Friday, February 13, 2009

Firing the Canon

Is the canon a tool of oppression? Is it hopelessly corrupted by power interests? Is the very idea of a fixed library of truth inimical to freedom and human flourishing?

Could be. I'm going to give some of my responses to these questions, and because of the kind of person I am they will be equivocal, and qualified. I will say the situation is messy and complex and it will probably be unsatisfying to some of you. My thoughts:
  1. Is the Canon oppressive? The Canon, repeating what I've said about the Bible, is an inanimate object - or perhaps an idea or way of thinking about an inanimate object. Therefore it cannot be responsible for either good or bad outcomes of our actions. Human interpreters of the Canon are solely responsible for their actions. In this sense we can't lay "oppression" at the foot of the canon. The canon doesn't DO anything much less oppress anyone.
  2. But can't ideas themselves be powerful or dangerous Aric? Aren't they analogous to weapons? Isn't an unarmed person less dangerous? Ok, I concede the point that ideas can be dangerous and all those crazy oppressive idealogues out there would be less dangerous without tools like the Canon to use. But what choice do we have? It isn't possible to remove an idea that is so widespread. Nationalism is an idea that is FAR more destructive than the Canon ever could be, but there is no hope of getting people to stop being nationalistic. The Canon is here to stay, like it or not.
  3. So you're saying that the canon is bad but we're stuck with it? Well, no. Anyone who has studied history at all would have to admit the fact that the formation of the canon was messy and involved all sorts of nasty power struggles, and the actual use of the canon has often been exclusionary and manipulative. But I don't think that means we have to write it off as an inherently bad idea. Frankly, every "idea" that humans have been involved in has been used in horrible manipulative ways. Check the use of the word "Freedom" in the last 8 years. I regard the canon as inevitable. Neither good nor bad really. It's what we do with it that matters.
  4. If it's not really good or bad, but you admit that it has been abused why not jettison it? Other than my aforementioned belief that it is impossible to jettison, my reservation about tossing the canon is this: arrogance. Anyone who thinks they can set up a better canon or standard is fooling themselves. We can't cut out all the objectionable bits of the Bible and the rest assured we've made a book which is free from error or potential for misuse. What now seems clearly sinful to us in the Bible (mysogyny for example) was once normal. Therefore what now seems normal or acceptable to us is almost certainly sinful from another perspective. We are blind to our own failings just as people of other times were blind to theirs. It is impossible to construct a perfect canon, therefore I prefer to stick with the one we have as a means of training ourselves in humility. When we have to accept something as authoritative which we know to be faulty, it reminds us not to be cocky about our own righteousness.
  5. I don't want to set up a better standard I want to get rid of ANY standards... Call me a skeptic but I just don't buy it. Everyone has standards they judge things by - ways we decide whether or not something is true. If we remove the canon it will be replaced by something else - reason, argument, democratic process, scientific investigation... take your pick. Frankly, all of these are already operative as ways of determining truth and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. In fact, the Canon has an advantage over most of these in that it is literature, which makes it LESS prescriptive than a democratic process (everyone must accept the majority opinion), or scientific investigation (everyone must be persuaded by evidence). In fact, as long as our debates in the church revolve around interpretation of scripture there will be a lot of diversity. It's once the matter gets put to a vote or the authority structure of the church weighs in that diversity gets squashed.
  6. Is there room for criticism of the Canon within orthodoxy? Eh. I don't worry about it too much. We are not Roman Catholics, so there is no magisterium to decide exactly who is orthodox and who isn't. I get to claim I'm orthodox and so do the people I disagree with. We have different opinions about the canon and that is fine. In fact, there isn't any consensus on what is canonical and what isn't. Catholics have 7 more books than Protestants and most Eastern Orthodox Christians have even more. Prominent heros of the faith like Martin Luther have openly criticized sections of the Bible and argued that we should toss certain books out. So I think it is safe to say that the canon can be criticized.
  7. Don't we have to take the whole Canon as authoritative? As my professor Ann Wire once put it - the only sections of the Bible that are authoritative are the ones that you take as authoritative. If you never read Habbakuk and never try to apply it to your life then it has no more authority over you than the Nag Hammadi or the Ring of the Nibbelungen. It's all about what actually gets used and how - not what some ancient conference of bishops says has authority. The canon has authority for the church precisely because it has been used that way, and more so than any other books outside the canon. Partly this is because at various times the church has declared the books in the canon authoritative, but it has always done so in response to their actual use in the church.
I'll stop there. I could keep going, but this is plenty for discussion, and I'll start repeating myself soon.


Jodie said...

"We are not Roman Catholics, so there is no magisterium to decide exactly who is orthodox and who isn't. I get to claim I'm orthodox and so do the people I disagree with."

Good Point

John Shuck said...

Thanks for your thoughts. The question I had asked in the other post was whether or not there was anything in orthodoxy that could be critical of the canon. Your answer is:

Eh. I don't worry about it too much.

That is where I differ.

Jodie said...


