Reclaiming the Bible
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 2, 2008
Maybe it even holds a power something like that for some of us. Maybe Granddad used to read to the family from the Bible at the evening meal-- so when we think of the Bible, we think of Granddad. Maybe we still own an old, aging copy of the “family Bible”, and it contains family records stretching back generations. Some of us might even still own our first Bibles—the ones given to us when we were in Sunday school, or when we made our Confirmation. Even for some of us, the Bible might hold an emotional power that its contents alone don’t justify.
On the other hand, for some of us the Bible might hold a strong negative power that its content alone doesn’t justify, either. In some of our Unitarian Universalist churches, readings from either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures are as rare as snowflakes in July (which even given the extremes of climate change is still pretty rare). As I’ve said before, some of our ministers, I’m afraid, would rather read from the most obscure texts of Zoroastrianism than sully their liberal credentials by reading from the Gospel of Matthew or one of the epistles of Paul. To some, the Bible has become a symbol of what they see as the retrogressive nature of Judaism, or the repressive nature of Christianity. They suffer from something that’s been called the “Baptist bends”: the mere mention of the name “Jesus”, and they seem to be bent over in pain. They have declared that the Bible, therefore, must be, ipso facto, a book with no redeeming social value whatsoever. Rather than taking a look at the book for what it’s worth, some have simply decided to discard it altogether,
So, on the one hand, we have biblotory, a worship of the book itself. On the other hand, we have Bible bashing, an utter denial of the worth of everything that’s in the Bible simply because it’s in the Bible. Surely, some of us say, there must be a middle ground somewhere. They say that you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover—and that’s true of the Bible, too (maybe it’s especially true of the Bible).
The Unitarian minister Duncan Howlett once wrote:
Yes, we can affirm with Howlett (and with Samuel Longfellow, who wrote the last hymn we’ll be singing a little later) that “Revelation is not sealed!” The Bible is, to us, an open book. Understanding the Bible is an on-going, ever-growing, ever-deepening and expanding process.
But it is also true, I think, that “our thoughts and beliefs do not come out of nowhere,” as another Unitarian minister, Ed Atkins, once wrote. No, as Atkins says, our thoughts and beliefs “emerge from interaction with the world around us—a world and a stream of consciousness that reaches centuries back into the past.” More particularly, the myths, motifs, ideas, and ideals found in the Jewish and Christian scriptures form a fundamental part of our inheritance as heirs of the Western religious tradition.
It stands to reason, then, that if we’re “heirs”, we should want to read the will (or at least know what’s in it). What we need to do, perhaps, is de-mythologize the Bible now, so that we can re-mythologize it later on. What I mean is:
We need to get beyond all the sentimentality that often attaches itself to the Bible in order to get to the real inspiring and sustaining and ennobling sentiments that the Bible contains.
We need to get beyond the idea that the Bible is some sort of cult object—or that it is a symbol of oppression—or that it is a mere ancient artifact of some long-dead civilization-- in order to discern and internalize those real lessons which the Bible offers.
We need to grasp both the exclusive context of the various books of the Bible as particular texts written for a particular people at a particular time in history—and we also need to grasp the deep and true universality of certain biblical ideals.
If we’re interested in reclaiming the Bible, then, I think that we have to take at least a quick look at the historical processes which produced the Bible in the first place:
That which we call the Bible is, actually, a collection of 39—or 66—or 73 different books, depending of who’s doing the counting: 39 if you’re Jewish (no New Testament); 66 for most Protestants (Old and New Testaments); 73 for Catholics (Old and New Testaments, plus the seven “Deutero-canonical” or “Apocryphal” books). Interestingly, our word “bible” is from the Greek word biblia, which means “books”—plural. Not just one book, but a collection of books.
They weren’t all written at the same time, either: The oral tradition out of which the book of Genesis came dates from about 1700 BCE, and were first given written form during the time of King Solomon, nearly 800 years later. The most recent books of the Bible—II Peter and several other New Testament epistles—date from third or fourth generation of the Christian church, or later—perhaps from as late as 150 or 175 of the Common Era.
That means that the period between the earliest traditions of the Bible and its latter books is almost 1900 years—nearly as long as the period between those later books and today! Just as an awful lot has happened between then and now, so a lot happened between when the earliest and latest books of the Bible were written. They were written, then, to serve a wide variety of purposes. They contain history, poetry, philosophy, hymns, sermons, law codes, genealogy, even personal correspondence. Some of them come from lands as far east as Babylon; others from as far west as Rome—a distance of approximately 2500 miles. So, both literally and theologically, they don’t all speak the same language.
But wait; it gets even more complicated. Sometimes, what we have in the Bible is not different, readily-discernible books, but rather parts of different books, all interwoven together with one another. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament)—the Torah, as it is called in the Jewish tradition—actually represent at least four different schools of religious thought, all jockeying to get their particular viewpoints across. Modern scholarship suggests that the Hebrew Bible went through four major rewritings (or re-editings) from the 10th through the 4th centuries BCE.
