Today we have a collection of Bibles in church. They evoke memories for us, and the people connected with those memories. Some of those memories are good, some not so.
I have two Bibles from my family. One, dating from 1889, has not been much used. Its value is in the inscription in the front: from a favourite aunt to my 9 year old father. The other has been well used. It was bought by, taken weekly to church, and scribbled in by my grandfather – a member of Pitt Street Methodist Church. When I hold that Bible I can clearly remember him.
I suspect some of the Bibles here will evoke similar memories for you.
In some cultures the books themselves are treated reverently. You don’t place the Bible, for example, on the same table as food.
Culture though is always changing. Nowadays we can access the Bible electronically, and indeed I – a lover of books – read the Bible more often online than in print. Convenience I suppose.
The days though of a daily quiet time, reading the Bible each morning as part of a devotion, is for many of us a thing of the past. Meditation, in all its multiple forms, might still be a part of our lives, but a daily Bible reading isn’t.
This might reflect how the understanding of the authority and role of the Bible has changed for us. There was a time when we could take a reading at face value – whether that be an event in the Book of Genesis, a saying of Jesus, or a letter ‘signed’ by Paul. As the tools and principles of historical-critical research have leaked out of the academy and into the pew we have learnt to be suspicious of taking things at face value. Events in the Book of Genesis often reflect tribal legends rather than history, designed not to convey facts but to convey the ongoing struggle to understand humanity in relation to God/s. The alleged sayings and parables of Jesus, written many decades after his death, reflect the biases and context of the writers, though they might too reflect something of an authentic Jesus ‘voiceprint’. As for the 14 letters ascribed to Paul in the New Testament, only half are from him.
This is not to say that the events, sayings, and letters that aren’t ‘authentic’ aren’t of value. Far from it! These can be as moving and instructional for us as those deemed ‘authentic’. My point is simply that it isn’t as simple as some of our ancestors thought, or as the church authorities would have had them believe.
Christians differ from each other over a couple of phrases: one is ‘Word of God’, and the other is ‘Biblical Faith’. Some would equate ‘Word of God’ to the words in the Bible, and Biblical Faith to following commands and propositions they find in its pages. Others of us understand ‘Word of God’ to a living, animating force that meshes the past with the present in order to evoke change: more kindness, more justice, and more compassion. Likewise ‘Biblical Faith’ means following the path of our spiritual ancestors in living out this changed life, and not being curtailed by the cultural rules and regulations of the past. Faith is always a work, a communal work, in progress.
By The Rivers of Babylon:
Shortly we will watch a YouTube clip of a song called ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’.
Babylon was an ancient city, 85 kilometres south of modern day Baghdad, Iraq. The song refers to the time between 597-581 BCE after the Southern Kingdom of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem was defeated by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, and the Jewish people of that kingdom were taken – as was normal practice for the quelling of dissent in vassal states – to the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Babylon. Babylon was reputed to be the largest city in the world at that time. Babylon sits on a tributary of the Euphrates River.
Some 60 years later, in 539 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to the Persian Empire led by Cyrus the Great. And it was under Cyrus’ rule that the inhabitants of Judah were allowed to return home.
The song, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’, is sung from the perspective of those Jewish refugees in captivity far from their home, weeping as they remember what they had lost, being exiled, and feeling like aliens in an alien land. “How could God have done this to them?” they wailed. “How can we now sing our God’s song in this strange land?” they lamented. The lyrics for the song are taken from various psalms.
Interestingly, and not surprisingly, it was while in Babylon, this time of enforced exile, that the stories and legends of the Hebrew people were edited, written, and compiled and the first 5 books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, came into being. [No, Moses did not write the Pentateuch!] They sang the Lord’s Song in strange land by remembering and writing and producing a wonderful gift for the future.
The group who sing this song are Boney M whose members were originally from the Caribbean but at the time of composition were based in West Germany. So the feelings of being away from one’s home, in an alien land, were familiar to the singers too.
Similarly the song, like the psalms it comes from, resonates with refugees, migrants, and all others who know physically or spiritually the journey of alienation to reconciliation, from exile to return.
To be a Christian, to follow the way of Jesus, you don’t need to understand everything in the Bible. In fact you don’t need to understand much in the Bible.
Readers of the Bible have always used filters. By that I mean readers have not treated every book and every verse the same. And nor should they. The Bible is like a library of books, and some of those books are like an anthology written and compiled by a variety of authors and editors. Some books are a parable (Jonah), some are poems 7 songs (Psalms), some are letters (like Paul), and some are history (as the Kings saw it) or history (as the author of Acts wished it would be).
The Church has prioritized the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. [Note there are other gospels not included in the Bible, and one of those (Thomas) we should treat with the same seriousness as the four we know.] The Church has used these gospels, and within those gospels some of the alleged sayings and stories of Jesus (like the Sermon on the Mount), as a lens through which to understand other parts of the Bible.
Some are critical of this gospels lens, and suggest that the earlier material in the authentic Pauline letters should be included.
I met a man once who only knew one Bible story – the story of the Good Samaritan. That story was the North Star of his life. He measured all that he did and thought against that story. Was he stopping for the ones in the ditches of life, or was he walking on by? Was he too important, his life and business too important, to stop and help? Was he assuming that he was better than others (like the Samaritan who did stop) and allowing his prejudice to prevent him seeing God and God’s works in another? The story of the Good Samaritan challenged him to be compassionate and to counter his inherent tribalism/racism. This man just knew one story; one Jesus story; and it was enough to be a follower.
I have met other people over the years who also just knew one Bible story, or rather knew one story that dominated their whole spiritual life. The “I am a sinner” is one such story. Usually it translates badly into modern life, cultivating guilt, anxiety, and fragmentation of the self.
One of the people who have signed up to the Matthew Fox lectures wrote to me the other day saying that Fox’s 1980s book Original Blessing (as opposed to original sinfulness) turned her life around. Through his writing she heard another, older, Bible story: ‘you are loved, you are a blessing’. It just takes one story to make a difference.
There’s an old story about a pilgrim who came home from his journey. “Tell us” they avidly said, “What is God like?”
But how could he ever put into words what he had experienced in the depths of his heart? Is it possible to put God into words?
He finally gave them a formula [some versions of the story call it a map] – a formula so inaccurate, so inadequate – in the hope that some of them might be tempted, through it, to experience for themselves what he had experienced.
They seized upon the formula. They made a sacred text out of it. They imposed it upon everyone as a holy belief. They went to great pains to spread it in foreign lands. And some even gave their lives for it.
And the pilgrim was sad. It might have been better if he had never spoken.
This old story is a reminder that any part or parts of the Bible are only as good as their effect on our lives, on how they inspire us to act, make justice/make love in the world, and in doing connect with the experience of God.
If someone asked you what it means to have a biblical faith how would you answer? Would you tell a story? And which one?