The Bible is a Library

by Clive Marsh.

Over the next 9 months or so there are to be lots of conversations happening within the Methodist Church in Great Britain about marriage and relationships. Spurred on (required!) by the decisions of the 2019 Methodist Conference, local churches and groups of churches are to talk together about the recommendations that the Conference made.

In the middle of all this, the place of the Bible in Christian reflection will keep cropping up as an issue. Positions taken up about issues of human relationships and sexuality obviously have to relate to the Bible in some way. For some Christians it is clear: the Bible condemns all forms of homosexuality (and so we should too). The voice of God is heard plainly in Genesis 1-2 and the model of human partnership is a marriage between one man and one woman. For others it is equally clear: the Bible is of its time, and some of its views are a bit opaque anyway. Better to acknowledge the fact that the Bible is essentially a record of the dealings of a God of love with humanity and work out from there. Things change. Get over it.

British Methodism is not alone is wrestling with ‘use of the Bible’ issues. But its own recent history has found it recognising that there are seven ways in which the Bible’s authority can be understood. The 1998 Conference report A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path presents these, acknowledging that they ‘are not precise definitions’ and ‘are intended to illustrate briefly the range of views which are held, and the reasons for holding them’ (7.9).[1] The report also recognises that ‘most, if not all, of these positions are compatible with’ the Deed of Union’s ambiguous statement about the Holy Scriptures (7.10). There are also those who would disagree that the Deed of Union’s statement was ambiguous, and therefore with the Faith and Order Committee’s report, as received/adopted by the Conference!

The Bible is a very rich book. More accurately, it is, of course, a rich collection of books. The Bible is a library and we forget this at our peril. There may have been sifting and sorting (weeding out texts which didn’t make it into the canon) but there wasn’t a single, structured process by which this happened. Despite this, and despite the emerging authority of smaller collections within the collection at different stages in history, and in relation to two related, but distinct, religions (Torah and Prophets relating to Judaism, Torah, Prophets, Gospels, Letters, relating to Christianity) the Bible is a very diverse collection indeed. Different genres of writing, different levels of authorial authority, different historical settings, different scales of historical reliability all come into play as we wrestle with the texts before us. Women are under-represented, political biases abound, cultures clash. It is representative of life – warts and all – even as it has become a decisive text (in its Two Testament form) for the Christian Church. But it is a library, and so we should not expect it to be able to deliver the single knock-down rules, regulations or opinions that we might sometimes wish for. Better, then, not to hope for such knock-down verdicts and to carry on wrestling responsibly, as a community, with this motley collection of texts.

For some readers this verdict will amount to the usual liberal ‘cave-in’ to worldly ways of reading. Biblical authority has been given up. God’s Word has been reduced to human words. Such a view is one, though, that I simply don’t accept, both on experiential and intellectual grounds. Experientially I want to vouch for the personal discovery of just how exciting and enriching the Bible becomes when read analytically and critically (more so, in fact, than when it is read uniformly and all too narrowly as containing words which are all seen as equally ‘God’s words’). To read the Bible ‘critically’ doesn’t mean being straightforwardly critical of any of its contents. Nor does it mean idolizing the powers of human reason. It means acknowledging what can be done with the God-given gift of reason. Intellectually, recognising the need to sift and analyse what the Bible contains, so that it be read better, here, now, in multiple contexts, by Christian communities in different public locations, addressing many and diverse ethical and political issues, is a matter of simple honesty. We are more likely to be taken seriously as a church in wider society if we accept what the Bible actually contains, how it has been used and misused, and which bits of it really are better than others (and why). Churches have always worked, in practice, with ‘canons within the canon’ (chunks which are seen as more significant than others). Let’s not pretend otherwise. The practice continues, and will continue. It’s why different denominations need each other. It’s why Christian readers need Jewish (and even atheist) readers, so that we are challenged in our thinking.

So let’s hear it for the Bible: as a divine, authoritative, rich, compelling, influential, and still hugely important collection of texts. And let’s read it critically, creatively, constructively and with rigour and wisdom together. It really will enhance all our faiths, whatever detractors may say.

