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Reading the Bible

22 Apr

To quote the appropriate page for today from Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao: Daily Meditations:

Don’t be afraid to explore;
Without exploration there are no discoveries,
Don’t be afraid of partial solutions;
Without the tentative there is no
accomplishment.

I am still in the habit of following the Daily Office Lectionary from the US version of The Book of Common Prayer, an eccentricity I mentioned on Blogspot Books and Ideas in January 2006.

Lest that seems either saintly or pretentious, let me say that I am pragmatically finding this of benefit. I get food for thought, and, doing it as I do just before sleeping, I find my nights in general have been much more restful. No, I don’t mean to say the practice puts me to sleep, but it certainly helps compose the mind.

Those of you who have followed my rants for a while know that I do not believe God writes books. In other words, I am not a fundamentalist. So what of the Bible? All along from my teen years to the present I have found the Bible inspiring, if not always inspired. So my ruminations over the Daily Office are often critical. For example, reading Galatians lately I have been struck by how exceedingly dodgy Paul’s use of the Old Testament often is. Galatians marks a key moment, of course, in which the Church became more universalist and less a sect of Judaism. Paul was trying to convince the Galatians that this was the way to go, but I can well understand some not being convinced. Another troubling feature of his argument, and indeed in the representation of the Pharisees in the gospels, is that one can see only too clearly the seeds of antisemitism there. I believe, of course, that you don’t have to go down that path, but the potential was there and in time as we all know it bore strange fruit.

So what are we to make of the Bible? Anthony Freeman addresses this on Radical Faith, and I commend him to you. “Whatever more it may be, it is never less than this: part of our world, a human product situated in a particular place, at a particular time, and in a particular culture.”…

I would also commend James W. Aageson from Concordia College on “Reading Biblical Texts: Truth, Fact, and Myth.”

It is not uncommon to hear someone say, “Let’s just read the Bible literally. Let’s forget about all this interpretation stuff and just read the Bible for what it says.” The impulse for this can be appreciated. Serious interpretation of the Bible takes a lot of effort and sustained study, and sometimes all of this effort in the end only seems to work against certain cherished and long held religious beliefs. Many people want the Bible to sustain them. They do not want to be confronted by strange and new interpretations of it. And still others are opposed to the critical study of the Bible because they think God and God’s word are beyond human understanding. They can only be understood by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by human reason standing alone. Moreover, digging into the scriptures seems to make human beings the final arbiter of God’s word instead of God. These concerns are real, and the forces that motivate them should be understood.

Even if a person is of two minds about the critical study of the Bible, however, the problem of a “literal reading” of biblical material is an issue that is more complicated than might first appear. What is meant by the term “literal reading?” What makes a reading “literal” as opposed to something else? And is “literality” the same for all types and varieties of texts in the Bible? If we are to think about this question of literal interpretation, we must address the issue of what is meant by the expression, “literal reading.” The term in popular usage seems to refer to the surface reading of the text. In this sense, “literal” refers to the straightforward adherence to the surface level of the material and its wording, the face value of the text in other words…

One final observation about the discernment of biblical truth should be made. Many truth claims, many biblical truth claims included, should, in my judgment, be subjected to moral critique. When we look at the consequences of historic and religious truth claims, what have been the social and human consequences that have followed from them? Can we discern any consequences? If so, how have these claims played themselves out over time? Are the consequences morally laudable or morally reprehensible? At a minimum, we should ask ourselves if these claims can be true when we see what they have done. When Matthew in his gospel implies that the blood of Christ is not only on the hands of the Jews in Jesus’ day but also on the hands of their descendants, can this statement have any claim to religious truth, given the way this has contributed to the horrible reality of anti-Semitism? When seen in light of the Christian gospel itself, the consequences of this rather direct Matthean implication seem to be suspect, if not altogether devoid of theological truth value, that is if the Christian gospel is in fact good news and not bad news. Moral considerations may not finally settle questions of biblical truth, but they ought to be considered.

Assessing biblical truth is complicated and cannot be reduced to a single notion of truth. Multiple levels of meaning and truth can be discovered in biblical material, and the critical reader of the Bible needs sophistication and flexibility in evaluating them. In some cases, the question of whether the biblical material is true or not is beside the point. It only leads one away from the significant features of the text. Yet truth claims that are made are always made within a social and communal context. Likewise, those of us who try to assess them do so in social and communal contexts. In historical and religious matters, truth is social in character, and the apprehension of it is similarly social. Understanding the social dimensions of truth is important for critical readers of the Bible, just as it is important to understand the historical and literary dimensions of biblical texts and their interpretation.

