I am still dealing in my head with Agent X’s article „Prophets of Consumerist Doom“. We entered a serious debate over at his blog and I have also added an article on my blog to the discussion.
As I want to keep things more approachable also for other readers, I write another blog article rather than another comment on the Fat Beggar’s School of Prophet’s blog. After all, the Web 2.0 was about building up networks, right. Maybe some of my readers wants to jump in to the discussion and write an article on his/her blog…
But before I get deeper into the discussion, I think it is necessary for the sake of clearing premisses, that I write a bit about how I see the bible. Because honestly, I feel like the different approaches towards the bible without clearing them for oneself and for others, brings most of today’s misunderstandings about. And in the end, it is all about calling others names like heathens and infidels and what not. I think we need to understand first, as understanding makes love easier and love hinders condemnation.
So let’s talk a bit about what the bible is – in my opinion – and how to use the bible and what to get from it, using it that way.
What is the bible?
Stupid questions get stupid answers, and so one could be tempted to say: „A book.“ Right as the answer is on the one hand, it appears to bring us no further in our quest – or does it?
Because, being a book, one could presume several things, for example, that there need to be one or several author(s). Also, books do have one or several purpose(s). Both is true for the bible, and both is, as I think, a matter of intense debate.
So who is the author of the bible? Some might feel tempted to say „God“, but I hesitate, because not even the bible says so. God is nowhere in the bible said to have put up a pen and written down any one book of the bible, or even the bible as a whole. He didn’t. There’s no such claim. So I won’t make this claim up. I stick with what we know of authorships (to some extent by the bible itself), that there were several human beings (most of all men from the middle east) who wrote down parts of the bible each.
And I do stick to what I learned at university, that there has been a long process of writing, rewriting, redaction, „corrections“ and what not on the bible text, before what we have today in our modern language bibles, be it KJV, NIV, German Luther translation or Volxbibel. Whoever had a look into textual criticism knows, this is also true for ancient language bibles, we have nothing that we could call the original, though deviations of the different original language texts from one another is in most cases not very big.
So the bible is a book, composed by mostly men of middle eastern descent, from cultures that are different to our own cultures, that even differ within themselves: Whoever composed the Miriam-Song lived in a completely different reality than whoever composed the Apocalypse of John.
Apocalypse of John? Didn’t John write it? Some folks seem to be obsessed with such questions, they seem to think that if John did not write the Apocalypse of John, all other things written down might be lies, too, and if that’d be so, what use would it to be to even look at the bible?
You see we also touch the next question, how to use the bible, but we have not yet been talking about the purpose. So what would be the purpose of the bible being written?
Some folks might say: To give directions to true believers to know whatever they are to do in any situation, or to reveal the will of God Almighty or something along these lines.
I think of it a bit differently. I think there were men who had an experience with God and wanted to write it down, one way or another. And other people read that, because it gave them something. And they retold the story, and it was changed to fit other circumstances, but sometimes it was also kept, the different story parts might have gone through quite some change as they turned into the composition of the bible we have today. It is a lengthy process.
Now one thing is important to me. No, make that two: One thing is that the people involved did not (for the most part – we are all sinners, aren’t we?) do it for some evil plans to be fulfilled, they wanted to tell of God, how they experienced Him. Whether they used the form of fiction (similar to C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkin), historical setting (Ken Follet?) or whatever form of literature – they wanted to tell of what they experienced with God.They were sincere.
And they were read by the community that passed on their writings. So the community approved of what they found. We would not pass on literature that we consider bad, or morally questionable. There might be others in our times who would, but they wouldn’t consider the literature bad or questionable as we do, they’d like it for some reason or another.
So I come to the conclusion, that the bible is a book, composed by many people who expressed their experiences with God, and that book is approved by believers throughout times. Just as we read the Old Testament texts, Jesus read them. And just like we read Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the Galatians themselves read it. Maybe there were some differences in their actual copies, but most was at least very similar.
We share through the bible community with other readers throughout the times, other sisters and brothers in faith, who read the same texts and were lifted up by the witness of the texts, the experiences of other sisters and brothers (mostly brothers though) brought into the form of literature.