 

 

[PS. sorry for late post everyone – an am/pm mix up occurred! George]

[1] A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path: The Nature of Authority and the Place of the Bible in the Methodist Church (Methodist Publishing House 1998); accessible at: https://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/conf-a-lamp-to-my-feet-1998.pdf

7 thoughts on “The Bible is a Library”

  1. The books of the bible were written over a period of some 1,600 years and over that lengthy period major events, changes in living arrangements and social customs, influences from other cultures and developments in thinking all affected the way people thought about God. For example, initially the thinking wasn’t so much monotheism but rather monolatry – the exclusive worship of one god while accepting the existence of other gods. (“Do not worship any other gods besides me for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not share your affection with any other god!” and “Lord, there is no one like you among the gods”.) We see a gradual shift to belief in one universal God. From belief in a tribal war god, leading his devotees to bloody triumph over their foes, we progress to “God is love; and he that abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” By the time of the book of Revelation we find a great multitude out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, worshipping one universal Father and praying for a worldwide kingdom of peace and righteousness. We find similar developments in the understanding of God’s location and his presence, and in how to please God.
    We are not expected to lock ourselves into the ways people thought thousands of years ago. So, when we read a bible passage, we should put it into context. What kind of writing is it? Where does it come in the development of ideas through the bible? And, above all, how does it fit in with what Jesus said and represented? Is this a passage we should read at the literal level or at a spiritual level? What meaning does it have for our lives today?

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  2. It always astonishes me that even through all the multitudes of translations, mistranslations, deliberate omissions, and pinhead arguments and divisions over the centuries (not to mention developments in understanding and knowledge) we can still meet the man Jesus in the pages of the Bible, and in meeting him can join him and countless others on The Way.

    He came that we might have life – abundantly -and he accepted, engaged with, and loved people believed by society to be unacceptable. While continuing his habitual attendance at synagogue he resolutely ignored religious tradition if it got in the way of loving the neighbour.

    ‘The Word became flesh’ – and did considerable wrestling of his own. Incarnation continues – in Methodist Conference, sometimes,too.

    Thanks be to God.

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  3. This fits so neatly into the story theme adopted by the President and yourself.
    A few weeks ago I read a best selling novel called Mothering Sunday about an upstairs downstairs assignation between a maid and a rich young man which ended with his death in a car crash. The interesting point for our purposes was that the maid had access to her employers library and learned to love fiction, particularly Joseph Conrad. She went on to get a job in an Oxford bookshop and then became a successful author. She wanted to tell the story but in a way which would not embarrass the family and so the book had at its heart the story of a life and the life that stories magically can contain.
    At the end of the book she reflects on the words we apply to fictional accounts which reveal truths:
    “She could have used the word narrative. It was sober, dependable sounding word but she did not see why one thing could be called a narrative and the other things just stories or legends or myths. The word she most liked was tale. There was something more enticing about a tale than a story but this had to do with the suggestion perhaps that it had not been wholly truthful, it might have a larger element of invention. About all these words there was a sort of question, always hovering in the background, of truth and it might be hard to say how much truth went with each. There was also the word fiction which could seem almost totally dismissive of the truth. There was also fantasy which absolutely denies truth. Yet something that was clearly and completely fiction could also contain – this was the nub and mystery of the matter – truth.
    Telling tales could have a sense of telling lies. Like spinning yarns. It seemed that yarn might be the best word for those adventure books in the library. They had the salty tang of tales from the seas for people who could not question their truth.
    Telling stories, telling tales. Always the implication that you were trading in lies. But for her it would always be the task of getting to the quick, the nub, the heart, the pitch, the trade of truth telling. Would it sound more true if I called it an account or a report? Would it sound less true if I called it a fantasy?
    So what was it exactly, this truth telling? They would always want even the explanation explained!
    It was about being true to the very stuff of life, about being to capture, as if you could, the very stuff of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the fact. The one thing followed by the other that many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all.”
    In the Bible we are not looking for facts – we are looking for truth and the truth is told through poetry, music, law, fiction, pictures (Revelation) and, principally, stories. The library was particularly put together to lay contrasting stories against each other and our task is to live in the tensions of the difference and use a collection which was closed 1900 years ago to speak to this century. The marvellous thing about the Bible is that the stories still speak, they are still “true to the stuff of life”.
    David Booth.

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  4. I thoroughly endorse your reasoning. To deny your thoughts are to deny the intellect given to us by God. Revelation does not end after the Bible. I have come to a simple conclusion that if the words in any part of the Bible are not based on divine love, then they are man’s word, not the Word, and in preaching I will always ask the questions and give the options for the congregation to decide.

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