The Bible: 101
August 22, 2010
Douglas S. Long
Umstead Park United Church of Christ
If you read the newsletter, put the calendar on the refrigerator as Twila intends for you to, you may have noted a different sermon title than what is printed in the bulletin this morning. I had originally planned to reflect on a week of travel/vacation today. I always find it helpful to process my vacations through a sermon or two. It helps me digest the experience and it gives you the impression that I 've actually been doing something spiritual when I 've been away...and, in fact, that is what I am doing.
You see, a few weeks ago I made a quick trip to Wisconsin. And it wasn 't so much what happened while I was away that I needed to reflect on… as what happened when I returned. (In fact, there was SO much to reflect on that I’ll incorporate some of it in this and next week’s message.)
The trip to Wisconsin was largely away from sources of news and “breaking headlines” and so when I returned I caught up by reading the papers that were stacked up in my absence … and magazines, and emails.
And, shortly after returning, I milled around the children here in the Vacation Church School. … Which, by the way, is the BEST way to learn things… a far more insightful way, I would argue. The older I get the more I 've learned that if you listen to the children, you can learn … a LOT … you can learn a lot especially about the adults they hang around with.
Children are always trying to put pieces of knowledge together… always trying to make sense of things. For example- the always precocious child here whose parent teaches biology on a University level and is an avid birder:
Upon over hearing an NPR report about it being the 50th anniversary of the publication of Harper Lee 's classic novel… she came to her mother and said, “What does Tequila have to do with a mockingbird?!!”
And what do we surmise from that?!
Many of you have heard already that we learned a lot at the Vacation Church School with our children… so I know this is repetitious for some of you, but I want to catch us all up. Take, for example … The third grader who was in the ‘Stories from the Bible’ module of the VCS and she and her group heard a story together. Upon hearing from the Holy Scriptures a child responded, “That doesn’t make any sense!” To which our third grader, whose father is a chaplain at a nearby University, is said to have comforted the other by saying:
"There 's a lot of stuff that doesn 't make sense in the Bible."
…and, of course, there was the most famous story of all. This child, 6 years old, was excited when TJ and Justine (Justine was dressed up to appear as God.) … when TJ and Justine explained that they were going to tell the children the story of Creation. The child excitedly responded. "Oh, you 're going to tell us about the Big Bang?!"
"No," TJ said, "we 're going to tell you about the story of Creation from the Bible."
…and they went on the read Genesis One… "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… and the earth was without form, and there was darkness over the deep. And God 's spirit hovered over the darkness."
At the end of the evening all the children came together for a wrap-up session and Joi asked them some of the things they learned. TJ and Justine 's student immediately raised his hand and explained:
"We learned about the Creation of the world without the facts."
…without the facts!
I hate to tell the parents of this child, but they may have a budding theologian on their hands because that is exactly what the children heard that evening… the Bible’s telling of the Creation IS a version without the facts. It derives its truth not from empirical science at all but an even more foundational stance of faith.
Any time we read or claim the Bible as fact, we abuse it. We misuse it. We trivialize it. But let me back up.
The Bible. I know, I’ve preached about it before. Once or twice… but whenever there’s an intense fight in American Christianity, sooner or later it seems to turn into an argument over the truth of scripture. I believe the Bible is true. I’m staking my life on its content, but that does not mean I believe every word it contains literally. In fact, I believe that to take each word in the Bible literally is to not take the Bible seriously.
The Bible is not all knowledge and truth about all things. The Bible is a book about God. It is wrong to claim it as something else… it is a sin, in fact, to claim the Bible is a book of science, or math, or even history in the technical sense… and it is a shame and a sin to allow others to make that claim and let it go unchallenged. I repeat, the Bible is a book about God. Even more specifically, it is a book about our understanding of God.
The Bible is not God, but is about our understanding of God. To believe it IS God leads to all sorts of unGodly things—
· like women being told they are some sort of second class citizens
· or slaves being told they should be obedient to their masters
· or Creationists claiming that evolution can 't be part of God 's way
· or even the church in Florida burning the Koran.
