrast to the story of Uzzah, it is a window into the marvellous reality of the true God: the God whose response to rejection and abuse is expressed in the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

Monday, 9 July 2012

The Verses the Liturgy Makers Rejected ...

Lectionaries are a mixed blessing. On Sunday 8th July, for instance, the Old Testament reading was 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 9-10. This passage is an important turning point in the whole Bible story: it tells how David became king of the whole of Israel, took over the as yet unconquered city of Jerusalem, and made it his capital. 

The concept of “Jerusalem” or “Zion” has played an enormous part in the tradition of Jews, Christians and Muslims. It has been a hot political issue: the Crusades, Zionism, and the divided state of the city still today. It has also been a powerful spiritual image: Zion as a symbol of the Church, “Jerusalem the Golden” as a picture of heaven, and so on. Many fundamentalist Christians believe that Jerusalem will in some way play a central role in the final drama of the end of the world, and even people of no particular religion sometimes use “the New Jerusalem” as an expression for the ideal society. And it all began with that event recorded in 2 Samuel 5.  

But why verses 1-5 and 9-10? When I see a lectionary passage broken up like this I am intrigued to know what is in the missing verses, and why they are missing. In this case the three missing verses are obscure and rather nasty. They tell us how the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Jebusites, said to David “you will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”, but David sent his men up through the water-shaft and told them to attack “the lame and the blind, those whom David hates”. This probably originated as a kind of taunt. The Jebusites were so confident in their impregnable hill-top fortress that they boasted that even the blind and the lame could defend it, and David responded something like: “We’ll soon see how these blind and lame people defend their city!” Somehow the joke got a bit mixed up in the telling, and the final writer of the story rather woodenly used it as an explanation for the fact that disabled people were not allowed to come into the Temple. 

It is obvious why these verses are omitted in the prescribed reading. They don’t want us to read the nasty bits! But this is something that really annoys me about lectionaries. First, there is an element of hypocrisy about it. Why do the liturgists tell us to read a Bible passage in worship and say “This is the word of the Lord”, when they have actually censored it? What are they implying? Are they saying that this bit is not the word of the Lord, or that it is the word of the Lord but the Lord doesn’t want us to hear it? 

Not only is it hypocritical, it also misses an important part of the meaning of the passage. Surely part of the function of this story is to remind us that conquest, no matter how “glorious” it may be, always involves violence, suffering and the degrading of human beings. We need to be reminded that human idealism and glory, even (especially?) in the name of religion, always has a darker side. 

The Bible tells stories of conquests, victories and “mighty acts” that are all seen as part of God’s purpose. God, it tells us, rescued his people from slavery in Egypt: but what about those innocent people who suffered in the plagues? God miraculously led his people safely through the Red Sea: but what about all the Egyptians who were drowned? Then he brought them into the Promised Land and enabled them to possess it: but what about the people who were already there and who (it seems, by God’s express command) were massacred without mercy? 

The theme continues into modern times. The granting of the “Holy Land” as a home for the Jewish people after the horrors of the Holocaust was hailed by the Western world as a victory for freedom and civilisation, and by many believers as a fulfilment of prophecy. But it involved the displacement of Palestinians who had lived there for centuries, and the conflict and bloodshed still go on. Jerusalem is a “holy” city to Jews, Christians and Muslims, and for that very reason it is a divided, violent city. Surely, rather than sanitising this Bible story by missing out the awkward bit, we should be facing up to the fact that violence, cruelty and degrading discrimination were woven into the story of Jerusalem from the very beginning. 

It is only in the light of this reality that the Bible message offers us real hope: the hope that somehow God works through human beings with all their faults, and human history with all its contradictions and ambiguities. We believe in a God who loves all human beings. But this belief often has a hard struggle to assert itself in the Bible, as it does to this day in the churches and in the world. 

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, he accepted the people’s welcome to him as the one who came in the name of the Lord. And yet he wept over the city, and he demonstrated with anger against those who were polluting the house of God. He welcomed the children shouting their Hosannas in the holy place, which the priests and scribes thought was unseemly. And I wonder if the writer of Matthew’s Gospel had 2 Samuel 5 in mind when he mentioned that “the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them”.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Believing Unreasonable Things

There seems to be a contradiction at the heart of fundamentalism, or at least of many fundamentalists.
When it is suggested that maybe Jonah was not literally swallowed by a fish, or that the sun didn’t actually stand still for Joshua, or that Lazarus was not literally raised from death after being buried for four days, the cry goes up about arrogant ‘liberal’, ‘rationalist’ scholars trusting in their own reason rather than the word of God.
But when preachers suggest that following Jesus may mean giving up our financial security, opting out of the consumer society, dispensing with nuclear weapons, or creating a society that makes caring for the poor a greater priority than economic growth, it is usually the conservative Bible-believers who accuse them of being hopeless unrealistic and irrational. Who’s trusting in reason now?
It’s easy to say you believe in impossible things that happened thousands of years ago. There’s no evidence either way, and it really doesn’t make that much difference. Surely the real challenge to hearing God’s word in the Bible is to believe some of its ‘impossible’ assertions  that have a practical effect on the way we behave now.
Surely the real meaning of the question ‘Do you believe in the Resurrection?’ is not what you think about the empty tomb or the appearances, or whether it was a physical event or a spiritual experience. Its real meaning is: ‘Are you prepared to live dangerously in the cause of Jesus, knowing that whatever happens life will prevail over death?’

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Myth of Positive Thinking

I have recently been involved in a personal development coaching programme. In many ways it is very useful, and I have learned a lot from it. It has helped me improve some aspects of my life, especially relationships, self-expression and  confidence.

However, a problem I have with it is that once you get involved you get constant pressure to talk with others about it, invite them to join you and, as they put it, 'enrol' them. I somehow have a problem with this - is it just me? The argument is: 'It's changed your life - don't you want others to be changed by it too?' My answer is 'Yes, but it hasn't changed me so much that I'm just brimming over with the need to talk about it all the time'. I have to make a real effort to 'enrol' someone, and it feels like pressure.

It reminds me of times when I was a young Christian and constantly heard the challenge to 'witness'. I felt guilty for years that I wasn't 'witnessing', but for a long time now I haven't worried about it. From time to time I meet people who are interested in Christianity, or in spirituality in general, and it's just natural to have an open and honest chat with them.

I have come to realise that the problem both with 'enrolling' and 'witnessing' is that one feels expected to be totally positive and upbeat about it. But I'm not like this. When talking with other people about anything, I tend to see both sides. When talking about my faith I share my frustrations about the Church, I understand why people have left it, and I'm honest about my doubts. In fact, the pattern of many of my sermons is to declare what the Bible passage says, then say 'That's all very well, but...', and go on to think about the questions it raises. When talking about the coaching programme I have been taking part in, I can't help sharing my reservations about some aspects of it, and sympathising with people who are put off by it. To be totally positive for the sake of enrolling others or for the sake of 'saving souls' seems to me dishonest and inauthentic.

What has this got to do with the Bible? A lot, actually. It seems to me that the biblical writers are not always upbeat. The Psalmists sometimes doubt whether God hears their prayers. Job can't believe that God rewards the good and inflicts suffering only on the wicked. Ecclesiastes questions whether there is any meaning in life at all. And they're all there in 'God's Word'!

If we believe God speaks to us through the Bible, then it seems God speaks through questions as well as answers, the negative as well as the positive, doubt as well as faith. The main challenge is to face the truth, however inconvenient, unpalatable or complex it may be, and in the long run other people are more inspired by that than by one-sided propaganda.