Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spiritual Hiccups - More on Holy Conversations

In his fascinating book, A New Kind of Christianity, Brian McLaren says that Christians of all stripes tend to use the Bible as a legal constitution.  Considering that we Americans are the product of a constitutional system of government and law, this is hardly surprising.  And so we use the Bible like a legal reference tool, searching for sections that pertain to the subject at hand.  Worse, we often use it as a reference, searching for those sections that support what we already believe, have planned, etc.  And so at various times and places, the Bible is pro-slavery and anti-slavery; it's for women as pastors and against it, and so on.

But was the Bible ever intended as such a document.  In the previous two days, I've mentioned historical contradictions in the Bible, and one of the variant story's of Judas' demise is a reading for today.  And today's Old Testament reading features the judge, Deborah. She's leading the people of God and giving orders to the military commander, despite the fact that other biblical passages would seem to frown on such a role.

An obvious problem with the Bible as constitution is the fact that such documents were unknown to the biblical writers.  They had laws, of course, but not foundational documents that undergirded those laws.  Their foundations lived in narratives, in stories.  Stories and myths were their primary vehicles for talking about who they were and who God was.  (I use the word myth not in the popular sense of untruth, but in the classic sense of stories that explain the beginnings of creation, peoples, etc.)  Because such stories were used to explain and define, historical accuracy was never their primary purpose.  And so you can find - especially in the Old Testament - stories that contradict one another lying side by side.  For example, read the stories connected to Noah.  If you pay attention you will notice differing accounts that report contradictory numbers of animals on the ark.  There are also two Creation stories with differing orders of creation

Stories, by nature, make poor legal reference material.  We understand this when Jesus tells us a parable, but for some reason we expect the Bible as a whole to abide by our modern notions of truth and accuracy.  But if we can set those aside for a moment, how might we come to the Bible in a more productive manner?  Perhaps the notion of Holy Conversations may be of some help here.

If I see the Bible, with its variety of stories, poems, hymns, laws, proverbs and so on, as a divinely inspired collection that grows out of various faithful people's encounter with God, perhaps I can enter into a conversation with these various folks from various times and places.  (Brian McLaren suggests thinking of the Bible as a "community library," with many thoughts and views on faith, not all of them in lock step agreement with one another.)

Interestingly, John Calvin, the father of my own Reformed/Presbyterian Tradition, modeled what I'm talking about when he took up the issue of lending money at interest.  We modern folks have forgotten that this was once a burning religious issue.  Christians were barred from being bankers because of the biblical prohibitions on lending at interest up until Calvin's day (the 1500s).  But when Calvin looked around the city of Geneva, where he served as both spiritual leader and city manager, he saw how fledgling small business enterprises needed capital to start small factories.  But those pesky biblical prohibitions made it difficult to raise such capital.  A constitutional reading of the Bible was of little help to Calvin.  Finding verses that supported lending at interest was nearly impossible.

But Calvin didn't use such an approach.  Rather, he engaged the Bible in a conversation.  He tried to understand how those biblical prohibitions functioned within the story of Israel and then the Church.  And in this conversation, he came to the conclusion that these prohibitions were not a matter of God being against lending or interest per se, they were protections for the vulnerable and poor.  But Calvin wanted to use lending to fund business that would employ the poor and raise their status.  And so he concluded that lending (with certain restraints to prevent hurting people) was in keeping with the original prohibitions.  He readily admitted that the Bible did not permit lending money at interest, but he claimed that in allowing just that in Geneva, he was upholding the fundamental concerns of God for the week and oppressed, the poor and the widow.

When you read the Bible, what sort of book or resource is it for you?  Do you see the larger narrative and library, the different parts in conversation with one another?  Or do you read verses in isolation like a legal code?  I have to admit that preaching can encourage the latter.  Each week there is a short snippet of Scripture from which I am to draw biblical truth.  I won't claim that it's making my preaching any better, but more and more I am seeing the entire Bible as a part of every sermon, with the verses for that Sunday raising their voice to speak within the great cloud of witnesses, each of whom have some insight to share with us.

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