What About the Bible

March 16, 1997


What About The Bible?

If you are a visitor, I need to explain that for the past two Sundays we have pretended to host in our pulpit the eccentric 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard. This has been slightly complicated by the fact that he died almost 150 years ago, and by the fact that he had an extraordinary talent for making people uncomfortable — a talent he shared with most other reformers, including the young rabbi who was called Jesus.
In our last two outings with Kierkegaard, he has insisted that it is impossible for a practicing Christian to be bored by life, that we have to be hungry before anyone or anything can feed us, and that those who preach must inhabit their sermons as real people and not as piously programmed robots who say the same things over and over. As we bid him farewell this morning, I have invited him to ask and answer this question: How is an intelligent Christian supposed to approach the Bible? What is one to make of this book which has dominated the Western world, and brought into being one of the world’s great religions?
It is certainly obvious that people who call themselves Christians deal with the Bible in very different ways. When I reflect on my boyhood in a fundamentalist church, it seems fair to me to say that our attitude toward the Bible bordered on idolatry. I remember a young minister visiting in our home who accidentally knocked a Bible off a table, then picked it up and kissed it reverently before putting it back in place. In our view of the Bible as dictated word for word by God, and therefore infallible — free from any mistake, contradiction, or occasinal nonsense — we seemed to worship the Book itself about as fervently as we worshipped the God who is talked about in the Book….and as I look back at it, perhaps even more.
Kierkegaard (SK for short) understood the special difficulties we face in reading the Bible. For one thing, he would say, a kind of scaffolding has been built around it — centuries of dogma and tradition about what it is like, and what it means. In other words, people think they already know what the Bible says, so they have either quit readig it, or they read it thorugh the colored glasses provided by their church. In the years when I was teaching a Bible As Literature course at the University, it was much easier to engage students who had never read the Bible than those who thought they already knew all about it.
I am forever being surprised by what people “know” about the Bible that is simply not true. Ask a typical group of churchgoers how many wise men came to visit the baby Jesus and they’ll look wide-eyed in wonder that such a question would even need to be asked. With total confidence they tell you, “There were three!” — and are surprised and a little disappointed to learn that the story in Matthew says no such thing. Ask what Eve ate in the Garden of Eden that got us all into so much trouble, and they’ll tell you, “An apple, of course!” when the truth is that the Bible says no such thing — probably because the author meant the fruit to be symbolic and not a literal object hanging on a literal tree. Those wrong answers are in a category called “almost Bible” or “chimney-corner scripture” — culturally conditioned folklore that has no basis at all in fact.
With good intentions, we pass this pseudo-wisdom on to our children. I still remember one day when my beloved dad sat his pubescent son down for one of those birds-and-the-bees talks and told me two things I later learned were both false. He got around to what I will call, for the sake of delicacy, auto-eroticism, and used a retarded boy who lived down the street as an example of the dire consequences of that teenage behavior. Then he went on to quote a Bible verse a little more graphic than I wish to share with you, but which certainly put the fear of God into my young heart. Over the next few years I learned that he was wrong about the boy down the street, and I also learned that the scripture he quoted simply did not exist….anywhere. It was chimney-corner scripture he had picked up from somebody when he was a child.
On much more sophisticated levels, we are often more affected by these cultural traditions than we are by actually reading and responding to the biblical text. SK liked to point out that the Bible is really a kind of conversation going on among people who are trying to define God and know God’s will, and that we have to overhear that conversation with some knowledge of the many differences between that thought world and ours. But for some people this is hard to do because they see the warning, HOLY BIBLE , which we have stamped on the cover, and which is about the furthest possible thing from “conversation.”
