27 February 2020

Is the Bible nice?

Continuing along the lines of an earlier post, Is God nice?

I remember the first Bible I ever saw ... and how I came to see it.

As a child, I often explored the bookshelves where my mother's huge library of German language textbooks and literature dominated our family collection. One day I pulled out a book-sized white cardboard box and opened it. I found a book wrapped with tight precision in thin white tissue paper. Taking care to preserve the perfect creases in the paper, so that I could reverse the process later and conceal my intrusion, I carefully unwrapped the book. As you've already guessed, it was a Bible -- a black leather Bible with a zipper along the three open sides, and a transparent marble serving as the zipper pull. The marble had a small seed in it. (I didn't have any context to guess that it was a mustard seed.) I unzipped the cover and looked inside.

Since most of my reading at the time was at the Happy Hollisters level, I think I can be forgiven for deciding that this Bible was not a reader-friendly document. Even though the pages were small, the text's tiny print was divided into two columns separated by a thin third column. The English was strange ("... my tongue cleaveth to my jaws"), I couldn't figure out how italics were being used, and the diacritical marks in some words just made everything even more mysterious. Given that marble and zipper, I decided that this was not a regular book but some sort of ritual object, which helped explain why it was so tightly wrapped.

I can't remember whether I succeeded in rewrapping that Bible to match its original appearance. In any case, it wasn't for several more years that I began the general task of unwrapping what the Bible was all about. Since religion was a forbidden topic in our home, I heard about the Bible mainly from side-references in magazines and on the radio, gradually understanding that it was a very important book for certain kinds of people my parents wanted to avoid.

My high school offered an elective class on the Bible as literature, which is why they had a stack of New Testaments in the then-just-published New English Bible translation in the library. I wasn't in the class, but I helped myself to a copy of that book. It was a normal looking hardcover book, and the text on each page also looked normal -- one column crossing the whole page, no illogical italics and no diacritical marks, and -- best of all -- comprehensible English. I remember sitting down and reading the whole book of Acts, marveling at how easy and compelling the book turned out to be.

A couple of years later, I bought my own copy of the New English Bible, and that's what I was reading at the moment I put my life into God's hands. I don't now know what happened to that hardcover book, but I still have the compact-sized Bible I bought for my travels to Mississippi, Norway, the UK, and the USSR, in 1975. From the markings on the pages, I can see that I used this Bible for the Wednesday evening Bible studies at Ottawa Friends Meeting, led by Anne Thomas and Deborah Haight. This time I chose an edition that looks startlingly like the Bible I found on my parents' bookshelf -- but no center column. (The references and comments are in footnotes.)

I didn't keep that Bible in a box, and it had no zipper cover. I'm afraid that the book has long since lost its original good looks....:

So far I've avoided my advertised theme, "Is the Bible nice?" The short answer is, of course, "no!" It is decidedly not a decorative enhancement to a pious life; nor is it a handy compendium of uncomplicated blessings; nor yet a gallery of role models as implied by those ads we used to find in the magazines in dentists' offices, promising that buying Bible story books for your children will ward off juvenile delinquency. The Bible, in fact, has a demonstrated capacity to provide fuel for theological controversies and church splits!

Concerning that last point ... one of the mixed blessings of the Quaker corner of the Christian family is that we don't argue about the "inerrancy" of the Bible as much as some others do, but argue for its unique functional role in discerning Truth. For example, the Richmond Declaration of Faith, cautions against mechanical application of the text ("He" is in original 1887 text):
The great Inspirer of Scripture is ever its true Interpreter. He performs this office in condescending love, not by superseding our understandings, but by renewing and enlightening them. Where Christ presides, idle speculation is hushed; His doctrine is learned in the doing of His will, and all knowledge ripens into a deeper and richer experience of His truth and love.
When we try to explore the metaphysics of how the Bible is extraordinary, how the apparent contradictions in the text are somehow not really there, and how its ancient codes of conduct are to be interpreted (or not) in our context, we drift into "idle speculation" and, at worst, imply that there is a magical quality to this complex compilation of scriptures that is not supported by anything in the text. Instead, we in our meetings and churches rely on the Inspirer to be the Interpreter, just as the original compilers did.

In a way, we have no choice. We have our Bible only because various ancient committees and councils, praying that Christ was presiding in their deliberations, agreed to include some material and exclude other material. They didn't always agree on what to retain from the Hebrew scriptures and apocrypha, and how to organize the material, so Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox Bibles are not identical. In the process, they assembled a family archive for our community of faith, and we Quakers (and others!) continue to meet under the headship of Christ to discern and implement the will of God with the help of that archive. Without the ratification by the early church and, subsequently, our constant cross-generational experience of the relationship of Scripture to practice, the Bible would lose its real authority for us, despite the best efforts of Bible-wielding celebrity preachers to enforce their definitions of that authority.

