Thursday, January 27, 2011

Upcoming Talks @ Knox Presbyterian

In February I've been asked to come and speak to the congregation of Knox Presbyterian in Ottawa. I will be sharing for two nights, Feb. 6th and 20th, on the relationship we have with scripture. The official title is The Book of the People, which is a shortened from what I was originally thinking: The Book of the People; the People of the Book. The phrase People of the Book comes from my Muslim friends, it is a way I've heard them describe Christians and Jews. But what strikes me about it is that I am convinced that Christians are becoming less and less the People of the Book - meaning that the importance of scripture is waning. It isn't that there are less appeals to scripture, it has to do with the role of scripture in our midst. Scripture is not seen as the authority, but is used to validate authority. What I mean by that is that scripture is used to bolster our pet ideas and make our ideological stances with little regard for the text itself. It is used as a tool. I think this is backwards. Scripture isn't a tool. Scripture is much more dangerous than that. It's authority should come not from our ability to bolster our pet ideas with proof texts (often torn out of context) it should come from scriptures ability to transform our thoughts and actions. Book of the People should not mean that Scripture is at our mercy, but that we should be the people who are shaped by the book. But we do this by relating to the Book - so ironically it never stops being the book of the people (which it always has been - even when it was written it was written as the book of the people) provided that we always remain the people of the book (the people who's identity and orientation are shaped by the Bible).

Join us, I'll spend the first night talking about what has happened that has shaped our relationship to scripture as it is today. The second night I want to look at at least two strategies that folks are using to challenge the form our relationship with text has taken. Those two are a return to text as story and a return to the notion of communities of interpretation. These are not the only strategies, but they open up hope for new shapes of our relationship with scripture.


dcourey said...

My name is David Courey. I'm a Pentecostal pastor from Cambridge ON, just finishing up a PhD at Mac. First off I thoroughly agree with you about the tendency in contemporary Evangelicalism and especially in the charismatic world to use the text for our purposes, rather than to allow God to apply the text for his purposes.

But, I was taken by the "Book of the People" notion. I think one reason for the sad decline of biblical authority in our midst is that younger generations just won't stand for an Emperor with no clothes. For years we've claimed that the Bible is God's Word, but given remarkably bland and superficial accounts of how it functions as a Word from God.

I wondered "Book of the People" might include the human voice in Scripture. Just as Jesus is the Word of God enfleshed, I approach Scripture as incarnational. Kind of a Walter Brueggemann thing: testimony, dispute, advocacy. In other words there are a pile of things happening in the text... God speaking, humans testifying, arguing, disagreeing and offering different perspectives. Still, within a notion of divine inspiration. An example of this for me is the voice of lament, for instance in Lamentations, where it admits of virtually no hope. Yet this, too is the Word of God. This is the OT version of "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And in the mouths of the oppressed, the broken, the disenfranchised, we also hear the voice of God who enters our pain. The God who sovereignly meets out judgement, also painfully, and compassionately stands in the place of judgment.

This is one way that Scripture may function as a Book of the People without compromising its authority as the Voice of God. Any thoughts?

One of Freedom said...

David, are you the guy Allan Wilde was telling me about last night? Appreciate your comments.

One of the things we explored last night was the development of notions of authority and reliability of scripture - and how there was an adaption to modernist methodologies. And it is those methodologies that cause us hesitancy in recognizing the human voice in Scripture. The reason I think is that we want something that can stand up as empirical evidence for our religious commitment and have forgone classic notions of faith. In short the theory of scripture created by capitulation to modern epistemology is the problem.

Also in my teaching last night I move back and forth between a notion of the People of the Book and the Book of the People. I think there is a balance in there that makes a huge difference. I want to respect the interpretive process and locate it precisely with the reader/interpreting community. But also acknowledge the expectation that the text is meant to be transformational and a vehicle for encounter with Word of God (sacramental). And that it is in the tension of these ideas that we can frame a relationship to Scripture that is both devotional (meaning it shapes and changes us) and critical (in that we are able to gain insight into the text and context and even the world of expectations and presuppositions we bring to our reading of the text).

One of the problems with the shape of the relationship we have with scripture currently is that it creates the illusion that the authority of the Bible is derived from its supposed capability of fulfilling the category of empirical evidence (ie. that is it historically and scientifically accurate, because a loss of that would undermine its authority.) This notion of authority makes me very nervous, even when it isn't applied in the extremes of literalism, because it means we don't have a relationship with the text but rather a monologue.

So I think you are right and have picked up that I'm trying to ask the question: in what way is the Bible Word of God? I think that what we are doing actually gives the Bible greater weight in our communities - because it invites us to enter into a conversation (and even a wrestling match as I often call it). Scripture becomes, as some of the emerging folk have realized, the story we find ourselves in.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I'm Alan's friend, and he e-mailed me about your lectures. Says he's looking forward to Part 2!

I am inclined generally to agree with you regarding modern epsitemological verification of Scripture, but wish to add a caveat about postmodern strategies as well. I am no particular fan of either postmodernity or modernity. Bothe represent fallen human projects, and both are environments into which Christfollowers have been called to incarnate the Word. As such both present their own pitfalls and possibilities.

I have come to appreciate what Amos Yong calls the hermeneutical trialectic of Spirit, Word and Community. I think this is a step toward a biblically acceptable reader-based hermeneutic, provided Scripture itself retains primacy as God's Word extra nos. I mean this in the sense of Luther and Barth (I think they would agree together on this... though, frankly I'm not sure :-)...)

I believe the Bible is unique, different than the Islamic relation between Koran and Hadith, or the relation between Mishnah/Talmud and Torah. These accommodations cause these religions to be tied to one historic incarnation, and render their practice difficult in a modern or postmodern world.

On the other hand, I think Scripture has a remarkable plasticity. I think a Christian theology of Word should allow it to remain a significant malleability that allows it to be transportable between cultures and epochs.

BUT (and here's my caveat) I think it demands a respect for its primacy (maybe, better, ultimacy). "Our mission, should we choose to accept it," is to discover how God intends this word to be incarnated in this particular milieu. This can only happen properly if we accord it an authority based on its reliability as a guide. I agree that the Bible is neither a history book nor a science text, primarily. But I suggest that it must be read with regard to its intended level of precision. Clearly ancient canons of historical accuracy or scientific precision are not ours. But, and here, I believe we're in agreement, I think it is incumbent on us to accommodate our reading to Scripture's own parameters.

This is where I concur with your assessment that applying the canons of modernist epistemology alone, have rendered Scripture hopelessly lame and left-handed. Our eyes are focussed in entirely the wrong place! I acknowledge that there are human limitations in getting at a clear understanding. (I've often wondered --in both senses... of curiosity and awe...) why God chose a medium like human language in which to communicate?! But I suggest also that we guard ourselves from excessive subjectivism of reader-based hermeneutics, and seek to hear (as much as possible) an objective, extra nos Word from God.

Great interacting with you, Frank!