Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Thinking About the Bible

I am writing a curriculum for a Bible Study I will be leading in the very near future, and in doing so I've been forced to cogitate a bit about this holy book. My thoughts here are not new, even to me, but putting them down in a semi-organized fashion is helpful to me. I have to think this stuff out because as a pastor people ask me questions about it. So here are some thoughts about the Bible, laid out as propositions.

#1 - There really is no such thing as 'The Bible'. The book we refer to by that name comes in a variety of different editions and translations. Some versions contain entire sections and books that others do not. There is no official canon that everyone can agree on. Instead there are a variety of 'official' canons. Furthermore, there are blatant "canons within the canon" as demonstrated by the inevitably selective use of scripture in different churches. No one has a pure holistic approach to reading scripture which gives equal priority to every text and only uses texts which all can agree are canonical while also excluding no texts that some believe ought to be canonical.

#2 - The Bible is a creation of tradition. Even though there is no indisputable physical artifact we might conclusively call 'the Bible', there is for the purposes of tradition, such a thing as the Bible. The church creates the Bible, both in concrete historical actions such as the council of Nicaea, and in our continuous social reference to it. The interaction is reciprocal. Christians have from a very early time regarded themselves as people of the book, and it is by continuously referring to that "book" that we have slowly created our identities.

#3 - There is no inherent unity to the Bible. What we call the Bible is actually a collection of ancient texts written over a wide span of time by many different authors with divergent purposes. Even within a single book composite authorship is often evident. Furthermore, these voices regularly seem to be working in opposition to one another. The texts themselves are not of one mind on anything.

#4 - The Bible is tightly woven. Despite the chaotic fractured nature of the texts of the Bible, it is frequently self-referential in the extreme. One text dovetails into another, and relies for understanding on the knowledge of five or six others on a nearly constant basis. The complex interaction of texts in scripture means that no part of the Bible is really comprehensible in isolation.

#5 - The Bible is an inanimate object. It has no will and takes no action. The Bible does not 'say' anything. In every interaction with the Bible it is always the interpreter who bears sole responsibility for the result. Neither good nor bad behavior may be justified by recourse to the Bible.

#6 - God has reliably spoken to the faithful through the Bible. We should approach scripture with confidence that the Holy Spirit can and will speak to us through this medium, because of the testimony of countless faithful saints before us. Whatever scripture's historical limitations and contradictions we come to the Bible in order to be addressed. It remains our responsibility as listeners to test what we are hearing according to what we know of God and never to mistake the book for the speaker.


Doug Hagler said...

I think it is possible to make strong arguments against #3, and it looks like, as you've laid them out here, #3 and #4 contradict each other.

For me, the challenge is to balance all the stuff I've been stuffed full of in undergrad and seminary with the actual needs of the people I'm talking to.

To this end, I actually suggest that your first session be less structured - a chance for you to collect the questions that the congregation has, or how they approach the bible, or their experiences of the bible, or how they use the bible, and then build your curriculum around that.

I'm thinking here of some lectures - and you might be able to imagine which - where at the end I was left with the feeling that I had no idea why any of that was at all important, and that I'll probably never put it to use...

Aric Clark said...


I actually structured these six points so that they do kind of alternate in tension. I'd like to think they're not flatly contradictory in a way that makes them into nonsense, but I could be wrong.

For example, I say in #1 that there is no such thing as 'the Bible' and then I say in #2 that through tradition we've created 'the Bible'.

I think the key word in #3 is "inherent". Certainly one could argue for a kind of unity in the Bible, but all the arguments I've seen have relied on a heavily tinted thematic reading, and selective use of texts to make things cohere. By "no inherent unity" I mean that it doesn't seem like one can easily distill a single 'red thread' or core message that is prominent throughout in every single book.

Thus #3 and #4 don't really contradict in my opinion because 4 isn't saying that the texts are unified in the sense that they present the same message, but only that they interact with each other in complex ways.

As for you suggestion about time for questions and stuff - I agree. This isn't my curriculum here, it's just some notes for clarification in my head so that I'm prepared to answer questions when they come up. Though my style of teaching may still end up being more structured and didactic than yours would. Maybe. Certainly more than Nick.

John Shuck said...

Hey Friars,

Nice post. I am leading a confirmation class and this week's topic is guess what? The Bible.

I will borrow and give credit!

Doug Hagler said...

I see where you're going then. And I would guess you'll have a more didactic style than me, if nothing else than because you respond to it a lot more readily than I do, and a person tends to teach the way they want to learn...

Nick.Larson said...

I agree with Doug, but I think the points are solid. I got your intention to put them in tension with one another without putting them in opposition. Anyways, Doug is right in that I think one of the best ways into this subject is to let people talk about ways they have used or seen others use the bible. I think most peoples experience with the Bible fits into your categories, which you could then bring in up in the following sessions. But I would definitely start with peoples experiences. Without that it becomes to foreign to people.

Doug Hagler said...

In thinking about this a little bit, I think I'd break things down conceptually into three questions:

What does the bible contain? (the easy, definable question)

What does the bible mean? (the medium, ongoing question)

How shall we use the bible? (the hard, ongoing question)

Aric Clark said...

That's a cool way of approaching it Doug. Could be really useful.

I definitely hear what both of you guys are saying about listening to the congregation's experiences as a starting point - and the first session is basically going to be just that, but I also already have the theme and format of the course pretty well laid out for several reasons:

#1 - I have already spoken with many folks and when asked direct questions about the Bible most people just gape like fish. I'm not confident that meaningful material is going to come from using that approach exclusively.

#2 - I have to have something prepared in advance in case of the gaping fish scenario and because people keep asking me what the study will be about as a way of determining their interest level. The course has to have a subject. In this case the subject is: Adventures on a Strange Planet, The Bible and the World it Comes From.

#3 - Also, ultimately, it's just my style. As Doug pointed out above I learn well that way and so I teach more naturally that way. I'll feel like I'm wasting time if I haven't studied up a lot before hand, prepared a complete outline for the class and have a plan for how I'm gonna deliver the material. That doesn't mean the plan can't include plenty of time for open discussion and sharing of experience, but I'm not gonna just start with that and then improvise.

Jodie said...

I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts:

About the Bible: Its kind of like a tapestry, or a quilt. It has threads that run through it, and it has unique patches. It has spots that blend well with their surrounding, and spots where, well, it just looks like patched wool.

Second thought is that I see a lot of teaching about the the bible, and people asking a lot of questions about the bible, but much illiteracy OF the Bible.

My suggestion is that no bible class spend more that 20% speaking ABOUT the bible. The rest should be spent flat out teaching it. These are the texts and where they are, this is what they "say", this is what they say before and after what they say, these are other texts that use it, are similar to it, or come from the same time period, yada yada.

The text and its (own) context.

Even Fundamentalists who pride themselves in practically worshiping the bible usually have very little idea what is actually in print between its covers. And they don't even let the words ring out in your head before they jump to interpretation and explaining what they "really" mean. The old "what does it say, what does it mean and what does it mean to me" formula.

The first three steps really need to be "what does it say, what does it say and what does it say".

Let it simmer.

Like a good tea.

Or age, like a good whiskey.

Or air out, like a good wine.

Jodie said...

except maybe teas don't "simmer"

John Shuck said...

I would like to push another direction. Is there room in orthodoxy (I do it but I am a heretic) for criticizing the canon as oppressive?

Aric Clark said...


Can you clarify the question for me a bit - seems juicy, but I'm not quite sure what you mean. Are you asking whether the canon itself is oppressive, or whether material within the canon is oppressive?

and oppressive of what or whom?

John Shuck said...

I guess I mean canon as canon. Within the canon there are many stories of liberation (and I find in them meaning and purpose--I base my life on them), but as a whole, the notion of a fixed library of truth seems to put people who don't subscribe "out."

On the whole I think one could say the canon is oppressive to:

1) heretics--whose very definition comes from a canon.
2) women
3) gays
4) science
5) pacifists
6) the poor
7) unbelievers/people of other faiths/freethinkers (I guess these are heretics)
8) every living being whom the church has condemned to hell
9) Earth.

The canon as such divides the in group from the out group, the heaven bound from the hell bound. Granted it has wonderful stories in it (as well as many horrible ones). But it seems that as canon, the horrible stories define or contain the good ones. (ie. as much as Paul might have been for women as apostles, Timothy has the last word. The evidence for that is patriarchal leadership of the worldwide church throughout the centuries including the present day. An argument could be made that gains for women in the church have come from Enlightenment principles rather than canonical ones).

From my own experience of dealing with the church and with church folks, any move toward justice is stunted by appeals to the authority of the canon.

Is it just that these folks interpret the canon wrongly and the canon really is on the side of all these folks, or is the fault within the canon itself?

I don't have a definitive answer to that, though I tend to lean toward thinking the canon is the problem and that perhaps we ought to fire the canon.

Another part of this, is that I really am starting to like some of the ancient stories that aren't in the canon. I wonder if the canon was formed at least as much if not more by power interests rather than "truth" or some other noble virtue.

I think all these things because I find myself moving farther and farther away from orthodoxy--which to me appears to be a narrow, oppressive ideology. I am finding little in common with my fellow churchmen (and they are mostly men). I find their views repulsive and they are based on the authority of the canon.

It is all kind of sad, really. So perhaps as a last gasp, I look to you friars, still orthodox but justice minded, to see if there is any self-critical element in orthodoxy left that can critique the canon and its oppressive history of misery.

Jodie said...


Interesting question.

I happen to know one theologian who has addressed it and attempted one answer. Daniel Smith-Christopher.

He says both voices are present in the canon and that Jesus tells us which voice to choose. And how.

Aric Clark said...


I'll put something up on the blog in a day or two responding to your questions. It's more than I can really treat in a comment.

John Shuck said...

Do it only if it is interesting to you.

On another topic, have you read any Don Cupitt?

The reason I bring him up is that I find that I am beginning to resonate more and more with him.

He is articulating what I have been affirming for some time now.

Hence my disinterest with the authority of the canon.

I would be interested in your thoughts on what kind of self-critique of the canon orthodoxy maintains and what are the limits of this critique.