Thursday, October 3, 2013

From a Discussion Sheet at a Liberal Quaker Potluck:

Should We Make Peace With the Bible?

What do you feel like saying about any of the following:

Is the Bible:

I. Historical fiction?
II. A book of rules or ethical instruction?
III. A plan of 'Salvation', whatever that may be?
IV. A collection of wonderful literature we may not happen to enjoy actually reading?
V. Divinely inspired? (In what sense?)
VI. An invitation to mystical consciousness?
VII. None of the above? (What, then?)

To what degree is your position open to other descriptions?

What has been our experience with these books? Have they, overall, been good, bad, or simply a mixed influence?

Does the Bible have 'a Message'?

Should children be exposed to the Bible?

Can the Bible be domesticated? Should it be?

What constitutes misuse of the Bible?

Can you think of any good ways to use it?

Could you confidently read anything in it to a dying person? If you were dying, is there anything in it you would want to hear?

Do you find the Bible's depictions of God helpful? -- or horrifying? -- or silly?

How would you expect God to feel about this book?


  1. All those questions are thought provoking, Forrest. My opinion is
    1. that the Bible is the foundation of all the Literature in the Western World.
    2. William Blake loved the Bible and used it freely in all his poetry.
    3. I learned the way to interpret the Bible from the way he did.

    1. Yeah, I'd wanted 'thought-provoking', because most of that group were inclined to dismiss the Bible without thinking about it.

      Another thing to consider, is how best to approach such questions. (Thoughts on that?)

      Probably the Bible could be blamed for a lot of Western literature -- and so could a great deal of Greek literature, without implying that the Greeks were on to anything we'd benefit from studying today.

      I myself tend to put most Blake in the category of "Wonderful Literature We May Not Happen to Enjoy Actually Reading." So how should I be interpreting Blake? -- and what role does the Bible play in human life, the way he interprets it?

  2. It's divinely inspired like the wardrobe in the Nardia Tales. If you see it as a wardrobe you can use it to store the clothes you decide to wear in order to change your outer appearance but if you are spiritually quickened you can step through it to a world that changes who you really are.

    1. Hmmm, we're in so much agreement and disagreement that this is hard for me to grip...

      Anthony Bloom, as a young atheist, had to listen politely to a priest. He came home fuming, ~'Is that really what it says?' and found the Bible in one of the shelves there. Seeing that Mark was the shortest gospel, he chose that to read... and soon after he started, was aware of Jesus standing on the far side of his desk. He said later that he could doubt many 'historical facts', but his own experience left him no way to doubt the reality of Christ

      This did not leave him with a new sort of closed mind ala 'every word of this historically true' -- although he found more of it historically plausible than I can. He knew it was telling him about something utterly real -- but also subject to a wide range of interpretation.

      Had Bloom entered "a different world" -- or simply been clued in to something he hadn't known about this one?

      Does the Bible 'change who we really are'? -- or remind us of who we really are? -- children of a transcendingly wise, powerful, loving Father.

  3. does the Bible itself, or reading it, change who we really are? (clearly not, if one takes a look around) but can the spirit of Christ change who we really are? i would say yes, absolutely, down to the blood and bone. healings do happen, old versions of ourselves do burn up in God's fire and a new something is born from the ashes. these things can and do happen, though not every time someone says they are "saved" or if you follow one particular faith approach....

    i am assuming that this confounding, living, Divine spirit is informing Brother Schultz's comments...

    i don't think idolizing the Bible has done us any good as a culture though, but neither has sitting around having knee-jerk reactions against it. Forrest, I love these questions, which are filled with accountability and integrity: if we believe in this would we read it to a dying person? how do we really think God feels about this book? etc. i think when i try to reflect on "how does God feel about the Bible?" i feel kind of routed toward another question there -- "can we think of any good ways to use it?" perhaps God's feeling about the Bible depends on what we are each making of the good in it, or the good in whatever our faith tradition is.... versus just trying to be right all the time and club people over the head with it, etc.

  4. Is an oak 'different from' an acorn; is Paul different from Saul? Genetic material the same in one transformation, and the personality seems basically the same in the second, except that Saul's character defects get better aligned with God's purposes after the shift.

    Robert Aitken: ~'Zen is the perfection of character. It is not the perfection of somebody else's character.' Alan Lew -- talks about the story of Jacob finding his name changed to 'Israel' -- as showing how the thing we hate most about ourself turns out to be our 'true name' when God sets it into its intended role and place. This is a wholly significant change, but whether it's a "change into someone else" is a matter of perspective.

