Friday, 23 May 2014

Why we don't read the Prophets

When I started my studies in preparation to be a minister, it suddenly hit me how little I knew of the Bible. In the process of study I learned quite a lot. Most people, even enthusiastic church-going Christians, do not get beyond that stage of ignorance. They are especially ignorant of the books of the prophets. What average church-goer could tell you anything about the content of Ezekiel, Micah or Zephaniah? The one that stands out as an exception is the Book of Jonah. Everybody knows something about him: he was swallowed by a whale.

This points to what is probably the main reason why most of us know so little about the prophets. Stories stick in our minds. We know something about Elijah and Elisha because there are stories of them performing miracles. We know parts of the Book of Daniel because we heard the stories when we were children: Daniel in the den of lions, the three men miraculously preserved in the fiery furnace, Belshaazar’s feast and the writing on the wall. Virtually all we remember about Isaiah is the story of his vision in the temple, when he heard the voice of God saying, “Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?” and responded with “Here am I: send me”. The prophetic books tend to be unknown and un-memorable because they don’t have stories.

Another reason is that when we try to read them we are put off by what seems a solemn, ranting and very negative tone. They seem to be talking about judgment all the time and saying mysterious, incomprehensible things about nations and tribes we have never heard of. It all sounds rather like the ravings of an esoteric and rather nutty religious cult, or a street preacher shouting religious clich├ęs that passers-by ignore.

However, this feeling has a lot to do with the way most of us were taught to think about the Bible. We have been conditioned to think that because the Bible is “the Word of God” the prophets have a very serious message from  God for us that we must struggle to understand. When the prophetic books are read in  church it is usually in a monotone that makes them sound more obscure and tedious than they are. Those of us who are not fundamentalists have come to feel that the struggle is not worth it: the prophets were people with a negative, kill-joy message which is typically “Old Testament” and nothing to do with what we understand as Christianity.

It is sad that we have come to this conclusion. The prophets in fact were sensitive people who, if they had a message of doom, were no different from many people today who warn us about climate change, remind us of the injustice of the world, or predict the collapse of our society. They were not people who loved to condemn: they were responding to the issues of their time and trying to wake people up to what was happening. Their books don’t generally tell stories, but with a bit of imagination we can detect the story behind what they are saying, and then their words can come alive to us. The prophets were poets, and some of their poetry is sublime: it can stir and inspire us even if we cannot always understand it. There is no need for us to think we ought to accept it solemnly as a word from God, or feel guilty about not accepting it. Our watchword in reading the prophets should be, “Never mind the authority – feel the passion!”

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Relax and Enjoy!

The Christian faith began as a joyful message spread about by people whose lives had been changed by meeting Jesus of Nazareth. After he had been condemned and executed by crucifixion, these people had experiences that convinced them that he was alive and would never die. These experiences were of different kinds, as we can see hinted in the New Testament. They did not all understand resurrection in the same way, but it was real to them.

Out of these experiences came a variety of messages, all centred on Jesus. Some proclaimed that he was the promised Messiah, come to liberate the Jewish people. Others saw him as the expression of the true God in a human being with a universal relevance for the whole of humanity. Others again interpreted Jesus in terms of one or other of the various philosophies and spiritualities that were around in the cosmopolitan culture of that time. The one thing all these had in common was that Jesus was central to their thinking and to their lives.

Some of this variety can be seen in the writing of the New Testament. To the writer of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was the new Moses who went up a mountain to give a new Law which, unlike the old Law, was meant for the whole of humanity. To Luke the mission of Jesus was to bring God’s forgiveness to all kinds of people in word and in action. To Paul, the converted persecutor of Jesus’ followers, he was the great Reconciler who, by the very fact of his being condemned by both Jews and Romans, was the means by which all humanity can be reconciled to God and to each other. To the writer of John’s Gospel, Jesus was God’s Word in the flesh, come into the world to call people to a new dimension of life under the supreme rule of Love.

