Friday, April 30, 2010
Bible as Inspired Library
I love the Bible. I was a pastor for 23 years. I was preaching from the Bible, and that meant that I was actually reading the Bible a lot. And I became convinced that our biggest problems have to do with the assumptions that we bring to the text. In other words, it’s not what is in the text that’s causing us problems.
One of those assumptions that we share is that the Bible is meant to have the same kind of authority as a constitution. I’m trying to question that assumption—-not to minimize biblical authority, but to rediscover biblical authority in a more appropriate way. I propose that we learn to see the Bible as an inspired library. And to realize that a library is intended to do different things than a constitution is intended to do. For example, a constitution is intended to eliminate disagreements, but a library is intended to preserve disagreements—-to keep disagreements from being eliminated, because we assume that there’s value to having multiple perspectives.
Instead of reading the Bible as if it were a homogenized text, I think we can rediscover the Bible as an exciting, dramatic conversation with many voices who are passionately interested in the one subject that really matters: “How can we live a life that pleases God, a life that really counts for something?”
Brian McLaren, Interview on April 9, 2010
There's no secret that there has been a tremendous rise in the number of Christians dedicated to critical thinking and passionate living who are courageously determined to capture a different kind of faith than the dominant forms currently on offer. Over the last dozen year, Brian McLaren, a 50-something former megachurch pastor, has communicated the yearnings of this diverse movement (progressive Catholic, progressive Evangelical and leaders who break from the same-old institutional versions of mainline Protestant churches) better than anyone. His latest book A New Kind of Christianity casts a vision to guide those of us eagerly embracing the complexity of belief and asking really tough questions that resist neat, simple answers.
McLaren's comments about the Bible and what it means to read it truthfully and faithfully naturally lead to a division within the Body of Christ. For progressives, his words reflect our nuanced understanding of Scripture and the world. For Christians coming from more conservative brands of faith, his concept of biblical authority is seen as a threat, a heresy and/or as being soft on Truth (note the capital T). But McLaren is absolutely correct about these two keys notions: the role of assumptions in biblical interpretation and the resistance to homogeneity within the text itself. In short, in order for "biblical authority" to be legitimate, we must make sense of the inherent diversity of both Bible readers and the various documents that make up the Bible.
So, what does McLaren mean by assumptions? Here's a sample list of what we bring to the text:
1. powerful vested interests
2. deep fears
3. deep unresolved hurts
4. political party affiliation
5. family expectations
6. peer pressure
7. economic opportunity
8. social ideology
9. Christian denomination (or theological tradition)
All of these, and more, form what Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann calls "the zone of imagination." These agendas form assumptions that shape how we interpret the Bible.
What, then, does McLaren mean by claiming that the Bible contains disagreements that represent the multiple perspectives of the inspired biblical authors? Here's a sample list of what the text brings to us:
1. Did the centurion at the cross of Jesus say "Surely this man was the son of God" (Mark) or "Surely this man was innocent" (Luke)?
2. Should we support (Romans 13) or protest (Revelation 13) government authorities?
3. Was King David moved to anger by God (II Samuel 24) or Satan (I Chronicles 21)?
4. Should we get married? Yes! (Proverbs 18:22) No! (I Corinthians 7)
5. Does God ever change? (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; I Samuel 15:29; Jonah 3:10; Genesis 6:6)
Of course, Christians who are committed to an inerrant Bible that kicks out Absolute Truth through self-evident readings find ways out of these inconsistencies. But these kinds of "hermeneutical gymnastics" are problematic. When we vigilantly and critically engage the Bible, the problem is not relativism, but absolutism. When we claim we know the Absolute Truth about anything and everything because "the Bible tells me so" we must remember that the Bible has been read by different individuals and communities from different places and times much differently. This takes humility. Throughout my 25 years of participation within the Christian tradition, I have rarely experienced Christian leaders who combine rigid scholarship & passionate faithfulness with an empathetic understanding of "the other." Listening is quite underrated in these circles. McLaren's point is that both within the Bible and within our vast Body of Christ there are a variety of different voices who are led to say and do quite different things. After all (one example of a multitude) both Sarah Palin and Jim Wallis are active members of the Body of Christ but they are each hearing the Spirit of God saying quite different things about the War on Terror.
An "inspired library" must be read carefully and communally. Only a committed community can create a space for interpretive accountability that can lovingly correct misguided truth claims and hypocritical lifestyle choices. EasyYolk concurs with McLaren's position on biblical authority. One simply cannot read McLaren's works and say that he is not taking the Bible seriously and one who is familiar with Church History can acknowledge that what McLaren is proposing ("a new kind of Christianity") is not original. His is a "generous orthodoxy" (a term coined by Yale's Hans Frei and the title of an earlier McLaren work) that engages with many different brands of Christianity throughout the ages. We might say that he represents a "minority report" of Christian tradition. Anyone who is desperately seeking a form of Christian faith that juxtaposes the louder and more popular brands in the US should dive into his library of works.