For example, Jesus paused one day to speak in passing to a woman at a well, but his words may be printed now in red letters and used as texts for such heavy and solemn sermons that the real drama of that encounter sails right over our heads. It would have astonished Jesus to know that words he spoke would someday be enshrined in a book and laid out reverently on a draped table between white candles. By now, most of us pay that book our respects because we feel we have to — after all, this is the Bible! But familiarity often breeds deafness. Like some long-married couples who have stopped hearing what the other says, we hear scripture quoted in sermons with no feeling that we have a right to challenge or wrestle with it — even though the Bible itself argues with itself, does not always agree with itself. We simply assume that if something is in the Bible it has a kind of self-evident authority, so that even when whole chapters have no relevance at all to our lives we feel embarrassed to admit it for fear of being thought disrespectful.
The problem, SK would tell us, is that the scriptures were not meant to address us directly. They were written for contemporary Christians by writers who could not have had us in mind because they were convinced the world was going to end very quickly. So while it’s right to respect the Bible and learn all one can from it, the truth is that its separate books are the honored residue of ancient “conversations,” to which, if we know how to do it, we listen. It is sobering to remember this simple fact: not a single word in the Bible was written to any one of us. When Jesus speaks we hear the voice of a Palestinian villager addressing other villagers — exactly as we would expect. If he had used the vocabulary and images common to large Mediterranean cities the people to whom he spoke would neither have understood them nor trasured them. No matter how many times we hear, “The Bible says….the Bible says….” the truth is that the Bible only SAID (past tense) and our task — through training and imagination — is to go from WAS said to what is BEING said. Or, to put it another way, how do I move from what a text ONCE meant to what it NOW means for me?
I made a passing remark a minute ago that the Bible argues with itself, is not always in agreement with itself. If you were brought up as I was, it would be no surprise to have you get up and walk out at this point. Some of us are now halfway through Wednesday night studies in how the four gospels were composed, and if one thing is clear from those studies it’s that each writer told the story of Jesus in his own way, and with his own purpose in mind, and that they are not always in agreement with one another. This is quite characteristic of the collection of books we call the Bible — that it addresses specific situations without worrying about harmonizing each message with all its other messages on the same topic. So the Old Testament in one plac will say how evil a thing it is to have a king, while another writer in another place will proudly hail kingship as part of God’s will. The little books of Haggai and Malachi celebrate a narrow-minded, almost virulent, Jewish nationalism, while the little books of Ruth and Jonah preach exactly the opposite. The New Testament can urge one group to become as little children, and another group to quit being children without feeling it has to harmonize the two. Jesus himself can command one candidate for discipleship to leave all other duties immediately, and instruct another person to do just the opposite: to sit down first and carefully count the cost. And where are WE in all of this? WE are peope living 20 centuries later who overhear these conversations and who have to use our wits to know how they fit our own situations.
You must not think for a moment that I mean to disparage the Bible by saying these things. I study the Bible with greater lover and enthusiasm now than was even remotely possible for me when I was 20, and thought that my church and I had an absolute monopoly on proper interpretations. It’s true that I no longer read the Creation story literally, or the Jonah and the whale story literally, but both of them now reveal for me far deeper and more beautiful sentiments about the nature of God than I ever suspected in those far- off days when I took the creation stories to be science rather than poetry, or when I would have considered it heresy to read Jonah NOT as history but as a marvelously humorous and powerful parable about the universal nature of God’s love.
I have no reluctance to point out bad metaphysics and pre-scientific cosmology in the Bible, but I am equally eager to point out its beautiful and enduring images of reverence for life, and for the contrite and broken heart that fill so many of its endlessly fascinating pages. Images, by the way, which may portray us and our soul-sickness more accurately than some more recent efforts. I see a news video in which teenagers without a conscience go on a joy ride where they shoot pedestrians in the face with paintball guns and knock over bicycle rides with baseball bats, and it’s hard for me to find excuses for them.The Bible wouldn’t!