These different interpretations of the meaning of Jesus were all part of the rich variety of early Christianity. However, tensions soon began as some people became more and unhappy with what others were making of Jesus. This too is apparent within the New Testament. Paul, enthused by the new, inclusive human fellowship that was coming into being, was furious with those who wanted to fit all the followers of Jesus into a narrow Jewish mould. At the other extreme, he and others were dismayed by the various exotic cults that were emerging and presenting a complicated system of teachings further and further removed from the simplicity of Jesus. And so, inevitably, conflict arose as different groups began to claim that they alone stood for the true, authentic understanding of the meaning of Jesus. And with this conflict there emerged the issue of authority.

The Christian movement was born within Judaism, a religion that reveres its Holy Scriptures as God’s authoritative word. However, Judaism has always used the Scriptures creatively, feeling free to question them and to argue about how to work out their meaning in every new situation. From what we see in the Gospels, Jesus too was creative in his interpretation. He went so far as to say “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you …”. He took stories from the Scriptures and gave them a new, sometimes quirky meaning. This was all part of the tradition of Jewish rabbinic discussion, and Jesus was into it as much as any other rabbi. Above all, whatever the Scriptures said he interpreted their essential message as radical, uncompromising love for God and neighbour.

So how did Christianity come to be characterised by so much unloving dispute and so much insistence on fixed and unquestionable authority? The cause of this development probably has a lot to do with the culture of the Roman Empire. The Christians in Rome inevitably came to see themselves as the metropolitan church with some right to keep the rest in order. As the churches became more numerous and influential, and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, authority began to express itself in coercive ways. Church leaders were now able not only to tell people they were wrong but to punish them for it. And so began the unhappy history of inquisitions, witch-burnings, heresy trials, religious wars, persecution of Jews and Crusades against the Muslims.

Though in some cultures even today the social and political pressure to conform is still very strong, we can be thankful that most of Christendom has grown out of the practice of imposing “correct” beliefs by physical compulsion. However, we have not grown out of the idea that there are “correct” beliefs. Christians may not burn heretics any more, but they still disapprove of them, and sometimes threaten them with an even worse burning in hell.

This idea of “correct” belief has entered deeply into the consciousness even of the most open-minded of Christians. We approach the Bible with the assumption that it has an important message for us and that we ought to study it very carefully to make sure we get the “right” message. The Bible does indeed have an important message for humanity, but it is not the kind of message that can be delivered and understood in a straightforward way like factual information or practical instructions. The Bible is a great collection of literature that speaks with many voices. We can hear the message only by listening to all the voices and joining in their conversation.

Discussion of the authority and interpretation of the Bible among Christians has mostly been burdened with the wrong kind of seriousness. In our concern to get the “right” message we have argued endlessly about “hermeneutics”, literal versus figurative interpretation, typology, allegory, “progressive revelation”  and so on, as if it were a matter of life and death not to get it wrong. I believe the time has come for a more relaxed approach, the kind of approach we adopt towards other literature.

There is no doubt that most of the Bible is great literature, and as such is open to all kinds of observations, comparisons and reflections. In the world of literature we can echo the words of Ecclesiastes and take a step further by saying, “of the making of many books, and of books about books, there is no end.” Literary critics can find all kinds of things to say about the books they read, some helpful, some controversial, some superfluous, but there is never the suggestion that what the critic offers is the meaning of a play by Shakespeare, a sonnet by Keats or a novel by George Eliot. It is one of the many possible facets of its meaning. This does not mean that we need to go to the post-modernist extreme of saying that anything can mean anything: some interpretations are spot-on, some are far-fetched but interesting, and some are just incompatible with the spirit of the text. However, there is a vast range of interpretations that are quite acceptable, stimulate the imagination and enhance our enjoyment of literature.

To read the Bible in this way is a relatively new approach, but actually closer to the way Jesus read it than the kind of fundamentalist reading that has usually been predominant in the Church. As we learn to appreciate the profundity of some of the great myths, the joy of the story-tellers, the concerns of the controversialists, the wit of the wisdom writers, the warm devotion of the psalmists and the passion of the prophets, and to accept their differences, we will find that reading the Bible can actually be fun. And while we are having this fun, now and then I think God will sneak up behind us and whisper an authentic word into our ear that can make us say “Aha!” or “Wow!”, or perhaps even “Ouch!”