Bible Sunday - a sermon by Fr James, 23 October 2016
Life brings some rather delightful ironies. Here’s one: The French philosopher Voltaire once said, ‘A hundred years from my death the Bible will be a museum piece.’ A hundred years after his death the French Bible Society set up its headquarters in Voltaire’s old home in Paris.
The Bible has proved to be remarkably enduring. It’s the book on which civilisations have been founded, for which people have given their lives to the flames; in the 1990s I was part of an organising that smuggled Bibles into repressive countries.
Bible Sunday invites us to return to our core document with the same enthusiasm that Jesus had in today’s Gospel reading. Yes, the Bible is complex. It’s a library of 66 books written over hundreds of years. It has many different genres – law, history, poetry, prayers, love songs, visions in the night, letters and apocalyptic, as well as the thrilling form of narrative we call gospel. But complexity invites engagement, not avoidance.
We don’t believe that it has been divine dictated – it’s not, as it were, an email or text message from heaven. However, we do recognise that it is ‘God-breathed’, with shafts of beauty and truth breaking through everywhere.
So, how shall we read it? One answer is, with head, heart and hands – head to grapple with it, heart to love God through it, hands to obey what God says in it. The former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks puts it like this: ‘The Bible isn’t a book to be read and put down. It’s God’s invitation to join the conversation between heaven and earth.’ The idea of a conversation is a particularly fruitful one. The Bible might be viewed as a friend and companion. And the way we relate to friends is to love them, debate with them, enjoy them, learn from them, sometimes be annoyed by them, and sometimes to challenge them. This is something we could learn from the Jewish community – one rabbi asked, ‘Why don’t you Christians argue with God more?’ He’s quite right; we’re far too polite.
My first Bible Sunday here I referred to the American theologian Marcus Borg who describes three dimensions to biblical faith:
· Pre-critical naiveté – here the stories of the Bible are viewed as historically and factually true.
· Second is critical thinking where one starts to question, pull part, critique. It’s what the Jewish community do so well. And it’s a very important dimension although some churches are nervous about such critical thinking and discourage it.
· Thirdly is post-critical naiveté – this is where the biblical stories are once again heard as ‘true stories’, recognising multiple layers of meaning and different genre. This latter dimension brings critical thinking with it, but integrates it into a larger whole.
The Hebrew biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann presents a similar understanding in the way he connects the development of the Hebrew Scriptures with the development of human consciousness. He describes three major parts of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature.
The Torah, or the first five books, is the period in which the people of Israel were given their identity through law, tradition, structure, certitude, group ritual, clarity. They have a very strong sense of their chosenness. It’s a very important dimension… to begin with. As individuals, we each must begin with some clear structure and predictability for normal healthy development. It’s what parents give to their little ones – containment, security, safety, specialness. Ideally, you first learn you are loved by being mirrored in the loving gaze of your parents - particularly your mother. Many artists have depicted the Madonna and Jesus with this close, intimate gaze. Through this you sense that you are special and life is good – you feel ‘safe’. That’s the Torah, the first dimension.
The Prophets are the second major section of the Hebrew Scriptures. This includes the necessary suffering, including the failures, that initiate you into the next dimension of maturation. Prophetic thinking includes the capacity for healthy self-criticism, the ability to recognize your own dark side, as the prophets did for Israel. Without failure, without suffering, most people (and most of religion) never move beyond narcissism and tribalism. Healthy self-criticism helps us to realize that we are not that good and neither is our group. It begins to break down either/or, dualistic thinking, as we realize all things are both good and bad. This makes all idolatry, and all the delusions that go with it, impossible.
Then the third dimension of the Hebrew Scriptures: the Wisdom literature (which includes many of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and the Book of Job). This is where the leaven of self-criticism, added to the certainty of your own specialness, helps us to discover the language of mystery and paradox. It’s a dimension where we become robust enough to hold together contradictions, even within ourself, even in others. And we can do so with compassion, forgiveness, patience, and tolerance. We have moved from the Torah’s tribal exclusivity, and "separation as holiness" to inclusivity, seeing God in other tribes and communities.
Brueggemann suggests that the three-fold sequence is one of order-disorder-reorder. And you must go through disorder or there is no reorder! It’s a particularly uncomfortable part.
I experienced a profound sense of disorder, having come from a rather fundamentalist background, where questions and doubt were not welcomed. I had my worldview shattered by doing a theology degree. I left with a BA certificate but as an agnostic. It was a rather traumatic time. But the questions I had didn’t go away. I went on to do an MA in theology – and alongside other things (like counselling) began my journey of reorientation.
I have found that many people become stuck at the disorder dimension – to take an extreme example, Richard Dawkins’ view on the Bible is a critique, a quite right critique, of the exclusivism we find in the Bible. This was my frustration too. But instead of probing further, of going deeper, he completely writes off religion.
To take a different example, one might hear the story of Jonah and, with a scientific hat on, conclude what an impossible story this is. Again, the invitation isn’t to view the whole thing as rubbish, as a fairy tale for children. Rather, the invitation is to go deeper. Jesus uses this story as a metaphor for the mystery of transformation (Matthew 12:39, 16:4; Luke 11:29). The graphic story of Jonah is about him running from God, being swallowed by a large fish, and taken where he would rather not go. This was Jesus’ metaphor for death and rebirth. It may be our story. Perhaps we too must go inside the belly of the whale for a while where we experience disorientation. Only after experiencing this will we be spit out on to a new shore and find our ourselves with a renewed vocation, a refocused purpose.
So whatever you do on your journey of faith, don’t give up on the Bible, don’t ignore it, but don’t be afraid of challenging it too. We are encouraged this week to pick up the Bible and, as our collect puts it, ‘to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’.
John Pritchard, www.biblesociety.org.uk