Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Bible Full of Holes

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 25, 2007

Some years ago now, back when I was either still in divinity school, or shortly thereafter (which means, of course, more years ago than I really want to think about), the Department of Communications of our national Unitarian Universalist Association, in order to get more people interested in our churches, developed a series of newspaper ads for use by local congregations. Some of these were on historical themes; they told the stories of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Susan B. Anthony and others that we claim, at least, as famous Unitarian Universalists. Other ads lauded our belief in individual liberty and freedom of conscience. Others played up the warm fellowship and sense of community that we hope people might find in many of our churches.
My favorite from this particular ad campaign showed a library shelf, crowded with perhaps ten different books, arranged quite haphazardly. Over them, in bold, the caption read: “Most religions have one ‘good book’. We have many!”
Whereas the religious library of most Americans would be confined to one book—the Holy Bible—we Unitarian Universalist require a whole shelf! What an interesting and diverse shelf it would be for most of us, too. If you were putting together your own “Bible” what books would you include? It’s a question worth pondering. And I think we should be proud of the breadth of the religious outlooks of most of us.

But one might imagine the reaction of some more extreme “Christians” who happened to come across this advertisement in their evening newspapers. “Those UUs have done it again!” they might charge. “How dare they put the Holy Bible—the one, immutable, unchangeable Word of God—on the same shelf as literature and science and Darwin and Thoreau?” the might ask. “Blasphemy! Heresy!” they might well cry.
Needless to say, our view of the Bible differs markedly from that of most extreme fundamentalist or even evangelical Christians, from most Christians generally, I dare say. While our Methodist or Congregationalist or even Catholic neighbors might be too polite to categorize us as “blasphemers”, they might well question our assertion that there are sources of deep religious authority beside the Jewish and Christian Bible.

Of course, Christians differ among themselves about the Bible. Fundamentalists believe it is literally the Word of God. God said it; somebody wrote it down; that settles it. Thankfully, most mainstream Protestants and Catholics accept a more interpretive perspective. While the Bible may not be literally true to them—for instance, they might not believe that Noah actually lived to be 950 years old, or that the world was actually created in seven 24-hour time periods—they do nonetheless believe, as a matter of faith, that the Bible does contain a revelation from God, addressed to humanity in our own day. It is at our own risk that we ignore that revelation.
But then, we differ among ourselves in the way we view the Bible, too. In some of our UU churches, readings from the Old and New Testaments are as rare as snowflakes in July. I could never figure out why some of our ministers seemed so willing to read from the most obscure tracts of (say) Zoroastrianism, or from the most anthropomorphized, esoteric examples of (say) Native American lore, yet would not dream of sullying their liberal credentials by reading something from the Gospels or the Epistles. To these Unitarian Universalists, the Bible itself is a powerful symbol of the repressive nature of Christianity itself. In their reaction against the limitations of tradition, some of us have decided that the Bible is without any redeeming social or religious value whatsoever.
But then there are some of us who, in the words of that perhaps most inelegant of all metaphors, refuse to throw out the baby with the bath water. We refuse to turn our backs on our Christian heritage and ignore the Judeo-Christian Bible as a rich source of religious inspiration and teaching. We refuse to concede that the Bible is solely the property of the fundamentalists. We refuse to concede that the heart and soul of scripture is tied narrowly to the creed and dogma of right-wing Christianity. Many of us cherish the pages of Scripture as containing some of the most worthy and life-giving religious ideals that humanity has ever produced. These may not be a revelation right from the mouth of God. But they’re close.
In paying due respect to the Bible, though, let me be clear about what I believe the Bible is, and what it is not. I do not believe in bible-olotry, that is, that the Bible—the physical book itself—is some kind of holy or magical icon, which can work miracles. I do not believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God—100% true and perfect in every one of its particulars. Nor do I believe that the Bible presents the only road to salvation, the sole path for arriving at religious truth.

The Bible is a record of the religious searchings of specific groups of people during particular periods in history. As such, it is a distinctly human document; the laughter and tears of real people echo through its pages. That’s a great part of its power.
It is the record, assembled by a diverse group of men and women, in many different places, throughout the ancient Near and Middle East, over a period of about sixteen hundred years. It contains many different theological viewpoints, some of which explicitly contradict each other. Parts of the Bible I personally find wonderfully uplifting and inspiring; other parts, I think, are completely irrelevant to our lives today. The Jewish and Christian Bible, in and of itself, probably holds no more religious authority than the holy scriptures of Hinduism or Islam or any other great world religion.
But yet, there is something about the Bible which gives it a distinct and special place, in my view at least. It is, I believe, the pre-eminent record we in the West have of the human search for God. (Muslims would obviously differ; but I’m not a Muslim.) It is the primary record of the Judeo-Christian heritage we share. It is the great milestone from whence begin our own individual religious journeys.
We need to take that name of ours—Universalist—very seriously. We need to seek out those lessons which all of the great religions of humanity can teach us. But still, I think, the Bible holds a special and unique place in our religious consciousness.

