Mark Sandlin’s blog says about this cliché: “The King James Bible tells me there are unicorns – 9 times.
I’m sorry, I got distracted. What was it you were telling me about using the Bible to prove a fact?”
The Bible mentions unicorns nine times? I have to admit, I grabbed my concordance and looked up the word unicorn. It wasn’t in there. I was terribly disappointed! So, I did some on-line research. It is only the King James Version that mentions unicorns. Later translations rejected that word. Where the King James said unicorn, newer translations said things like wild ox. It turns out that Hebrew word is unclear. No one knows exactly what it meant. So, it’s been translated in a variety of ways. My on-line research led me to a site that has a Sunday School lesson (I think for adults) titled “Translational Monsters: Fantastic Biblical Beasts and Where to Find Them.” So, unicorns aren’t the only unexpected creatures that appear in the Bible. We hear of dragons and great sea monsters as well. (No dinosaurs!) What surprised me in this on-line journey was that many are determined to accept the idea of unicorns existing — explaining the words away by suggesting that Biblical unicorns aren’t what we think unicorns are today.
Some approaches to Biblical interpretation require a lot of work to separate oneself from logic and the world we know today. I worked with a man who held the view that scripture was totally inerrant — without flaw, believable in every story and fact presented. He decided, one day, that he would prove to me its inerrancy. We sat down. He took a page of paper and wrote a Biblical statement about God’s word being true at the top. Then, from that declaration he began to write and present to me a series of arguments that flowed from that first statement. Finally, it led him to the inevitable conclusion, “Therefore, the Bible is completely true.” My logic trained physics brain looked at this well-crafted argument and said, “It’s flawed. It’s circular. You started with an assumption, stayed within that assumption, so you proved what you had already assumed. If you are going to prove to me that the Bible is inerrant, you need to start outside the Bible.”
I can’t say that we agreed to disagree. We never agreed about anything. I did think it was interesting, however, when I referred to a Biblical passage that challenged an attitude he had, he stated that, as far as he was concerned, the passage wasn’t really Biblical. It had been inserted by people with a particular agenda. So, he could ignore it. When I suggested that the history of the Bible indicated that the text had oftentimes been corrupted by errors in copying or by mistranslations he told me that such an issue was irrelevant. It was the original texts, given by God, that were without flaw. I said that even if that were true, the modern Biblical texts we have are not without flaws —therefore the proposition that the Bible was inerrant had no relevance for faith. Again, we couldn’t even agree to disagree. His perception was that I had abandoned the Bible and the faith if I didn’t accept every word as God-dictated, literally true. His assertion is a common accusation that says if we don’t treat the Bible as the absolutely trustworthy, unchanging, God-dictated Word of God, then we have diminished its value. You either accept it verbatim or you must have rejected it fully.
I read a critique, recently, of this all or nothing approach to the Bible. “Even the non-fundamentalists read the Bible like fundamentalists!” was the observation. It seems we can look at it as either factual or non-factual, either something to believe in or something to reject.
The thing is, even the most avid proponents of the Bible’s inerrancy reject portions of it. My former boss is one example. When it didn’t fit his theology or world view, he found a reason he could reject it by removing it from the Biblical witness. But, there are other assumptions in the written word that nobody believes any longer. We don’t believe that the world is flat with heaven above and hell below. We don’t believe the sun revolves around the earth. Yet, there are those who insist that we must accept the Biblical description of the creation and reject science. Of course, they don’t tend to acknowledge the fact that the Bible contains multiple, contradictory stories about creation.
I came across an interview with a man, Mel White, who was closely connected with the religious right, working to promote its agenda — until he finally admitted to himself, and the world, that he is gay. He said, “When the Bible is seen as inerrant, it’s held up as an idol and anything that threatens the Bible, or their understanding of the Bible, threatens their faith. So the truth, discussion about the history of the word and of the 66 books and how they were inspired, none of that works anymore. They just say, the Bible, if it was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for me.”
