Shuck and Jive

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Bible: Word of God?

Moving on to my third topic in my theology for the twenty-first century. How is the Bible a source or resource for theology? We will need to spend some time on this. I begin with a critique of the metaphor commonly used for the Bible--Word of God. For many, even asking this question is the height of blasphemy. For those who will quote the Bible itself or some confession to prove that I am an in grievous error and in danger of losing my salvation, quote away. To do so further illustrates my point that our view (our idolatry) of the Bible keeps us from actually understanding it in its great variance.

Don Cupitt in his 2005 book, The Great Questions of Life, writes about the problem in the churches today regarding religious beliefs (about the Bible and other doctrines). Belief keeps us from thinking. Cupitt is still on the rolls as an Anglican priest. He writes eloquently here about what has become of the Church in England. This is what is happening in the mainline churches in the United States as well.

"...I should also admit that the whole vocabulary of Christian dogmatics...has long been hijacked for use in the spiritual power games of the various sorts of neoconservatives, traditionalists, and fundamentalists. For them, the phrases of standard Christian doctrine are now simply laws that they want to see enforced, and passwords to be used as loyalty tests. Doctrine is law. It defines the community: it has a disciplinary function. For the neoconservatives, this objectified and legalistic understanding of 'belief' is sufficient." pp. 24-5

Cupitt has left the church for all practical purposes and has conceded the language to the neocons. I am not ready to take that step. My experience as a pastor has shown that there are many, many people who see what he sees as well and are not willing to give up the language and our heritage to the self-proclaimed keepers of the keys to the kingdom. However, this will require some work. It will require us to be willing to smash our own idols. The biggest idol of all, is the way we have been taught, drilled, hammered, brainwashed, browbeaten, and lied to, about what the Bible is.

I repost here a section of an essay I delivered to the Literacy and Liturgy Seminar (formerly Westar Leaders' Seminar) in the Fall of 2005. The essay regarded the challenge of preaching in the church today. I will say more about this in future posts. In the meantime, I invite you to ask yourself the question I posed: "If the Bible is the Word of God, what makes it so?"

I believe that many clergy are overdue for a heart to heart with their congregations about the metaphor “Word of God” especially as it applies to the Bible. I have found that this metaphor more often stops creative thought than inspires it. The question we might ask our congregations is, “If the Bible is the Word of God, what makes it so?”

Modern scholarship has eroded the foundations for this metaphor. We have come to a time in which it is incredible to assert that our canon of scripture is objectively true or authoritative for all of humanity. Appeals to the Bible’s historical or scientific accuracy are naive. The claim that our canon has been dictated or inspired by supernatural revelation amounts to little more than special pleading. There is no magic power that makes the Bible or any text within it superior, truer, or more divinely inspired that any other human writing, religious or secular. The hands of human beings through their own imaginative power made every jot and tittle of carving and of script. The Bible is a collection of the writings of humans for humans. Once we dismiss the assumption that our book or library of books is more authoritative than any other collection, we can finally take our seat around the table of humanity.

When faith communities begin demythologizing the Bible, some interesting things will happen. The Bible’s authority will shift away from the text and toward the individual interpreter or community of interpreters. No longer will the Bible be considered an authoritative source of truth that contains infallible propositions about God or the human condition. Rather, it will become a resource for wisdom. Since authority is earned by the truth it tells, the Bible will have whatever authority the individual or community gives to it. People may find through its narratives, poetry, and song, an oasis of spiritual refreshment. Or they may not. It will be up to the people (both collectively and individually) to draw out what is meaningful and good and to discard what is not meaningful and good.

The preacher’s task will be to offer permission and encouragement for the congregation to engage in this discipline of freedom. The preacher can no longer assume that within a biblical text is a Word from God that needs to be teased out through exegesis and delivered to the waiting faithful. The preacher can no longer assume that just because a text is in the Bible that it is from God or is even valuable. A preacher can, however, provide information about a text using such tools as literary and historical criticism. The preacher can also provide an opinion regarding the text’s value for the community of faith. The preacher may even use the text as an impetus to speak about a contemporary concern. But I believe it is unethical for a preacher to make the claim that what s/he is saying is true, good or of God because it is based on his or her interpretation of a biblical text. In other words, a preacher cannot use a biblical text to prove a point. Anything a preacher says must stand on its own terms. This ethic will free both the biblical text and the preacher. The text will be freed from the preacher’s misuse of it. The preacher will be freed from the constraints of needing to “preach from the Bible” or to have everything s/he says to be backed by scripture.

Preaching can do a great deal of good in a community of faith. It can inspire, comfort, challenge, and inform for the betterment of humanity. Preaching can also do a great deal of harm. The harm results not so much on the content of the message or its style of delivery as on the implied authority of the preacher because s/he supposedly preaches the Word of God. I believe that Word of God is not only a meaningless metaphor; it is also a harmful metaphor for both the Bible and the preaching act. I recommend that preachers discontinue its use and have this conversation with their congregations.

