Bible Sunday - a dangerous book?

A sermon preached in the United Benefice by Fr James Heard on 27 October 2013

The Bible… it’s a dangerous book. It’s been misunderstood and abused throughout the centuries. It’s been used to condone Apartheid; it’s been used to support both anti-Semitism and an unquestioning support of the nation of Israel; its misuse is blamed for US death penalty culture, persecute gays.

Some of the most arrogant intolerant people are regular Bible reading Christians. So, if anything needs a health warning, the Bible does. The Bible is also highly cherished. The Torah scroll is the most sacred object in synagogues. It’s encased in a precious covering, housed in an ‘ark’, it is revealed at the climax of the liturgy… which is the point at which today’s Gospel reading relates. Jesus picked up the scroll read a passage and offered a short homily. Today we processed with the Gospel (some douse it with incense), stand up when it was read; make the sign of the cross on forehead, lips and heart… eg may your words be in my mind, on my lips and in my heart. So the Bible has both been misused but also highly cherished.

There are, however, different ways to read the Bible. The American theologian Marcus Borg (Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally) describes three: pre-critical naiveté to critical thinking to post-critical naiveté.

Pre-critical naiveté – here the stories of the Bible are viewed as historically and factually true. Borg puts it like this…
It did not occur to me to wonder, ‘how much of this [biblical stories] is historically factual, and how much is metaphorical narrative? I simply heard the familiar stories as true. Moreover, it took no effort to do so. It did not require faith. I had no reason to think that things were otherwise than the stories reported.

Eg the Faith vs. Evolution debate in USA… for many Christians, Genesis is scientifically accurate, which means that modern evolutionary scientific accounts false. Incidentally, this sort of reading is relatively new, only during the last couple of centuries. For centuries Jews and Christians relished highly allegorical and inventive ways of reading the Bible. A wholly literal account was considered neither possible nor desirable.

Critical thinking – here one starts to question. Readers pull apart and challenge the Bible stories. The (epistemological) question often asked is: ‘Did this account really happen as reported?’
It is a very important dimension, although some churches are nervous about such critical thinking and discourage it.

Post-critical naiveté – this is where the biblical stories are once again heard as ‘true stories’. It’s possible to recognise multiple layers of meaning and different genre. Borg puts it like this - a favourite of mine is the way a Native American storyteller begins telling his tribe’s story of creation: ‘Now I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know this story is true’. That’s post-critical naiveté.

Importantly, post-critical naiveté is not a return to pre-critical naiveté. It brings critical thinking with it. It does not reject the insights of historical criticism but integrates them into a larger whole.
Each of these stages is important. Teaching children stories of faith, we don’t contrast the historical and possible metaphorical interpretations. We just tell the story.

The movement from pre-critical naiveté into critical thinking is not inevitable. I know many who remain blissfully in their pre-critical thinking. They done it all their life, why change. For example, some Christians still hold to a literal six day creation account ‘because that’s what the Bible says’.
Talking to someone – if six day creation isn’t true then that makes the Bible false. Real fear that their whole faith structure / foundation would crumble. It is scary when you open up a different, more complex, less certain perspective. I was in my late 20s before I started to question things.

There are others who get stuck in the state of critical thinking. I can understand this. The initial movement into critical thinking often feels incredibly liberating, but if one remains in this state decade after decade, it becomes a rather arid and barren place in which to live.

In a post-critical reading, we hear afresh the Bible stories and allow ourselves to be nourished and challenged by them.

Today’s reading from Romans: ‘by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another’. This is the point. To engage with the Bible in a way that nurtures and nourishes one’s faith, in a way that brings harmony with one another.

Not primarily an intellection exercise or simply to be fed spiritually. It is for us to be transformed by God’s love and to live out that transformation in our daily lives. The passage Jesus read out was his sort of mission statement: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ This ultimately is the test of engaging well with the Bible, this is the Gospel, this is the journey to which we commit ourselves when we are baptised. God’s transforming love in our hearts that overflows, that is poured out, however imperfectly, in our schools, at home, our work. A love that actually shapes how we work, shop, play, rest. May this be the vision we get when we engage with our sacred scripture.
Holland Park Benefice