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.
4 thoughts on “I’ll take my Bible, flaws and all”
Good comments and questions. I read a quote once about people who seem to pound on the literal points, etc. actually being somewhat defensive about their faith. Pastors I’ve know who exhibit the deepest faith don’t seem too uptight about the details.
However, this wouldn’t do for a Biblical scholar.
I saw a TV show about a Biblical scholar who came out of the Evangelical tradition. He knew the Bible and all the books that didn’t make it in to the canon in exact detail. His research on the contradictions and additions to the “original” texts caused him to lose his faith.
Ah yes–good ol’ Bart Ehrman. Well–I am a biblical scholar who specializes in the history of interp… The article is partly right, many liberal folks–especially former fundamentalists–take great delight in paring things away according to “authentic” and “inauthentic” labels. A perfect example is the Jesus Seminar who decides what words of Jesus are “authentic” or “inauthentic”. The assumption is that the “authentic” ones are true and are to be believed whuile the “inauthentic” ones are false and not to be believed. Two points on this:
1) The Jesus Seminar is part of a long trajectory of historical Jesus research that stretches back to Reimarus, a German scholar heavily influenced by Deism who thoroughly questioned the reliability of the gospels. A classic work in the field of NT by Albert Schweitzer details the quest down to his own day. What he demonstrates in exacting detail is that each quest–surprisingly–finds a Jesus who just happens to hold the same moral, philosophical, and theological beliefs as the one doing the research. Thus, the Jesus Seminar finds a quirky cynic who takes on the religious establishment, rejects fundamentalism, and reaches out to women, minorities, and the oppressed. Doesn’t at *all* sound like the idealization of the hip radical professor now does it… 😉
2) What these folks either forget or ignore is this: history is not canonical–the canon is. That is, we Christians stake our faith in the words of the canon as read through the lens of the Creeds in accordance with the traditions handed down from the apostles. The history behind the text is important in its own ways but it is not where we stake our faith; what is important is that these texts have shaped the way that the Church thinks, prays, and acts for 2,000 years. These are lived-in texts. Scribal changes merely reflects that truth. Now, since we hold to texts, not history, we realize that what we have is not just an attempt to do bare-bones reporting; texts inherently have perspectives–and biases. No, the gospels and other books of the Bible are not just flat straight-forward history. But the early church knew that… (Have we forgotten?) The reason why they kept the texts that they did are because these were the texts that year after year, decade after decade, these were the texts that put them in touch with the power and life of the resurrected Christ.
To whom shall we go? you have the words of eternal life…
Mark Roberts has an interesting view on The Bible’s authority as well as NT Wright.
Pounding, Derek, Rich – thanks for coming over to my new blogsite, and for your insights. Derek, I especially like your line about these texts being “lived-in” and “texts that put them in touch with the power and life of the resurrected Christ.” I have often described Scripture as the faith story of a people of God, or of an account of a people’s encounter with God. This is not history, it is faith, it is relationship, it is story.
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