What approach, lens, angle of vision, or metaphor might we take toward the Bible that will make it a helpful resource in the Sunday morning experience? I consider the Bible to be the family history of our spiritual ancestors. It is a collection of the record of human experiences canonized by various family historians. Our family history gives us rooted-ness. We have a story. We have a past. Our ancestors do have wisdom. I believe that they caught a glimpse of the fire. If we are wise, humble, and courageous, we can see that fire as well. It is out of respect for our ancestors, our need for rooted-ness, and our need to listen to the wisdom of the ancients that we “open and read.”

The advantage of this metaphor is that it allows us to appreciate that there are other families on this earth. They have family histories as well. Telling our stories to one another (without the competition about whose is more objectively authoritative) will enable us to engage more positively and peacefully with those of other faith traditions. Also, family histories are never complete. Like the genealogist who discovers great Uncle Albert, who for some reason was not mentioned in the family history, so too, scholars of Christian origins have found remnants of communities whose stories were not told, or at least told positively, in the canon of accepted lore. These “Uncle Alberts” include communities reflected in the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and numerous others. As we discover the great diversity of our Christian past, we who are charged with adding to the family history for our descendants, will now be obligated to include these voices as well.

Careful thought must be employed regarding the use of texts from the Bible and other non-canonical literature during the Sunday Morning experience. It would help level the playing field by not elevating the canonical literature over any other reading. Also, preachers must come clean with their congregants regarding the type of literature the text they have selected represents. Simply determining if it is history or fiction is a good start. Particularly with Jesus material, the preacher needs to be honest as to whether the material is historical, legendary or if it fits some other typology.


  1. With respect and admiration for your project, I think that you are mistaken when you:
    1. make fiction the opposite of history;
    2. provide only these two options for a biblical text.

    What is "history"? To be consistent with the rest of your hermeneutic approach, you must argue that history is nothing more than a subjective, power-laden, interpretation of events. In other words, all histories contain elements of what would seem to call "fiction," i.e., that which didn't *actually* happen.

  2. In one respect, of course, you are correct. Histories themselves can be and in fact are, fictions created by the teller. Histories are spin. But that applies to all of life, not just the Bible. At the same time, in the practical living of life, we are constantly separating and in need of separating fact from fiction. Did this happen or did it not? Is this a legend, a story, a lie, a newspaper report, an imaginative fantasy, a wish-fulfillment, a scientific investigation or whatever. My simple point is that what we do in life or for any text should also be applied to the Bible. We know this text from Mark chapter 4:

    35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

    What kind of story is this? If history or fiction are too limiting, what typology would you use?

    Thanks for the good words and the conversation!

  3. In my blog I recently wrote about my concerns over the distinction between canonical and non-canonical. I think the Bible can be valued and respected, not because it is the Word of God (since I consider it to be the words of humans about God rather than the Word of God), but because its historical role has in and of itself given them as signs of the normative tradition from which Christianity emerged. I suppose that in that sense, the Bible has a sort of circular justification for itself--the Bible has value because it was decided to be valuable. So I am not necessarily in favor of completing erasing the boundary between the canon and the non-canonical so much as blurring it.

    I think as long as we recognize the combination of arbitrariness and political agendas that went into the canonization process, and if we recognize that there is value and inspiration to be found within the Bible (while at the same time there are sometimes horribly violent, sexist, or tribalistic notions to be found in the Bible as well), then maybe we can move on to a level of mature appreciation of the Bible as a historical classic within the Christian tradition. Maybe the Bible can be Christianity's Beowolf and Shakespeare combined, while the Gospel of Thomas can be its Keats, and the poetry of Thomas Merton can be its David Mamet. Or something like that. :)

  4. Great comment, MS. I'm not quite as open to non-canonical texts as you may be, but your explanation of how we go about reading is very nice.

    As for your question, John, I'd say that that story is true, although we can't know if it is factual. (Of course, our experience of the natural world and how it works would lead us to think that it is not factual.) I don't know what the precise literary genre for this story would be, but it falls into the category of myth for me. By myth, I mean stories that deal with a community's sense of what is true. Something about the metaphor of myth allows them to be more truthful than mere propositional statements.
    Anyway, thanks for your posts and your openness to discussion.

  5. Seeker and Brett,

    Good thoughts, both of you. I think that Robert Price says a similar thing regarding texts. The canon certainly has its own history. It is a collection, a library of books, and it could be placed in a library along other great works, the Bhagavad Gita, and those you mention, including the others that didn't make the canon. How we understand all of those and use them in communities is a challenge with which I wrestle. But my hunch as that experimentation, trial and error, will eventually work out a way.

    Brett, as far as the story of myth that the community finds true is perhaps the best way I have heard it put yet. In our time in which we as Marcus Borg points out are "fact fundamentalists" what you said needs to be said.

  6. "It will require us to be willing to smash our own idols. The biggest idol of all, is the way we have been taught, drilled, hammered, brainwashed, browbeaten, and lied to, about what the Bible is." (John)

    I have to agree here - we need to start seeing the truth behind these books, letters, and prose - and how they came about and why. I see the conservative agenda and their doctrinal 'law' and I shudder at the values they have gathered from this book - and I think a lot of it is worth questioning, even calling 'short-sighted'. I don't the teachings are there for a 'law' system but to show us a better way of living.