    "Reading to a dying person"? That question got in there because I was reading to my mother, who was blind and dying, unable to speak -- and restless whenever I was reading anything too trivially 'entertaining'. So, on what turned out to be the last night of this, I asked if I should read from the Bible, and she clearly wanted me to. But there turned out to be a great deal that was dubious and/or not too relevant to her condition. The part in Matthew about Jesus' birth... which brought up how bringing someone new into the world gives God another chance to make something new of it ... She liked that.

  5. Or maybe is the Bible humankind's "wrestling" with God within the process of history, like a Jewish writer once said?
    So you have various portions of Scripture also wrestling against each other--the Psalms/Proverbs wrestling against Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel against Exodus, etc.

    1. Well, the meaning of 'Israel' was something like 'one who wrestles with God' -- and each year observant Jews are systematically going over part of the Bible (the 'Torah'), trying each time to wrestle new meanings from it. (And freely letting anyone who participates wrestle right along, at least in the Philadelphia synagogue that our Pendle Hill synoptic gospels teacher introduced us to! That was a great place for questions!)

      So maybe we could call our Bible our 'wrestling lessons?' -- "This is how the match has gone so far -- and a good place to begin your own wrestling"?

      Definitely there's a tension between different viewpoints within the Bible. And the Jews didn't really sort these out... What I've read about the Talmud: You find a great many religious/legal questions there, not just how they were resolved, but all the traditional arguments for both sides. The Bible is like that, at least the Hebrew scriptures. I've been thinking about how the specifically Christian scriptures differ from those, and haven't quite got what those differences are, or why they're there... perhaps because they were produced by a smaller group in a shorter period? What else?

    2. The most basic difference, the greatest wrestling match, in the NT is between the "gospels" and the "epistles." Particularly striking is Paul's non-use of gospel material. Very little if any direct reference to the human Jesus as recorded in the gospels. It's almost as if Paul had not read any of the gospels. And that's what most scholars seem to believe today: that the genuine Pauline letters were written well before the gospels. Of course, there are other interesting perspectives: synoptics vs. John. Quite different. And James vs. Paul on works/faith.

    3. The situation seems different. Before these times, you had a state religion which kings, priests, landowners, prophets -- & later, Persian officials -- and of course the populations of different regions would all remember & understand things a little bit differently. (If anyone brought an actual book out to 'read' this wouldn't be private study but an oral performance -- liturgy, devotion, politics, study etc. -- and the people who seriously studied this material were supposed to have it pretty near memorized, as far as I understand those strange times. But not necessarily remembering 'word-for-word' so much as remembering 'what was written'.)

      Christians seem to have been overall more homogenous at the time -- less economic range as a whole, not a 'nation' with rulers or a priestly class... Definitely there were different understandings circulating in the early Christian churches as to what Jesus' words/works were about... As you say, it doesn't look like Paul had ever heard a 'gospel' read -- although the material that became written 'gospels' in Greek must have been in some sort of liturgical use, at least back in Judea. Paul simply wasn't so much concerned with 'What was this guy's program & teaching like before crucifixion?' as 'When is he coming back to rule the Earth?'

      Explaining the nature of that rule -- especially when churches were spreading out into the cities of the Empire -- would have required 'gospel' material translated into Greek -- and my guess is that that people would have started writing this down in Paul's day, though probably not in its present form. (There seem to have been sufficient disagreements in these churches to make people want to standardize the teachings -- the evident motive for the bulk of Paul's writings (not to lay down systematic theology but to tinker with the workings of different local churches. Paul was not a Lutheran, but an exasperated missionary, with a different emphasis from James and different target audiences!))

      John seems to be almost entirely a work about "the meaning of Jesus' life and teachings" -- obviously a concern to all gospel writers, but the man whom 'John' quotes simply doesn't talk like they do and seldom talks about the same subjects. I'd say the ideas must go back to Jesus (unless you want to postulate another great mystic teacher with the same name appearing in the same period) but style, personality, situation, and objectives don't come close to matching.

      It isn't that you don't find inconsistencies and contradictions in the Christian scriptures -- as that subsequent Christians have worked largely to paper over or simply deny these, while scholars in the Jewish tradition have made a practice of keeping the debates going.