It becomes an idol. That’s a great observation. It becomes an idol that we expect will provide quick and easy answers in a difficult world. It’s like a book of magic. We begin to think that if we go to it — and find just the right passage, we’ll have all the answers we need. It’s the Ouija board of faith! Which means, more often than not, we approach it to let it reinforce what we already believe and think. It gets used as a weapon. Texts are sought out that support biases and wishes. At times, the Bible becomes our Golden Calf. We can see it. It’s finite. It’s, in some ways, manageable. It becomes a substitute for the Living Word who dwells in our midst. It’s easier to follow a rule book, an answer book, instead of the Living God who defies human constructs and who promises that we and the creation are constantly being re-created, made new.
So, if it’s merely a book, what do we do? Well, who says it’s merely a book? That seems to be the assumption that it’s an either/or proposition. It’s either a book that is fully inerrant or it is just another book, one shown to be out of step with the advances in technology, science, medical knowledge, and cultural changes that surround us.
It’s not an either/or choice. It is possible to have a very high view of scripture and value the knowledge that informs so much of our modern world.
Bishop John Shelby Spong said that we need to find a new way of encountering this gift of God that allows us to live in the today. He wrote, “Unless theological truth can be separated from pre-scientific understandings and rethought in ways consistent with our understanding of reality, the Christian faith will be reduced to one more ancient mythology…Those who insist on Biblical literalism thus become unwitting accomplices in bringing about the death of the Christianity they so deeply love.” He went on to describe the scriptures as a “historic narrative of the journey our religious forebears made in the eternal quest to understand life, the world, themselves, and God. We walk in their company as fellow pilgrims. We affirm some of the values they affirmed.”
It is a historic “narrative.” It’s not history. It’s a witness, a testimony given to us by generations of those who sought to hear God and, then, to follow God. The narratives reflect the times and the culture of those who, first, told them and, later, by those who recorded them in the texts we have. I love Spong’s observation that we “walk in their company as fellow pilgrims.” We learn from their successes and from their failures. We seek to see God’s presence in both — and find ways of seeking God’s presence in our world and our lives today.
Mel White said, “The Bible to me is an amazing book of stories. And those stories inform our lives. When I read the Jewish testament, there are a lot more biographies and autobiographies in the Jewish than in the Christian testaments. The stories of Esther, for example, how could you not be informed by that? When she has to face and speak to power and risk her life doing it. All of these stories, they come down to immediate application. The Christian stories too – whether it’s Saul, who is realizing he’s doing the wrong thing and has to turn around. For me it’s the greatest story book ever written and if you just listen to the stories, listen to the spirit of God, as she speaks through those stories then you can have a great time in the Bible.”
Sacred story: that’s how Spong describes the scriptures. I think White would agree. Now, not all of it is “story” as we might think of story — with plot lines and action. In this sacred story we have teaching, reflection, poetry, prayer in addition to stories that tell of human struggle, triumph and faith. The totality is the “story” of people striving to live in the sphere of God’s grace and justice, of God’s love and call.
It is not an easy book. It is not a children’s book. We can never claim that we learned all we needed to know in the stories that are watered down and put in our children’s Bibles. When I think about encountering and being encountered by this Sacred Story, I think of the story of Jacob wrestling with God. That wrestling match did not end with God’s condemnation, but with God’s blessing. Attitudes and experiences and assumptions throughout the book are often in conflict with the world we know. Some of that conflict is because the Biblical world is so different and so far removed from the world we inhabit. Some of the conflict is because we, like those who went before us, still turn away from God. So we have to wrestle with the Book, and, wrestling with the Book, we wrestle with God to know God’s presence in our world.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was that the entire Biblical witness should be read through the lens of the over-arching message of the Bible. It helps put difficult passages in a larger context. So, we know the Sacred Story points to God’s love for creation, for human beings, and tells of God’s interaction with this world, first in creation and then in the work of redemption and re-creation. We see God’s invitation to human beings to accept God’s love and live in ways that reflect that love. In it we have an example of Spong says we are to do: “Interpret our world in the light of our knowledge and suppositions…[and] make sense out of life in terms of our understanding of meaning and values.”
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