The Bible and Our Use Of It

Posted: July 19, 2016 in Uncategorized

The Bible and Our Use Of It

Pentecost 7C July 3, 2016

2 Kings 5:1-14

Psalm 30

Galatians 6:7-16

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20


There is a story in the Readers Digest some years back of a Minister who began his Sunday sermon by saying, “I’d like to make three points today. First, there are millions of people around the world who are going to go to hell. Second, most of us sitting here today don’t give a damn about that.” After a lengthy pause, he continued, “My third point is that you are more concerned that I, your Minister, said the word ‘damn’ than you are about the millions going to hell”.

The point of that little intro is that it’s very easy to get our priorities all mixed up. We are likely to treat as major that which is minor and treat as minor that which is crucial.

I wondered if this might be behind the situation the UK finds itself in today, not because of whether they should be in or out of the UE but rather because being in or out of the EU was a minor priority when faced with what would be the likely outcome of having the vote in the first place. Did they really think that a leave decision would be easy?

I want to shift the focus of this question a bit and look at what we might be prioritizing in terms of our future as a Christian Church and I want to try to do this within the debate about religion verses spirituality and religion as a human requirement and religion as a human organization. It is true that Religion is a controversial topic, it always has been as I can remember my father saying that there are three things people should not talk about to friends, religion, sex and politics.

I think I disagree with that advice in that its focus is to remove conflict rather that find a way of reducing its affect by identifying it and using it creatively for the better. We will always have conflict born out of differences and isn’t it better to acknowledge and creatively use difference for the betterment of all? Our problem is not with the faith of Jesus but with what the church has done with it. I suspect it is here that the interpretation of what religion is has developed. Many today say that they reject religion and embrace spirituality. I suspect again that it may be too late to save religion as an idea and it will certainly be a limitation for any religious organization. When this happens we can very easily see that religion as an organization has been used as a means of control, in many cases, to pit people against each other, and to incite terror and war. Religion in this context serves the purposes of many various global elitist agendas and many political as well..

This understanding of religion may even be further confusing in that within several different religions exist different ‘sects,’ each with their own teachings and version of the so-called ‘truth’ and how to live one’s life. With all this diversity, religion as an organization of order and control has nowhere to go other than as a search of a unifying ‘truth’. The richness of diversity, the breadth of complexity and the community of balance are all lost to an ideology of simplistic idiocy. In the non-religious world we see this as the EU setting an official length for a banana and other like rules of compliance. One might even be cheeky enough to say that NZs new health and safety regulations border on the same as an attempt to legislate what is culturally created human behaviour. I am not sure that there should be legal regulation and fines for picking one’s nose or having ones elbows on the table but there is probably a good argument for that. The point I am making here is that religion as an organization has become the policeman with a bible rather than the liberator that Jesus was.

Now we come to the seat of the problem for us and it is the bible or more correctly what we think it is and how we use it based on what we think it is. The sad part about this is that many of us in the western world have been led along a path that claims the bible to be a single book of truth and authority. If it is the bible it must be right, it must be true, it can be applied literally to our behaviour today without interpretation and it must be obeyed as irrefutable fact and thus truth.

All of this gives the bible role as a symbol of integrity it cannot sustain. In actually reading the bible the real contexts we encounter betray its humanity in both its beautiful and its disparaging prose. Yes there are stories of forgiveness, courage, compassion and of justice seeking and peace but there are also stories of horrible prejudice and activity that are tragic and when taken too seriously as supernaturally revealed truth cause many modern tragedies. It is true that some biblical writers convey the narrow mindedness of their time, and others rise above their time to express images of inspiration.

The reality is that the bible is not a book, it is a library or a collection of writings. Paul would be astounded that his everyday letters are used as some sort of canon for today. The bible is a human creation, a library of writings that became a long developing amalgamation over centuries. In doing this it mixes ancient poetry with epic narratives, wisdom writing and prophetic announcements. The writers would have been horrified to learn that the context of their words are given absolute and timeless authority.

The religious organization in its efforts to so-called protect the scriptures has imposed its view of the need for control of the collection and this is perhaps my point about priority. Is the priority the bible being right or is it about living with the reality of diversity, complexity and honouring the context? This collection is not a retelling of historical fact, nor is it a record of biological information. It is an amalgamation of genres. Another challenge of this priority thing is to ask if our problem is what we have done to the bible alone or is that a minor priority and there is a more major one to consider.

Our reality today is that we live our lives out of our history of this need for order and the unity of things, out of this authoritarian approach to the collection and out of this environment of a religious organization overseeing us. It is also influenced by contemporary culture which is highly literalistic due to our constant use of technology based on numerical patterns, expected repetitions and reliance on automation. How many times do we hear the complaint ‘yes there is chaos and it is because you have people involved.

It is true that technology has existed from the ancient times but today the level of it is conditioned by our understanding of relativity, quantum mechanics or string theory. Literalism was very likely influenced into becoming even more defensive and literal by this introduction of more and more chaotic reality and less and less certainty.