Looking at it as this is, the question whether John wrote the Apocalypse is at most boring. Which John anyway? I don’t care about the name, I care about what experience he had with our (his and my) God. I care about how this was considered relevant to fellow Christians from the first reader all down the line to me and my fellow sisters and brothers in these times.
The purpose for the bible to be written was to tell of God. And when I read the bible, I hear of God.
How to use the bible?
„So all I have to do to hear of God is to open the bible and read?“
„So what I read there is the word of God? So God is the author still?“
„No, the bible is not the Word of God, it contains the Word of God. You yourself cannot do anything to get the Word of God out of it. It’s God’s to open the bible up to you trough His Holy Ghost (or is it Holy Spirit? I am never sure which is the right English term.).
Of course we can read in the bible. And we might get some interesting insights into biblical history, poetry and what not. You can analyse it like any book, but that will lead you nowhere.
Well, not exactly nowhere, but where reading and analysing Shakespeare or any other worldly writer would bring you too: greater knowledge in a certain field of literature. As God didn’t write it, we cannot get His will directly from it.
You can read the bible all your life and be an atheist. And you can read one verse and start to believe. God makes the difference, and we cannot do anything about it really.
The difference God makes, I suppose, is that between a distanced look at literature and an existential look at the literature of my community. I can be entertained by Shakespeare, but the team songs of my favourite football team touch deeper. They have to do with me.
And as I am Christian, the bible has to do with me. I am a sinner and might be making mistakes, but I seek to get something from the experiences other believers had with God. Some understanding, relieve maybe. And as God didn’t write it, I won’t get anything about Him by quoting single verses. This will get me to the actual author. But the author tells a longer story, and the story is about life with God. And the God is the same God in all stories, so I expect there to be a general picture of this God to shine through.
Yes, there are all kind of contradictions and cruelties that lead people to say this God must be mad or a monster, but actually, I think this is not God you see in there, but the sinners that wrote the text. I think you can look beyond this, but you might have to need the Spirit to do so. Luckily, as Christians we have the Spirit not in our pockets, but sent to us by our Lord and saviour to comfort us. And He does, opening up the bible to us.
And in all this we need to remain humble. You can never be too sure whether the Spirit guides you or your own desires. The bible is only one voice to listen to. We also have the Spirit talking directly to our hearts (whereas we still cannot be too sure which Spirit is talking at any given time), we have our fellow Christians with whom we share community and hopefully the one or the other talk about how God is making Himself heard in our lives, maybe there are testimonies as well… and last but not least we have our brains to make sense of all that.
With none of these we can be too sure, nothing gives us a clear direction, we cannot step back, out of responsibility. We will be responsible for what we consider right and wrong, so I consider it a bad thing to point to a bible verse prohibiting others certain things, like premarital sex or homosexuality or Rock’n Roll music. We are responsible for ourselves and others for themselves. We need to talk, because we are brothers and sisters, we need to understand, else there will be division in the body of Christ, which shall not be.
What to get from the bible?
So what do I get from the bible, from reading the bible? Nothing much, if I look for a 1-2-3 plan for my life or for other’s lives or anything like that. It’s not a short cut to circumvent own thinking, own responsibility for thought and claims.
But what we do get is an idea of God, an idea of community and an object around which community can form, as we talk about it, as we gather to hear from it. All directed towards the triune God, not the text, but with the text as some kind of catalyst if you like. Plus, you get quite some good literature. After all, the bible is an all time best-seller, and certainly not only because of the tradition of having a bible copy as a Christian. Some folks do really read it and enjoy it.
You might have realised that I did not argue biblically. I do not intend to give biblical proof for what I wrote here, because that would be a circle, wouldn’t it. I mean you wouldn’t even consider it to be true if you found a paper with two sentences on it:
The world is flat. What is written on this paper is true.
The bible declaring itself to be true is no better argument than a person claiming to be no liar. The bible itself, the person itself is hardly proof. You need proof from other sources: The Spirit, fellow Christians, your brains. I chose the route via the brains here, though I have the impression that the Spirit doesn’t tell me a very different story, so I ask you, my Christian brothers and sister for your comments as a further corrective. We need this talking, this forms community – especially here on the internet where we cannot share bread and wine.