Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Bible for Dummies

[like me! Once again, I'm responding to a comment on Bad Christian, to answer the following question: "What do you think is the role of scripture as a foundation or basis to our thinking, especially coming from a postmodern perspective?" I don't consider my way of thinking about the Bible particularly postmodern, but who knows.]

Inerrancy (roughly, the belief that the Bible contains no false statements) may be tenable, but it is a bit distracting. Dialogue with non-Christians unfairly reduces to caricatures of Ned Flanders' plaintive wail, "I've done everything the Bible says - even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!" and unproductive Christian responses that sound like wriggling on the hook even when they're just about plausible deniability.

Billy Graham preferred to talk about the Bible as the infallible product of fallible people, in the sense that it may have facial paradoxes, apparent contradictions, or even errors, but the essential message of the New Testament is preserved faithfully and truthfully. The idea is to get beyond this or that error to God's love letter to humanity.

For instance, how do we harmonize the Gospel narratives of the Passion Week? Before you answer, are we supposed to spend our time in dialogue with non-Christians reconciling these narratives, or should we change our focus to God's reconciliation through Christ, whatever narrative tack we take to the essential fact of his crucifixion, resurrection, and redemption? I'm not trying to denigrate apologetics; I just speak from long fruitless experience, wasted time where my friends poked around just such nitpicks of Christianity (of the "who was Cain's wife?" and "what about dinosaurs?" variety) and I tried to meet them there.

So I prefer to start by talking about Jesus and who he was and what he did. I focus on the essentials and feel free to admit the possibility of inconsistencies in order to get back to who Jesus is. If something in the Old Testament becomes an issue, I see it as a change of subject. I view the Bible as a means to get close to Jesus. It was written for no higher purpose. As Shusaku Endo says in the first chapter of his profound A Life of Jesus, "We have never seen his face. We have never heard his voice. ... Yet by reading the Gospels, we are able to bring to mind a lively impression of Jesus, thanks to the people who did get to know him and then were unable to forget him the rest of their lives."

I think a lot of Christians have gotten tripped up in recent years by taking their Bible-reading to Pharisaical extremes. I'm talking about people who substitute proof texts for the complex tapestry of Biblical teaching, who read the Bible not as a means of getting close to Jesus, but as a means to further political ends, who let controversies turn on subtleties of Greek instead of universal Christian truths, who interpret Old Testament events to suit contemporary events with bad analogy and allegory. The danger in seeing the Bible as foundational is bibliolatry in all its heinous forms.

I view focusing through the Bible on Jesus, not on the Bible, as a way to avoid some of these problems. I run more of a risk of internalizing groundless theology and un-Christian ideas, because the opposite of bibliolatry is turning the Bible into an interesting, not-so-relevant piece of history. I really don't want to fall into this opposite error. I don't want to suck the power and life out of the accounts of the people who knew God Incarnate better than anyone who ever lived.

As CS Lewis says, some errors are characteristic of certain ages, and from where I sit, the pendulum has swung far to bibliolatry. That's why I have tried to creatively swing back to a reasonable center.

No comments: