Thursday, March 03, 2011

Book of the People and People of the Book

As promised I wanted to blog a bit about the sessions I did for Knox Presbyterian here in Ottawa. First off I really enjoyed the engaged conversation we had the last night, what a great group of people. I hope that I was able to stir up a dynamic conversation around our relationship to and with the Bible. I think this is one of the more important areas for contemporary Christians to wrestle with.

My strategy was to spend the first night deconstructing how we understand our relationship with the Bible and then the second night reconstructing it, hopefully with a better understanding of what we desire Scripture to do in our faith and communities and with a better understanding of how we might have placed restraints on the text. Both are needed to make this work, so I was quite happy with the number of folk who took in both sessions.

In terms of deconstruction I went about turning the assumptions we often make about the Bible into the questions we should be asking. So when we assert that the Bible is authoritative we need to ask in what way is the Bible authoritative? These are not natural questions to ask of our primary, as Protestant Christians, symbol. In fact when we look at our feelings we can often find ourselves wanting to defend our claims rather than examine them. This actually shows us how foundational the Bible is to our spirituality and even identity. The fear is that if we begin to dig deeply into those foundations our whole sense of self might come tumbling down. I think in some ways that fear is true. But there is a risk in not doing it - the risk is that we will discover eventually that we might be building on those foundations in ways that actually are not faithful to our claims about the Bible being foundational to our lives and communities. It is not pretty when folks make this realization on their own.

At the end of the first night we left presented two questions to mull over until the second session. First, how does the Bible shape us? Which is the safe question in some ways - but I think it can help reveal the ways in which we resist having our lives shaped by the Bible. And second, how do we shape the Bible? I love the anecdote from Free for All (Conder and Rhodes) about the biblical scholar who is asked to tell a congregation what the Bible says about homosexuality. He sits the Bible on the pulpit and waits. When nothing happens he declares that the Bible doesn't say anything about homosexuality on its own - it needs to be read and reading is an act of interpretation. This is the piece the seems to bug us most - when we challenge the myth that the Bible somehow mediates itself. Which, if this were actually a quality of Scripture, would not result in the vast array of interpretations that Christians hold onto. The hard part about this is to know what we are bringing to the text when we read it. Sometimes we don't even know. Both of these questions are ones we can return to over and over again. But where deconstruction is helpful to reveal the true character of our existing relationship with/to the Bible - the reality is that a spirituality without the Bible really has a tenuous claim to being Christian.

When we are rebuilding our relationship - we need to pay attention to what we expect and desire from a relationship with Scripture. For many of us that encounter with Scripture was the place of encountering the Word behind the word. In fact the way it is described is transformative, and I think that aspect of the relationship is always worth preserving. The genius of the devotional reading of Scripture captures this aspect nicely. While it is not the same thing as Biblical Criticism (or even Bible study for that matter) it serves a valuable function because it insists that the text remain dangerous. By dangerous I am referring to capacity of this encounter with the content of the text as challenging to our own ideas and views. It is exactly the opposite of what is practiced so much in preaching - where the text is used to support our ideas. The devotional reading is meant to confront us, challenge us, and spur us on towards love an good works.

The other problem with devotional readings though is that it is an intuitive process. We often do not reflect on how much we bring to the spiritual practice of devotional reading, so like Augustine, we can find ourselves doing what we think is the right thing but in actuality is not right at all. Think about slavery for instance - both sides of the slavery debate rested on the foundation of the Bible. Today, I'm certain, most of us would hold slavery to be unconscionable. But this is a relatively new development. And what shaped the position for the stakeholders was their presuppositions about the humanity of the people who were being trafficked as slaves. While we cannot know what we don't know - in terms of all our assumptions - we can find help in a second way of relating to the Bible - Biblical study.

Bible study should not be conflated with devotional reading. If we can make this distinction then I think we can ease a lot of the fears about Biblical criticism. We can also insist that more critical Biblical study needs to be in conversation with the devotional reading that animates the community. In our example of slavery it wasn't Biblical study that changed hearts and minds - it was a shift in the assumptions that were being brought to Scripture. But Biblical study can then take up its task in light of both the contemporary situation and the historical witness of text and tradition. Often a process that strengthens our capacity to relate to the Bible in a healthy way.

In our talks we took this conversation one other place. The remaining problem is where this conversation is worked out. I proposed a reflection on the community as the place of interpretation. Certainly we are not all accomplished Biblical Scholars, but some in our communities do possess such skills. What we can do is wrestle together. We can draw on whatever depths there are in our communities - but also with the understandings of those who are interacting with the needs of the community and society. We can foster conversations that challenge us as the people of the Book to live out what we discover in the Book of the people.

1 comment:

steven hamilton said...

Frank, this is great stuff! Wish I could have been there for these session, I can just imagine all the really great conversations driving home with friends and family and the ripple-effect those will have!