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Saturday, November 28, 2020

Using Scripture


Of what use is the Bible?

In my early teens I became very concerned with religion. In retrospect I know that this was driven to a large extent by depression and my perfectionist self-sabotaging, but at that time and for many years thereafter I could only see what was inside me as an emptiness due to lack of meaning and purpose. Fortunately, that quest led to an improved social life and identification of purpose that helped lighten the load of my depression and guided me to overcome my self-sabotage to some extent. In those early days before and immediately after leaving the Roman Catholic Church in which I'd been raised I spent a lot of time reading the Bible. For a long time I felt that I understood very little, but as I watched evangelical programming on TV and read books about the Bible I started to piece a picture together. It wasn't until I was in college, though, that I was presented with an actual method to interpret the Bible.

Though I think there was far more detail in what I originally learned, what I retained was that as I read the Bible I need to ask myself who wrote this particular text, to whom it was written, in what genre, in what age, and for what purpose. Always before I'd muddled through knowing that various people wrote different parts of the Bible, but believing that God was the supreme author, and that in some sense it all had meaning for me. It was as though the Bible were a communication directly from God to me, and the same for other people as well. This certainly contributed to my difficulty in understanding parts of the Bible, and led me to some shaky interpretations.

We see signs (literally) of this among evangelicals to this day. Walk into a Christian bookstore and you'll probably find wall decorations for sale quoting Jeremiah 29:11: "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Contemporary Christians often interpret this as a message of assurance from God to them, even though the chapter itself tells us who it was actually written for in verse 1: "This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon."

Another out-of-context favorite among evangelicals is 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." For conservative American Christians this means that whatever problems the United States faces will be overcome if the church as a whole repents and prays. Presumably this will mean mass conversions to the evangelical faith as well. They really like citing this verse in particular around the annual National Day of Prayer, and I've personally heard it used a number of times in sermons and speeches as a politically conservative call to action. All this despite the fact that the event portrayed in that chapter is the dedication of Solomon's temple, and the 'people' are the ancient Israelites. 

As contrary as these and similar popular interpretations of Bible passages are to a rational approach to literary interpretation that attempts to get at the original meaning of a text, they were actually the norm for most of history, including in the Second Temple Period and in the early church. Among Jews it is referred to as 'midrash.'

In biblical studies, “midrash” is the word often used to describe the transformation of the meaning of biblical texts by later communities of faith. Midrash (a Hebrew word) is tricky to define. Generally, I define midrash as an approach to the text that goes beyond and beneath the “plain meaning” of the text for the purpose of addressing some difficulty in the text or bring that past text into conversation with present circumstances. (Enns, 2020)

An example of this would be Paul's creative reinterpretation of the meaning of Hagar and Sarah, found in Galatians 4:21-31. If I had submitted a paper in my undergraduate ministry training program that used that sort of reasoning, I would have gotten an F and likely been referred for counseling. And yet, that was a fairly conservative application of midrash, compared to others that can be found in history. 

If you're going to be an honest reader of the Bible, you have to let go of and that is that it was written for us. It was not written for us, these are, are things that were written over millennia. And they were written for the people in their time, they've turned out to be wonderful meeting places, to, for other people to come in and meet God in, because that's what they're doing. They're trying to point to God. And so if we let they're pointing to God, inspire us to look for God, then then scripture is a good meeting place, but they weren't written for us. (Chvala-Smith, Chvala-Smith, & Long, 2020)

The church uses the Bible, a selection of 66 (Protestant), 72 (Roman Catholic), or 81 (Coptic) texts as the foundational point of reference for all thinking. How each communion and individual sect within Christianity uses these Scriptures varies, and from pulpt to pulpit within denominations the details can vary to some small degree, depending on the thinking of the preacher. Through the centuries of the Common Era people have gathered to hear these writings read and expounded upon. They've attended passion plays, Bible studies, lectures, Sunday School, and more to wrestle with the meaning. Too often for my taste they've gotten caught up straining out gnats but swallowing camels in the process. At worst, specific interpretations have been used to oppress, exploit, and justify the killing of others. At best, people have found a liberatory message and communities have been bound together in a commitment to living their best life in pursuit of highest meaning and right living.

To me, it isn't necessary to seek 'God' in the Bible for a church to be doing it right. Nor should all be expected either to agree about meanings or to accept without question everything said within the Bible. As a Unitarian Universalist, I'm part of a tradition that holds to no canon and no creed. I know people who are part of progressive churches, and in one case a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a strong Christian tradition, who are atheists. That's certainly not for every atheist, and depending on the ethos of the church I might not care for it much either, but it works for some. The Bible can provide a common language and set of stories for a community to meet and explore what it means to be the best we can be, as well as how to grieve, lament, love, forgive, hold responsible, be accountable, and show grace. In the prophetic yearing we find in its pages for justice and peace we can find inspiration for the struggle against oppression and for human flourishing. 

Or, a congregation can find any of a number of other methods for doing the same, without scripture. That is also valid. Culture, history, and science alone can provide all that's needed. What sets the Bible apart is simply that it is a well-worn, tested resource. The risk of misapplication and harmful interpretations can happen based on any product of human creativity, and it falls to us to bear the responsibility of avoiding that pitfall.

References:

Chvala-Smith, C., Chvala-Smith, T., & Long, C. (2020, November 27). Being LGBTQIA+ Affirming and Christian. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from http://www.projectzionpodcast.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/326-Percolating-on-Faith-Being-LGBTQIA-Affirming-and-Christian.pdf

Enns, P. (2020, March 08). Christians and the Old Testament: Don't Expect Jesus to Solve Your Problems (Or Do; It Depends). Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://peteenns.com/christians-and-the-old-testament-dont-expect-jesus-to-solve-your-problems-or-do-it-depends/