On the Christian side, the timeframe is shorter, but the range is still significant. The oldest books of the New Testament are probably not the four Gospels, which tell the story of the life and teachings of Jesus, but some of the authentic letters of Saint Paul. Some of the epistles of Paul date from the period of his missionary work, perhaps around the year 49 of the Common Era. By comparison, the oldest Gospel, that according to Mark, dates from around the year 65 (or about 35 years after the death of Jesus). However, the final list of accepted book in the Christian Bible (the so-called “canon”) only dates from the church councils of the 3rd and 4th centuries, culminating in the Council of Nicea in the year 325.
By the time of the early church councils, the original “Jesus movement” had developed into the full-blown “Christian Church”, and what these church councils wanted to do more than anything was squelch unorthodox ideas, clear up any misunderstandings about doctrine, and impose a uniform standard of belief and practice on the entire church. So, they eliminated dozens of ancient texts once used by various Christian groups and settled on the 34 books which became known as the “New Testament”. No doubt, the question of which books made it into the “official” Bible may have been as much questions of church politics and theological competition as of divine inspiration and spiritual worth.
(Then, after the Reformation of the 15th and 16th centuries, early Protestant leaders like Luther and Calvin would eliminate another seven of these books, bringing the number of books in the New Testament down to 27, and leading to the discrepancy between Protestant and Catholic bibles that we have today. The Eastern Orthodox church doesn’t accept those seven books either; so their Bible is the same as that of the Protestants—not the Catholics!)
I think you get some sense from all this of just how historically complicated the process of producing “the Bible” truly was. Whatever the most extreme fundamentalists would have us believe, the Bible didn’t just drop from the heavens, a done deal, with Almighty God speaking perfect King James’ English.
Having some idea now of how this great spiritual inheritance of ours came to be, the next question we need to ask ourselves, then, is “What are we supposed to do with it?”
Do we accept it as the absolute truth—as a kind of “divine dictation”—the complete, literal, unchangeable “word of God”? I don’t think so. We don’t look at the Bible that way, and neither do most Jews or Christians, Protestants or Catholics alike. Only the fundamentalists do, and they’re a minority, in whatever religion we’re looking at.
In a lot of ways, we might feel like the young boy, who, one Sunday, was asked by his mother what he’d learned in church school that morning. He answered: “Well, the Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. They got to the Red Sea, and they couldn’t cross. The Egyptian Army was getting closer, so Moses got on his walkie-talkie, and the Israelite air force bombed the Egyptians, and the Israeli navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross.”
Now, of course, the boy’s mother was kind of shocked. “Is that really what they taught you?” she asked.
“No,” the boy admitted. “But if I told it to you the way they taught it, you’d never believe it!”
If we don’t accept the Bible as literal truth, and if we don’t want to just toss it out the window, then our challenge, it seems to me, is to interpret the Bible in the light of new insights and new knowledge. Most of all, perhaps, in our own time, that means realizing that this world of ours has grown too small, and too dangerous, to be ruled by proponents of any single religious text. It also means realizing that people in other cultures have a thing or two to add to our religious understanding of the world.
We yearn for new knowledge and new insights. Oftentimes, they are right there in the pages of this great inheritance of faith. There are precious gifts which a modern, healthy interpretation of the Bible can give us. Rev. Harvey Joyner of All Souls Unitarian Church as identified some of these:
The Bible offers us a message about the goodness of Creation. We are all in this together. Life needs to be celebrated and affirmed.
The Bible offers a message of Liberation. We need to be freed from those things which oppress us, and we need to strive to make the world a more just and merciful place.
The Bible offers a message of Celebration. It can inspire us to sing praises to that Spirit of Life from which all blessings flow.
The Bible sometimes presents a message of Frustration—of what it means to struggle with the deep questions of human suffering and evil.
The Bible presents a message of Redemption— and the miracles of constant, endless new beginnings.
The Bible presents a message of Incarnation—of God being right here and right now, and the Reign of God being in our hearts and in our midst.
The Bible presents a message of Salvation—and the hope for healing and wholeness which life can offer us.
The Bible belongs to us, my friends, as much as to any of the other heirs of the Jewish and Christian traditions. We have received it as an inheritance, as part of the family. Here, as so often in our lives, there are ways in which the hand of the past blesses us, and there are ways in which it does not. There are tales of liberation in the Bible, and there are tales of exploitation, as well. There are examples of loyalty and compassion and understanding; turn the page, and there are tales of bigotry and narrow-mindedness and interracial violence as well.
As thinking, discerning men and women—as adults—it is up to us to take this inheritance and sift it in our hands; to keep that which is helpful, and use it to build a new and better world; to discard the rest as we continue on our way down the Spirit’s pathway. We can love our families without loving everything about them, without accepting unquestioningly everything they offer.
For us, divine revelation is an on-going, ever-growing process—just like life.
The bottom line for us is that “Revelation is not sealed!” The voice of God speaking to us is not a done deal.
As was so often the case, Walt Whitman got it right.
The same voice of divine inspiration that spoke in ancient times speaks today, deep within the soul of each of us. The voice of God speaks in the living testimony—in the lives of men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit of every age and every time. The example of a life well lived is the holiest scripture of all.