The Bible is NOT God. It is, however, about God and humanity...and it is told, in case you were raised to believe otherwise, from the only vantage point we have...human.
It is about God and humanity...and it is told, in case you were raised to believe otherwise, from the only vantage point that we have...human. I’ve said before that there is a difference between a loving fundamentalist and mean spirited one...but I would also point out, just as quickly, that there’s a difference between a loving progressive Christian and an arrogant one. So let’s be honest and even try to be loving about this, shall we?
Michael Piazza, who we here at UPUCC are so fortunate to have coming to us this November to help us do some long range thinking and planning. Michael Piazza, not the baseball player but the President of Hope for Peace and Justice, tells this story:
A church group went hiking in the mountains and soon became hopelessly lost. After a time of discussion, the preacher, in frustration, said, “Give me that map.” He had such confidence, no one worried even when he turned it over realizing, at last, he had it upside down. Finally, he announced with absolute certainty, “According to this map we are standing on top of that mountain right over there.” The churches we grew up in often were wrong, but seldom uncertain. If the map differed from reality, then reality must be wrong. The truth is few of us really followed the maps they gave us, but somehow we got comfort from just having them. At some point, you and I discovered that those maps really don 't work for our lives. In fact, [some of us] were left completely off their maps. Still, most of us couldn 't discard them. Many of us still expect the Church somehow to make those ancient maps work. Others are expecting to be given modern, or at least updated, maps.
And the biggest map we grew up with? The Bible as literal truth. See, it’s not that there is no truth within it. Far from that there is great and invaluable truth there...but you have to use this gift of God with a little of the other gift of a thinking brain that God gave you as well.
One of the biggest mistakes Christians make in reading the Bible is misunderstanding the genre, or type of literature, they are dealing with. Within the Bible there are several types... history, poetry, songs, parables, lists of genealogy, allegories, myth (not myth as untrue but myth as truth itself.). And there are wisdom sayings, court records, Ecclesiastical law, biography, and more. To understand what you’re reading you have to understand the type of literature it is.
The books of Daniel and Revelation, for example, were both written for the people of that day to understand that God is still more powerful than the corrupt political forces that ruled them. That is a message that needs to be heard in every day and time. Those books still have meaning for us. It says that God will make order out of the chaos at the end of time just as surely as God brought the world into being in the beginning. The writers never intended people hundreds of years later to take their code language literally. They did want the message that God is the true power to be heard though.
In a similar way, Karl Barth, the great theologian, explains the opening chapters of Genesis as a saga... “an intuitive and poetic picture of a pre-historical reality of history.” (Church Dogmatics). Events are described which no human eye could have witnessed (The beginning of Creation, for example)... And in this beautiful, poetic saga...animals talk, people live for centuries. It’s a different genre than the Gospels...or the stories of the reign of David the King. In its intuitive, poetic way, saga communicates truth about the ultimate origin of things.
Now is that what Justine should have told the 6 year old who was disappointed that Genesis doesn 't mention the Big Bang? "What Karl Barth says is that Genesis is 'an intuitive and poetic picture of a pre-historical reality of history. '" NO, you would not say that to a child, because children learn literally… and that’s OK as a first step. The problem is, too many people learned these stories as children and then, as they grew, never took the next steps in Biblical education. I’m trying to be loving here, but the truth of the matter is that there are of a lot of adults speaking authoritatively with a first grade education in the Bible.
Here’s another truth, and I’ll talk about this more next week, but we have so MANY adults with this poor level of education that many of their teachers/preachers are afraid to say otherwise. (There was an article in the N&O about this not too long ago...ministers who didn’t believe the theology that they preached.)