I thought the answer was "there is no such thing as orthodoxy" that can be critical of the canon.

OTH, the canon was compiled at the same time orthodoxy came into existence - in its original form.

So, while today we could argue that we have no such thing, one could for the sake of exercise, adopt the Nicene posture of orthodoxy and then from that point of view critique the Nicene view of canon.

Or critique the many modern claims of orthodoxy.

For example in a museum exhibit of pre iconoclastic art from the Monastery at Sinai there was this illumination on the first page of a thousand year old copy of Matthew. It showed Matthew presenting Jesus with a copy of the Matthew scroll. A human text presented to Jesus as a gift (same logic applied to to the icons). Jesus is shown as accepting the gift, thus giving it authoritative status without denying its human origins.

Interesting perspective from the inventors of orthodoxy.

Aric Clark said...


It certainly wasn't my intent to be dismissive of the question or of the concerns behind it. What I was getting at is that without an official power structure (as Stalin famously said once "How many divisions does the Pope command?") there is nothing to keep people like you or me or my fellow friars from criticizing the canon as much as we want and still calling ourselves orthodox.

So the question "is there room in Orthodoxy for xyz"... is answered, in my opinion, "orthodoxy is a room without walls or boundaries so there is infinite space."

There are certainly plenty of people out there who want to put up walls, but that is like a toddler drawing a chalk circle around themselves on the ground and then defiantly shouting that no one can come in the circle without their permission. It has about that much force and importance.

John Shuck said...

I'll push again.

You said that the canon doesn't do anything; it doesn't oppress anyone. Either does G-6.0106b, right? Like the canon, it is simply words on paper. It is simply a law.

Then you admit that the canon could be dangerous in the hands of all those crazy oppressive ideologues (such as the majority of Presbyterians who continue to enforce G-6.0106b because of the Bible). We are the liberal ones. We haven't even mentioned all the other Protestant groups and the way the canon reinforces all of their oppressive actions.

What choice do we have?

The same choice you have when you are faced with a bad law. You change it if you have the will.

Racism, nationalism, homophobia, consumerism, patriarchy all are bad things. So we are stuck with them? I disagree that the canon is less destructive than these things. As I see it, the canon reinforces these ideologies.

The canon is here to stay like it or not.

Just like the Dred Scott decision. Just like American slavery. Just like second class status for women.

Of course the documents of the canon will be here. The question is whether or not they will have authority for the church and society.

Anyone who thinks they can set up a better canon or standard is fooling themselves.

Come on. Of course we can. We do it all of the time. We try to ignore or downplay the parts we don't like. That means we are sane.

The Bible is no longer a standard for science, history, literature, poetry, law, or ethics (sexual or otherwise). We have superior standards in each of these areas.

The next step is really not that hard. We simply allow it to be a book of the past, put it on the shelf along with other works of literature, and read it if we want or don't.

There is no need to substitute another canon, except perhaps the one attributed to Jesus, "love others as you love yourself."

You mentioned the other standards, reason,scientific investigation, democratic process--yes, all superior to the canon.

As far as literature is concerned, the Bible is about a C minus.

The canon did its work. It moved us along perhaps birthing our modern western consciousness. But its work is over.

We have moved beyond it. The problems we face are larger than its scope.

To use it as anything more than a work of the past, with some interesting stories that we evaluate from our perspective, is to use it as a tool for oppression and ignorance.

Sure it can be used as you say to help with the virtue of humility. Like I said in a previous comment, there are some great things in it. But there are great things in other works of literature as well and I don't turn them into a canon of authority.

The canon is dying as is the god for which it purports to speak. I don't need to argue for its death, it is going on its own.

My hope is that it won't like Samson (the first fundamentalist suicide bomber) take everyone around it down with it.

John Shuck said...


Our comments passed each other like ships in the night.

I do like your definition of orthodoxy.

I wonder if my comments on the canon still would place me in that "infinite space."

Thanks for engaging me!

Aric Clark said...


By all means keep pushing.

G-6.0106b doesn't do anything. Correct. Think of other provisions in the Book of Order that we more or less totally ignore without any repercussions across the denomination - such as the rule about baptism preceding access to communion. VERY few churches put any sort of bar before the table and no one raises a fuss about it. That rule therefore is effectively dead.

My point isn't that rules or books or words are unimportant, but that we can't blame them for what is wrong. PEOPLE are to blame. We just use rules and books as flimsy excuses for our behavior.

re: the canon reinforcing ideologies of nationalism, patriarchy etc... we'll just have to disagree here. I think the canon can be used as a powerful critique of all these "isms".

As for getting rid of the canon the way we got rid of slavery etc... Who is in a position of authority to do that? All of those are a matter of secular law. Who in the church could possibly accomplish the same thing? Frankly I don't want to see the church set up in such a way that there ever would be a legal authority similar to secular governments. The Church is inherently unarmed, inherently voluntary. By what means could you disestablish the canon?

