I’m never quite sure how to react when the popular media reports on religious matters. On one hand, I usually cringe when the media covers issues related to the Lutheran church, mainline protestantism, theology or Bible – things about which I know a few things – because of the simplicity, lack of nuance and errors in their reporting. (Makes me worry how well they’re reporting on Islam, something about which I know significantly less!) Yet I usually appreciate it when religion is treated thoughtfully in the popular media, knowing that the media reaches people our churches do not.
Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer featured a spirited (yet limp) battlecry commentary about liberal Christians reclaiming their faith and Bible from the abuses of conservative Christians. Little in this article is news or cutting edge material, but it does articulate for the layperson that Christianity has a voice other than that heard on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
Yet one thing concerned me in this article. The author, Chris Satullo, suggested that liberal Biblical critque is a process of identifying historical errors in Biblical transmission and formation and of prioritizing which texts are more authentic (hinting at a hermaneutic of historical reliability rather than one of faith). Now, I know that there are more ways to interpret the Bible than there are ways to skin a cat. Perhaps his assesment of liberal Biblical critique is correct (I’m no scholar of the history of Biblical interpretation). Perhaps it is an oversimplification (which it surely is – whole books have been written on this topic!). Perhaps it is true for only a small portion of the progressive Christian crowd (I hope so). Perhaps I am misreading him and the liberal Christian establishment. But after reading this commentary, I worried that literally-minded conservative Christians will simply lampoon liberals as Cut and Paste Christians, selectively choosing scripture based on some (dubious, to them) academic principle rather than faith, tradition or divine inspiration. I’m not happy with either end of the spectrum.
For better or worse, the Bible as we have received it contains letters assigned to St Paul but which were likely not written by him. For better or worse, the Bible contains various stories and sayings attributed to Jesus, but which were not likely spoken by him. For better or worse the Bible is a collection of written accounts, attempting to express the faith experience of a people of God. For better or worse the Bible is as we have received it, and I am uncomfortable with prioritizing Biblical material based on its supposed historical accuracy. If historical accuracy is what we’re after, then our faith is limited by the reason and insight of an academic discipline rather than enriched by the faith experience of our sisters and brothers (and even meddling medieval scribes!) of previous generations. I’m not willing to simply dismiss half of the Bible as myth and suggest that its mythic character limits its appliciblity to my faith and life.
And so, is there a line to tow between the extremes of liberals and literalists? Can I accept the canon without either the line-by-line literalist interpretation nor the exacto knife that excises the disagreeable and historically questionable content? I hope so.