  6. wrestling as the answer instead of the problem is a very merciful thought -- that we're not supposed to be anywhere but where we are with it....

    responding to forrest's good analogies earlier: "Is an oak 'different from' an acorn; is Paul different from Saul?"
    uh..yes!! just ask the acorn!!

  7. I. Historical fiction?
    Of course there's much that's historical fiction. But one has to be careful applying our contemporary categories to these collected writings known as the Bible. Is it really historical fiction to feel the Spirit inspire you, or your community, to write a poem about Creation? Or is it really historical fiction to gather the J, E, D, P traditions and blend them to tell the mythic stories of King David, or whoever? Even the early church wasn't worried about the obvious contradictions of the accounts of Jesus' resurrection in the four gospels they ended up selecting. They are assembling the testimonies. They know Jesus lives by their experience.

    II. A book of rules or ethical instruction?
    Of course. Proverbs often reiterates that intent. From the Pentatuch to the Pastorals, there is much direct ethical instruction.
    III. A plan of 'Salvation', whatever that may be?
    Yes, there is a story of salvation history, as the German theologians called it. And, even the much maligned Evangelical's "Plan of Salvation" has a very direct Pauline base in his writings: our separation from God by sin, Jesus death for us, and deliverance from this dilemma by faith in what Christ has done.
    IV. A collection of wonderful literature we may not happen to enjoy actually reading?
    "From the womb of the morning, thou has the dew of thy youth." Phrases like that from the Psalms make it incomparable. Each new day is a wonderful gift to celebrate. "Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?" All wonderful.
    V. Divinely inspired? (In what sense?)
    Absolutely. Inspired: breathed by that of God within every person. But, we must have a "spirit of wisdom and revelation" to understand and grasp what we read. (Per Paul or pseudo-Paul in Eph 1).
    VI. An invitation to mystical consciousness?
    Not so much. There are some parts of the Bible that are inclined that way. Revelation perhaps, like chapter five's celebration in the heavens.

    VII. None of the above? (What, then?)
    I think that it is very legitimate to read the Bible in a "personal, revelatory manner" as long as we acknowledge its very real linguistic and historical origins. And we must always bear in mind that it often functions in our society as an ink-blot test. We see there much of ourselves and our thinking.

    1. We seem to have extremely different ideas of what "mystical" means. I for example would say that the prophets were often in one form of such a state.

      Likewise, different ideas of what it means to be 'inspired.' When you're any kind of an artist you know you aren't just making things up out of your personal mind -- while at the same time you're definitely filtering inspirations through that. You end up with a work that doesn't seem entirely 'your' work -- but you typically do have to edit and rewrite, check facts etc, yourself.

      It's harder to handle questions like this in writing; I did intend them for an oral discussion -- & then, just hated to see them 'going to waste.' I'd wanted to drag in people who didn't take the Bible seriously -- and here we've naturally brought in mainly people who do. I tried to list all the various ways people do think about the Bible -- and have since thought of others.

      So -- We're acknowledging some very real (& sometimes ugly) historical origins -- and agreeing that there's far more to the book(s) than that. Like the world, full of mundane events and divine intentions -- and no doubt we'll agree that these are benign.

      The part about "might not want to read all that much" was an observation -- and tends to apply to me as well, sometimes. Over the course of a reasonably long life I've found many different ways of understanding what's there and what God hopes people will learn from it. (Sometimes there seems to be an awful lot of "ears but don't hear" going on in the more popular approaches.)

      Hmmm, basic trouble: I find a lot of disinterest in the Bible among the Friends I know, who've arrived at certain assumptions about what it means and don't really seem to want to find out more. I think they're missing a lot. I think people who wash it all down uncritically are also missing a lot.

      Someone's observation: that people usually think that whatever you're saying must be something they've already heard before -- and so they don't hear what's said, but merely what they'd heard before. How to get past that, in reading all this?

      I could get more out of it -- but not by myself, I think.

    2. I think I agree with your understanding of inspiration. Expressed well. On the other hand, the problem with the next word, mystic, is that it is pretty fluid in what it conveys. At least among Missouri Friends.

      Let me add a thought I like from Barclay's Apology In Modern English, in his section on the Scriptures. After pointing out that the Bible is a "secondary means of revelation" to us (the Word of God, Jesus, being the primary), he then writes, "However, secondary and subordinate rules and means may vary according to the purpose and the people for whom they are intended. Thus, the apostle referred to one of the Athenian poets. He expected this to have weight for them and no doubt they valued it more than all the sayings of Moses and the prophets, whom they neither knew nor cared for."