As for your modernist view of history - we've disagreed here before and will continue to. I don't believe that we are on some kind of inevitable march toward enlightenment away from barbarism. I think the various catastrophic wars and genocides of the last century blew that idea to pieces.

Like you, I don't want to see the Bible used as a standard for science or law or ethics, but I actually think that is a modernist problem. Modernists, who need to see everything in terms of rules and structures want to read the canon as if it were an instruction manual - as if the only kind of authority that has any meaning is the kind that enforces regulations. The testimony of the church is (and has almost always been) that the canon is authoritative in that it "authors" us... it forms us spiritually into disciples of Christ. The way it does this is much more like an ongoing conversation than like a set of laws. And in this way the falibility of the canon is an asset not a liability, because we can learn as much from being in conversation with its flaws as with its strengths.

Think of your heros or rolemodels growing up. Parents, uncles, sports icons, whoever... is there one of them that wasn't a horribly flawed person? Yet, did you not learn from them and grow into a better person because of them? Perhaps, in some cases, even BECAUSE of their flaws? Many people spend a great portion of their adulthood trying not to become their parents, and knowing some of their parents it is a worthwhile cause.

John Shuck said...


I made a lengthy and profound comment (inerrant, actually) and between pressing "publish" and waiting for the command to become, I lost it.

This is a second try, but I warn you it won't be as nearly as infallible as the original autograph.

Good work, all in all. Thanks for your thoughts. I tend to agree with most everything here.

My point isn't that rules or books or words are unimportant, but that we can't blame them for what is wrong. PEOPLE are to blame. We just use rules and books as flimsy excuses for our behavior.

True enough. Although human beings wrote the rules and the books (including the Bible) in the first place--every jot and tittle. We behave badly by writing books and rules.

We also behave well by doing same.

I do agree that texts within the canon are powerful critiques of the isms.

It is hard to know, really, what level of blame for human misery can be laid upon the Bible and what should be laid upon other things.

When I look at America today, honestly, the most ethical people are non-canonical, non-believers.

The absolute worst shift for a waiter/waitress is Sunday afternoon. I have been told by those with experience that that is the time "when the Christians come; they are rude and lousy tippers." Maybe that isn't the case everywhere, but it is in Johnson City, Tennessee.

That is partly silly, but very telling. Where the Christian religion and the Bible are elevated the highest is where we have the most backward and regressive social policies. The Bible is a license to treat people like crap.

It is difficult to know the origin of our dis-ease. I certainly project my mote into the eye of another on that.

Parents. I do like that analogy. I think of the canon and Christian history as my heritage--my ancestry. I take from them and I leave things.

When I do counseling with couples preparing for a wedding or a holy union service, I ask them to pick three things from their families of origin that they wish to keep and three things they would like to leave behind. The purpose of the exercise is to raise consciousness about our values and whence they came as well as to develop a sense of autonomy in choosing values.

I think we can do the same with the canon. Keep some, leave some. A good parent encourages children to be free to do that. I honor my parent (the canon and the ancestors who put it together) by that ongoing process of keeping and rejecting, knowing that I may not be making the most healthy choices by both rejecting and keeping the wrong things.

I was curious about the freedom to criticize the canon within orthodoxy. I am not sure if we really are that far apart regarding the canon; I tend to like your approach.

Like Jacob along the riverbank, I wrestle with it.

Aric Clark said...


A couple remarks about the parent analogy - it is true that we take things and leave things from our parents, but I think that a healthy child eventually comes to terms with everything about their parents, even the bad parts and learns how to integrate that somehow into their personality in a positive way, because like it or not, they are part of the family. In other words, we can prefer some aspects of the canon and dislike others, but we ought not ignore any of it. Instead we ought to find some way to come to terms with it, understand it for what it is, and even forgive its failings, so that we can learn from it and not remain teenagers in constant rebellion against our tyrant parents.

John Shuck said...

Hey Aric,

Unless of course, our parents truly were tyrants. Yes, we need to understand where they came from, and yes, we do need to recognize that we are them, but there comes a time to critically evaluate, to choose, and to move on.

I posted a link to Robert Ingersoll's 1894 article, About the Holy Bible.

There are many millions of people who believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God -- millions who think that this book is staff and guide, counselor and consoler; that it fills the present with peace and the future with hope -- millions who believe that it is the fountain of law, Justice and mercy, and that to its wise and benign teachings the world is indebted for its liberty, wealth and civilization -- millions who imagine that this book is a revelation from the wisdom and love of God to the brain and heart of man -- millions who regard this book as a torch that conquers the darkness of death, and pours its radiance on another world -- a world without a tear.

They forget its ignorance and savagery, its hatred of liberty, its religious persecution; they remember heaven, but they forget the dungeon of eternal pain. They forget that it imprisons the brain and corrupts the heart.

Ingersoll was a product of his time as well, in which the hope of progress 'onward and upward forever' was his creed.

And yet, he had a point.

John Shuck said...

I have enjoyed this conversation. So much so that I linked to you in a new post I made, Let the Bible Be Human.

I do appreciate you guys and your push to make me think!