We may cherish the historical example of Gandhi. But few of us know what it means to be a Hindu. We may love the teachings of the Buddha. But few of us here were brought up within the culture and traditions of Buddhism.
We were, however—all of us, or almost all of us-- raised in a society, and often in churches and temples, where the beliefs, teachings, and examples of Judaism and Christianity were central. They were just part of the common fabric of the world into which we were all born. So, like it or not, the Bible is already part of who we are, as religious people. Its influence upon us is something we need to understand, and struggle with, and integrate within ourselves.
We owe it to ourselves, then, to come to a clearer understanding of what’s inside those imposing leather (or often, leatherette) covers. A lot of people talk about the Bible, and about how important it is to them, but I wonder sometimes how many of them have actually read what it contains.
Thomas Jefferson read it; the New Testament, at least; and he didn’t like much of what he read there. Jefferson wanted to discover the real life and true teachings and morals of Jesus of Nazareth, from what was written about him in the Christian Bible. But son of the Enlightenment that he was, Jefferson didn’t have much use for any of the supernatural stuff: any of the miracles and mysteries and healings and resurrection and all that. Being a good unitarian, he believed that Jesus was a good guy, a great teacher, a fine fellow—but certainly not divine, or the Son of God. (Actually, Jefferson’s view of Jesus was awfully close to Jefferson’s view of Jefferson, if truth be told!) Sometimes, Jefferson thought, the Four Evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John-- hadn’t quite got the story right. (How he could know that, 1800 years later, I don’t know. But that’s what he thought.) So, Jefferson literally took out his scissors, and cut and pasted together a Bible that was more to his liking. The result became known as the “Jefferson Bible”—the Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, as it were.
It wouldn’t be the last time that scissors were taken to the Scriptures. More recently, a new Bible translation released by the Western Bible Foundation in the Netherlands did very much the same thing in attempting to make the Christian gospel more “palatable” to certain people in our modern world.
According to the foundation’s director, Hans De Rijke, the foundation has reacted to the growing wish of many churches for a more “market-oriented” and “attractive” Gospel. “Jesus was very inspiring for our inner health,” De Rijke told a reporter, “but there’s no reason to take his na├»ve remarks about money seriously. He didn’t study economics, obviously.”
According to De Rijke, no serious Christian takes these texts literally anymore. “What if all Christians stopped being anxious, and started expecting everything from God? Or gave their possessions to the poor, for that matter? Our economy would be lost.” von Rijke said. “Truth is quite contrary,” he continues, “a strong economy and a healthy work ethic are gifts from God.”
So, the Western Bible Foundation decided to take matters into its own hand by cutting out those parts of the New Testament that are “confusing” in the light of today’s economic and political realities. All of the “old-fashioned” passages about money, materialism, poverty, injustice, and righteousness were duly expunged; they were literally cut out.
The beautiful Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of thanksgiving and praise with its lines about “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich empty away.”—Gone! Cut it out!
The Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes—“Blessed are the poor… the meek… the peacemakers”? Are you kidding? Gone! Cut it out!
Matthew 25—the last judgment—“As you did it to these, the least of my brethren”—Nope. Gone! Out!
Then, there’s the Acts of the Apostles, where the members of the Early Church pool their wealth, so that “There was not a needy person among them.” That sounds an awful lot like socialism. Snip. Gone!
Big parts of the Epistle of James, too: talking about faith without works being dead, and taking care of the poor, and the widows and orphans. Not any more. Gone! Cut out the widows and orphans!
The result of the Western Bible Foundation’s work was a hole-y Bible, rather than a holy one. A Bible full of holes, consisting only of those parts of scripture which don’t offend, or challenge, or threaten the status quo. A Bible which defends the mad materialism which rules our culture, rather than challenging it.
The “Bible full of holes” was actually the work of a Dutch Christian group called “Time to Turn”, which is concerned about furthering sustainable living and economic justice. It is a group which wants us to take the Bible’s challenge to live god-like lives based on mercy, and justice, and humility very seriously indeed.
Have you ever noticed, wrote Kurt Vonnegut recently of those vocal Christians who want to post the Ten Commandments all over the place, that not one of them has ever demanded that the Beatitudes be posted anywhere? It is so much easier (for all of us) to stand in judgment over others than to change the way we relate to one another, in our real lives. It is so much more the way of the world to exercise power over others, than to seek to live with meekness and humility and mercy and peace. But such is (obviously it seems to me) the charge that is never far from the heart of the message of Jesus; just as the need for us to seek justice is never far from the message of the Hebrew prophets.

The Bible is important. To be full and complete religious men and women, we need to read it. We need to know its contents We need to teach it in our church school classes. But what we can learn from other sources—from other faiths-- from the world around us—from our own direct experience of mystery and wonder—is also important. They need not preclude each other.
The great Unitarian poet Walt Whitman once wrote:
We consider bible and religions divine—
I do not say they are not divine;
I say they have grown out of you,
And may grow out of you still.
It is not they who give you life.
It is you who give them life.
The men and women who wrote the Bible were divinely inspired. But no more, and no less, than we can be. They imbibed a spirit of holiness, and searched for words to share their vision with those around them. The stirring words of the Hebrew prophets—the shining example of Jesus of Nazareth—these, and so much more in our Jewish and Christian heritage—can inspire us as we seek to build that better world. The voice of God speaks through poets and prophets and men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit of all ages; that same voice of divine inspiration is speaking within the soul of each and every one of us, right now, if we but take the time to hear what it has to say.
The Word of God—the Word of Truth—comes to alive only to that extent that each of us chooses to heed it, and live it, and share it as wide as we may over the face of the Earth.

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