Our family archive contains many exhibits that are totally not "nice," and there is no reason we should be afraid to ask why that scandalous, even repellent material is in there. Example: Nobody in Canadian Yearly Meeting of Friends knew and esteemed the Bible more than Susan Bax of Toronto Meeting, but I vividly remember her addressing a Bible study at the yearly meeting sessions with this demand: "Tell me what I'm to do with Judges 19-21?" Look for yourself, if you dare, at this epic display of rape, misogyny, kidnapping, and mass violence, and you can imagine the agony in Susan's voice.

Maybe we can make peace with some of Judges, reasoning that we're just being shown what happens "in those days" when "Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit," and a trustworthy archive has to include the ugly parts of the story. But what do we do when it is God who appears to sin? One poignant example occurs earlier in Judges, chapter 11, when the war chieftain Jephthah makes a very imprudent pledge to God that, if God gives him victory over the Ammonites, "whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." The text credits God with the victory: "The Lord gave them [the Ammonites] into his hands."

You probably remember who emerges from Jephthah's house to welcome him home: his dear daughter. How can we read this text and not remember the story of Abraham and Isaac? At the last moment, God prevented the sacrifice of Isaac and substituted a lamb conveniently placed nearby. Why did God, who enabled Jephthah's victory, not take the trouble to find a way out for Jephthah and his only child? Of course the Bible has dozens of other examples of collateral damage, but the inspired Scriptures seem very deliberate in making this incident as bitterly sad as possible.

In his introduction to Judges, Eugene Peterson says some helpful things.
Given the Bible’s subject matter -- God and salvation, living well and loving deeply -- we quite naturally expect to find in its pages leaders for us who are good, noble, honorable men and women showing us the way. So it is always something of a shock to enter the pages of the book of Judges and find ourselves immersed in nearly unrelieved mayhem.

It might not gravel our sensibilities so much if these flawed and reprobate leaders were held up as negative moral examples, with lurid, hellfire descriptions of the punishing consequences of living such bad lives. But the story is not told quite that way. There is a kind of matter-of-fact indifference in the tone of the narration, almost as if God is saying, "Well, if this is all you’re going to give me to work with, I'll use these men and women, just as they are, and get on working out the story of salvation."
It's in this "matter-of-fact indifference" where I find all the inerrancy I need. I do not need to believe that those who wrote or assembled the archive we know as the Bible were perfect conduits for God's inspiration, nor that they had journalistic intent -- nor even the intent of making detailed rules for contexts they would never know. What seems utterly true in the Scriptural record is...
  • On the one hand, that's exactly how human beings are! We continue to find ourselves, at times, in "nearly unrelieved mayhem." As I write, the USA is descending into corruption; global markets are threatened by a medical emergency while politicians spin their responses; innocent people are being bombed in Idlib, Syria; the world's leaders know Yemen's agonies but do practically nothing; the Atomic Scientists' clock is at 100 seconds to midnight.
  • On the other hand, we are the men and women and children whom God can use -- if we allow ourselves to join God's constant intent as the Archive makes clear: to set aside all other gods and idols, and to put the Creator God at the center of our lives as individuals and communities. 
Yes, the water will still taste of the pipes -- we cannot claim to be perfect conduits of God's inspiration any more than the raggedy bunch who did God's work in the Bible -- but that same biblical heartbeat of mercy, love, grace, justice, and the constant need to do our own discernment, gives us all the authority we need.

Related post: Post-Christians and the Bible.

Philip Jenkins on who compiled the Bible.

Is the Bible more than the sum of its books?
The Bible anticipates readers who come to it in a spirit of humility; in a spirit of patient and joyful anticipation that what it has to say is more important than the best things we have to say.
In the Southern Baptist wars, the untold story is the rage of evangelical women.

Physicist Alexander Krivomazov's eight hidden suitcases.

When all you can do is laugh: Russians and propaganda.

Wars that persist because they don't, apparently, exist.
War without dire consequences poses a conundrum. In a representative democracy, waging war should require the people’s informed consent as well as their concerted mobilization. But consent is something that America’s leaders no longer want or need and, with an all-volunteer military, there’s no need to mobilize the rest of us.
InSight into Mars ... magnetism and marsquakes.

Interested in attending the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference, June 24-28? The registration form is online.

Kim Wilson and Hot Roux perform one of my favorite songs associated with Junior Wells.

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