OK...back to my point...there are many types of literature within the Bible...saga that speaks a great depth of truth and narrative history that presents truth in another way. There are stories with moral lessons like the Good Samaritan that are also true (but it didn’t literally happen), and the poetry of the Psalms speaking truth in yet another way. Is the Bible true? Yes!!! There is truth all over the place within it! But we listen faithfully and fully only when we’ve studied the text enough to know what genre we are listening to.
Does this take work? Sure it does. Is it worth it? Only if we’re interested in taking the Bible seriously. Technical discussions require technical research. There are no short cuts. Claiming ‘inspiration’ is an often-used excuse for a plethora of problems...which include a lack of studious preparation.
Listen again to the opening of the Gospel of Luke, one of four Gospels included in the canon… and those four are a small portion of the many Gospels written but not ‘preserved’ in this book:
Luke 1:1-5. So many others have tried their hand at putting together a story of the wonderful harvest of Scripture and history that took place among us, using reports handed down by the original eyewitnesses who served this Word with their very lives. Since I have investigated all the reports in close detail, starting from the story 's beginning, I decided to write it all out for you, most honorable Theophilus, so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught.
Notice how the author explains very clearly that this is one of many accounts, that he is not an eyewitness, that this is a compilation of many reports handed down...and the writer is writing to, Theophilus… Theo=God- philo=lover.. . He is writing to the 'lovers of God. ' Luke is saying, "So here is the story of Jesus, lovers of God...it begins when Herod was King, and an obscure priest names Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth..."
The author we know as Luke begins the Gospel as he understands it. Matthew told his version, and Mark his, and John his, and many of you realize others told theirs as well but their stories didn’t make it into the canon. The Bible contains a plurality, a diversity, if you will, of authors… and each has a different perspective. …and that is a good thing! (… because we need others to have a better grasp of the whole!)
The second passage I included this morning helps make a different point. This passage is often quoted by Biblical literalists to substantiate the veracity, the truth, of scripture. II Timothy 3:16 “All scripture is inspired by God…”
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed.
If a conversation emerges where a passage is questioned a fundamentalist often jumps to the front (I’ve seen it happen many times) and says “All scripture is inspired by God- II Timothy 3:16”
...which basically says for them, the Bible is true because it says it is. But more problematic, and difficult to explain to the 'scripture-quoter, ' is that II Timothy was written most probably by a student of Paul, and well before the canon as we know it was even compiled. 'All scripture ' in this text is referring to the Hebrew writings we know as the Old Testament. The “All Scripture is inspired” quote could not have referred to the NT at all because much of the NT was still being written and it would be centuries later before it was compiled into one volume!
Such knowledge can be unsettling if one holds a view of the Bible that claims it is perfect in every detail… the Words of God transcribed through puppet fingers and bestowed upon humanity.
My time is running short and I don’t want to leave you with what I don’t believe about the Bible. So here, succinctly, is a definition, three actually, that I do believe.
1) The Bible is the word of God/the divine message, filtered through human words and culture.
2) Here is another...and this is from Marcus Borg: The Bible is not the word of God, but it is human words in response to God.
3) …and yet a third: The Bible is a divine dialogue focused around this question: Who is God?
I DO believe through the present moving of the Spirit of God in our own lives we can understand the message of the Bible. Let me summarize that message for you, what the Bible says, and what it says about God, in one paragraph:
What the Bible says...
...is that we are loved by God so ferociously, that God will go to the death for us...that love is ultimately the strongest power in the universe...that death does not destroy...that life prevails...that truth perseveres...that walls which divide will be broken and that peace shall come.
What the Bible does not say is that the way will be easy or without struggle...
it does not say the good will prosper now...
nor that the righteous will be always protected...
It does, though, assure us that God is with us always...whose presence is unfailing...and whose arms are outstretched for all who will receive them.
There is a hymn in the UCC hymnal...Deep In the Shadows of the Past. It describes with wonderful imagery and truth the story of the Bible...which is the story of faithful dialogue about God. This God is mystery, continually revealed.
…and a large part of that revelation comes to us through the Biblical account.
Thanks be to God for this book. May we take it seriously.