For the writers of the collection we call the bible there was no such thing as gravity or an expanding universe and as a consequence they did not have the assurances of predictability or of anything being able to automate the recurrence of things. This is a significant priority for us in that the ancients could not take things literally. There was no such thing as a travel timetable beyond perhaps the day. One could take a trip but one could not rely on knowing how long it would usually take. Life was shorter, harder, and in the large part outdoors. It is our priority to see that life was largely a life full of risk, each day an adventure of the unknown as things were hidden, unseen, unchanging and unambiguous. The task for the writers of the collection was to convey this unseen world that was their world, their context, by relying on different kinds of writing. Their task was to open up the horizon of the unseen and this meant presenting it in forms unlike that of the contemporary idea of facts. Moses may well have lived but not as an historical figure but rather as a hero in whose mouth was placed speeches that relay the writers theology, that is their theo-centric view of the world. The writers use stories to open up the different views of the horizons, where they were positive promises of a peaceful world or about the vengeance of an angry God. This is the call to get one’s priorities right.

John Shelby Spong suggests that religion is a business and it is used as a control mechanism (and he’s not the first insider to do so). We can see this happening most clearly in the rise of Islamophobia. Islam has been turned into a scapegoat, a target at which we can direct all our fears and anger, and an excuse to invade other countries and create a more intense global national security state. But the truth is, Islam has nothing to do with violence or terrorism. These manufactured fears are all part and parcel of what has been called ‘false flag’ terrorism.

When I read this I thought of the NZ attempt to change the flag. Was this an example of giving in to the fear of false flag terrorism? I must admit to not getting a handle on why we even sought a new flag. Where did the need to change the flag come from? What was John Key’s motivation and was it a minor priority response or a major one. Was it a nationalistic response or a brand exercise? Was it about cohesion of the NZ character or a psychology exercise? Sponge says that “religion is always in the control business, and that’s something people don’t really understand. It’s in the guilt producing control business.” My question is whether or not there is any justification of a guilt producing control?

Why is the church in decline? It certainly is because less people are attending as the statistics tell us, but is it because people no longer see the need for a guilt producing institution and is that institution seen as religion? Has religion as an organization had its time because it is no longer seen to be playing its part of human life? And here is today’s question. Is the priority about getting more people to make up the numbers or is it about understanding the collection of writings in a way that speaks to and in today’s literal context.

The writings are not a book of truths, nor is it a book of historical fact. It is poetry, it is mythical narrative, it is song and it is contextual story and so maybe it should not be seen in the first instance as authoritative truth or rule book to live by. It can be these things but only after it is read as what it is. Read the collection by understanding genres and being aware of sources. What are the sources the writer uses to write in the genre they wrote in? Biblical scholars today have over 250 years of hard work behind them when identifying sources used by ancient writers of the collection. It is also a challenge to discover and approach the New Testament not only as a collection of writings of different sorts but also that the gospels as we know them were not written by one person but rather are an amalgam of sources used to create a theology. The names given to the gospel are only given for the sake of convenience because in fact no one knows who compiled them. What we do know is that each gospel addresses the concerns of a different community and each of those communities drew from preexisting sources.

This demands of us those questions of discernment I spoke of. Simply put perhaps the challenge we have is to Take the Jesus story as a theology, ask what are the signs in that theology that tell us who Jesus was that are important today. What did the human Jesus look like? What signs did they need to tell who he was for them? They did not need truth but rather applicable signs. What signs do we need to tell our time who he is for us? The resurrection is not about a supernatural event, miracles do not need questions about fact. They need questions about their meaning to the hearer. What are the symbols that will convince us to want to tell the story to others in our time? Their theological rendition was compelling so what are ours? The other thing we need to remember is that we only have the consequences of the writer’s choices. We don’t know why they chose the sources they did but we can ask questions about what their choices represent.

Behind all this is the question about the authority of the collection. Does it have any given that it is only a collection of writings? The answer is no it does not as a policy manual or a set of bylaws about life. The answer is yes as well because it is symbolic of the virtues of a particular cultural experience. With the rise of Modernity and its priority for reasoning, with the rise of nation states and of citizen’s rights, the authority of the bible as a document representing human knowledge and divine power has passed away along with the centrality of Christianity. Technical science has replaced the bible as official ‘knowledge’ and the bible can hardly be raised up to science anymore. Still this does not mean that the power of the bible as a symbol has passed away. It still represents in spite of its content, the honour of truth, commitment and integrity. It never had nor should it have authority over normative human behaviour. If it contains rules for ancient behaviour it is because people did things they ought not to. There is no need to have laws for things that nobody does, not then nor now. This makes interpretation for now and action for now the priority over doing what the bible says.

The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system by any human creed by any human book, is almost beyond imagination. God is not a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist; all of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God.

The challenge for us today is to see the difference between religion as a human priority and religion as a human organization. Using fear or selling guilt to coax people into a certain way of life or belief system, may be a common practice in nearly every religion, today and the challenge is for us to see beyond that, to see the major priority as opposed tt the minor ones that cloud our thinking. Our first priority is to accept responsibility for the world. If we want to change the world, then we have to do it.

Because we have many texts that are very old, and considering there are multiple versions of various texts, all of which have likely been manipulated, changed, and distorted over the years, Our response has to be to take them all seriously rather that choose the ones that make it easy for us to isolate our identity.

Again, we honour the mind relying on it to act with integrity, we live the questions recognizing that there are many paths to follow and we explore the adventure of humanity because that exploration is the sign the collection we call the bible gives us. Amen.

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