Many will not be pleased by this approach, but to me it is the only honest way to go. For example, you will see if you visit that lectionary linked in the first paragraph that I am at the moment reading The Book of Exodus, one of the most obvious features of which is that it could not possibly have been written by Moses. Another obvious feature is that the “history” in the book is clearly in the realm of legend, with elements of myth. So you can’t say the Exodus didn’t happen, but you can say it didn’t happen in the in fact various ways it is recounted in Exodus. Wikipedia (for all that it gets bagged) actually reviews this rather well: The Exodus.

If you wish to clarify what myth, legend, and/or folktale actually mean, see Michael Webster’s course material Frequently Asked Questions about Mythology.

It is clear too that when subjected to moral critique Exodus can be decidedly discomforting. There are all sorts of things, what Bishop Spong memorably calls “the sins of scripture”, that Biblical literalists gloss over. (Don’t think the Qu’ran will help, by the way; it is very much in the literalist camp when it comes to its references to Exodus. Not at all surprising in the Qu’ran’s human and cultural context of course.)

Nonetheless, as archetypes Exodus and The Exodus are profoundly inspiring. That is what they still have to offer. Oh yes, and it is a good story, and one which anyone in our culture really should know.

bullock-dray-02.jpg

Bullocky

Beside his heavy-shouldered team
thirsty with drought and chilled with rain,
he weathered all the striding years
till they ran widdershins in his brain:

Till the long solitary tracks
etched deeper with each lurching load
were populous before his eyes,
and fiends and angels used this road.

All the long straining journey grew
a mad apocalyptic dream,
and he old Moses, and the slaves
his suffering and stubborn team.

Then in his evening camp beneath
the half-light pillars of the trees
he filled the steepled cone of night
with shouted prayers and prophecies.

While past the campfire’s crimson ring
the star struck darkness cupped him round.
and centuries of cattle-bells
rang with their sweet uneasy sound.

Grass is across the wagon-tracks,
and plough strikes bone across the grass,
and vineyards cover all the slopes
where the dead teams were used to pass.

O vine, grow close upon that bone
and hold it with your rooted hand.
The prophet Moses feeds the grape,
and fruitful is the Promised Land.

— Judith Wright (1915-2000)

I still love that poem; technically it is almost perfect, in my humble opinion. But it was written in the 1940s, and looking at it through the allusions to Exodus one can’t help wondering about the Amalekites, Canaanites, and so on… Judith Wright herself certainly did, and “put a block on some of [her] poems being anthologised: poems like ‘Bullocky'” later on in life.

Reconciliation isn’t a word I like. It’s about the only word, unfortunately, that fits. But they, I think, have more of a problem reconciling with us because we are the ones who did the deed. And the fact that they can do this speaks very highly indeed for their own capacities for forgiveness and understanding. We don’t have that. That’s because we do have this problem in ourselves: a kind of guilt that stands in the way of understanding. That is a very important part of our development as a people, and until we come into a proper relationship with the Indigenous peoples, we can’t be in a proper relationship with ourselves.

Ramona Koval: You put a block on some of your poems being anthologised: poems like ‘Bullocky’. Was this related to the matter of Aboriginal-white history and reconciliation?

Judith Wright: Yes, in a way it was. That poem came from the nationalist era in which I was only able to write from a white point of view. Now that I can see what that has done to us, I refuse to allow Bullocky to be anthologised any longer because of the way it got taught. It’s a perfectly good poem in itself, I still stand by it as a poem. But it was being used in a way I disapproved of. And the funny thing was, of course, that there were teachers who wrote to me in a fury: ‘You can’t do this. It’s not possible for you to do this. We’ve been teaching it this way for so long.’ They were teaching it as though it was an aggrandisement of the whole invasion. And it was a very bad example of bad teaching of poetry. The only thing I could do was to argue that it shouldn’t be put into anthologies at all. And that, I think I kept to fairly well. It was a great illumination to me of how poems can be misinterpreted simply because the idea is opposite to what they should be.

Interesting.

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Posted by on April 22, 2007 in Aussie interest, Faith and philosophy, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, poets and poetry, Reading, Reconciliation, Religion

 

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