      I find that a very intriguing quote. Barclay, like me, was a young man who studied the classical languages in an evangelical setting. He knew and loved the Bible, but was very clear as to its secondary status. And even seems to suggest above that other texts can work (in other cultures) like the Bible does in ours. But for Friends to lower the Bible from secondary to a much lower level, is also a mistake. It seems that there are very few who can properly use the Bible today. Exalt it to primary. Or relegate it to almost worthless. It is a wonderful secondary testimony to us today.

    3. "Mystic" could certainly be varied in manifestation -- but I'd say it might be summed up as 'direct, intuitive, felt communion with God.' What Friends are for, as I see it!

      The muddle in 'conveying' it comes from many reasons, including:

      It is not an idea about God.

      What people receive in such a state can be perfectly ordinary in all respects except for their 'sense' that it's all taking place within an ongoing communion.

      It can also take someone past the edge of what they've been able to understand verbally.

      Trying to explain anything of that nature to anyone who hasn't experienced it -- seems to turn everyone the speaker is trying to say at right angles to conventional understandings.' (Certain of Jesus' statements seem to have this quality of making perfect sense while disrupting our efforts to "understand" them logically: "He who tries to save his life will lose it.")

      Every written work is also -- part of The Creation; our reading it takes place within a divine choreography. God can send us a word through a children's book, as I found out reading to my son many years ago.

      Here we have this book that tells us over and over again, by example, that God can and does communicate with people -- while people with a great deal of reverence for it seem to feel safer relying on it than on God...

      And yet, as you imply, treating it as unimportant seems to have left many people hopelessly spiritually ignorant. (I don't know if this is cause or effect...)

  8. hey forrest!

    i'd like to see more of this as it's own blog post: "Someone's observation: that people usually think that whatever you're saying must be something they've already heard before -- and so they don't hear what's said, but merely what they'd heard before. How to get past that, in reading all this?" if thee becomes inspired in that department....

    ....recognizing that i do take the Bible seriously in my own way and that i too would hope that some would be drawn to weigh in who are more of the other sort at the moment but somehow still want to approach the topic of making peace with it -- or expressing the peace they have already made with it...which may have led them to set it aside?? i find that in other ways too i am being drawn to try to hear from the self-stated "non-theists" who feel very spiritually centered and authentically on a spiritual path. i am still trying to understand what that is like.

  9. I can't say that what I'm doing is making "peace" with the Bible, as there was never any animus to begin with -- mostly just disinterest, benign neglect, abject ignorance, I guess. I grew up with no spiritual underpinnings at all, other than for having my parents drive me to Sunday School at a Congregational church that neither of them attended (neither attended anywhere, for that matter). My one stellar moment in a year or two of S.S. was being the first kid in my class to memorize in order all of the books; praise be for a knack with rote memory!
    Another influence, a bunch of years later, might've been in 1966 when the "Phil Ochs: In Concert" album was released. In his intro to one of the songs, Ochs said: "I went to see 'The Greatest Story Ever Told' -- couldn't believe it!" I think that supported what I'd suspected all along.........and from there I stayed fully lapsed (perhaps "never hatched" is better) until last Sept/Oct --- Hey! Maybe about the time this thread was created!
    I now have five or six translations, and spend considerable time each day trying to make up for, oh, six or so decades of lost opportunities.
    For me, right now, it is mostly a source of "ethical instruction", providing constant support for much of the change-of-direction in which I have steered my life's course over the past year or two. This mostly involves directing more and more and more of my energies towards volunteerism, pretty much "at the expense" of things I did largely for just me, myself, and I; triathlon is front and center in that regard. No surprise to all of you biblical adepts here..........but the N.T. is just chock full of supportive advice for me. Who knew??

  10. Misuse of the Bible? That's been a problem area for me, mostly in the form of anyone who thumps away at it in order to make points that I find sociopolitically noxious! But as I work away at the Bible, I can see where there is lots of scope for anybody to put their own spin on it, and in my more active fantasy moments I can envision myself bludgeoning an "opponent" through the sheer dazzlement of my interpretations of some of the thornier verses. Hmmmm.

    And maybe this is a reason why children shouldn't be exposed to the Bible. I don't think I really believe that.....although the presence of the children of Westboro Baptist at their protests chill me enough to rethink what I don't think I think. I think.


As the Spirit moves -- but in responding, please consider who you're responding to and what they mean by their words.