I read about a despicable thug who goes into a nearby sandwich shop to steal money and gratuitously shoots an innocent and promising young woman in the head as she lies face down on a floor, and I wonder at her family’s announcing forgiveness even when no forgiveness has been asked. It’s fine, I’m sure to talk about what went wrong that murderous human being’s “inner child,” but there are times when one feels like saying what we overhear Jesus say to someone once: “Get behind me, Satan.” Listen to the paradox: “Bless your enemies,: he says once, and talks often about mercy and forgiveness, and then on another day he drives thieves out of the temple grounds with a whip, or tells certain people they are like poisonous snakes. Our task is to figure out when each response is appropriate, and it’s such a demanding job that I wonder how anyone can be cocksure and dogmatic in the exercise of Christian faith.
But you need no one to tell you how many people are incredibly positive about what the Bible teaches and all the more so the less they really know about it. In University lecture halls professors who teach physics, biochemistry, Chinese literature or the Greek and Roman classics are not usually contradicted by students who think they know more than their teachers, but professors of religion are repeatedly confronted by untutored sophomores who have already received The Truth about the Bible in their churches and who intend to keep the class from being misled.
The classic example in my own experience with an upper-level “Bible as Litera-ture took place one Fall on the third day of a careful analysis of the creation stories in Genesis. A rather formidable black lady on the back row suddenly stood up and spoke to some 20 students in front of her. Pointing at me, she said: “This man is leadin’ y’all astray. I have to tell ya’ that if you listen to him, he’ll lead every last one of you straight to Hell. I’m gettin’ outta here, and y’all better do the same.” At which point she strode up to my desk with the kind of ominous power Patrick Jones projects when he moves from piano to organ, threw a drop slip on my desk, walked out and slammed the door. She had assumed that a University course in biblical literature would would simply repeat the strictly literal approach she had learned in Sunday School.
There are no racial monopolies on biblical illiteracy. According to a woman out near Dodge City, Jesus and Satan were to go to war in the skies a week ago yesterday, but as usual people just washed their cars and flew kites and took the kids to the park. Nothing happened. I went into my neighborhood bank just a couple days ago and stood in line behind a young Caucasian man who was informing the teller that the End of the Ages is upon us, that the stock market will crash this week, that America will slump into a terrible depression, and that untold millions will drop into desperate poverty. “How do you know this?” the bright young Hispanic cashier asked him. He told her that his pastor had found the proof in the book of Revelation, that bizarre apocalyptic book of coded language which has given birth to more wild theories than any piece of literature. You will be pleased to hear that I remained silent, but I wondered if the young man had any notion that in the second and third centuries the entire Christian world was split in half over whether the book of Revelation should be included in the New Testament at all since its esoteric and secret linguistic code was intended for consumption by such a small group within such a limited time frame.
It is hard sometimes not to despair! If this boy in the bank had a brain tumor, he would not rest until he had gone to the most highly educated oncologists and neurosurgeons he could find, but he cheerfully puts what he would call his immortal soul in the hands of an interpreter of the Bible whose notion of formal training would appall every doctor, lawyer and biblical scholar in America.
My upset black student and the white boy in the bank do not lack native intelli-gence. There is a reason why the average layman in church knows far more about medicine, science and technology than about serious biblical scholarship. For a long time in this country theological seminaries were the most advanced of graduate institutions, until faculties of medicine replaced them late in the 19th century. Ministers were for a long time in America the best educated members of their community. This is almost never the case anymore, and even those who do master the literary strategies used in the biblical text, and learn how it was compiled from ancient oral stories and how freely it borrowed from other religions — even those who have learned these things decide more often than not that it’s safer to keep the secret. The pulpit becomes a place of soft assurances rather than a source of hard information.
If you have ever wondered why so many of the brightest students in graduate schools around the country give up on church, you have just heard the reason. They have learned to question dogma and search for truth with no holds barred, and this is not the usual posture of the church. As our guest SK would put it, the church is more likely to be a fortress than to be an adventure. It offers reassuring baritone pastors and a fuzzy, cuddly Jesus who bears no resemblance to the first century Jewish radical. It’s no wonder quiet, thoughtful people often say “Thanks, but….No Thanks” when you invite them to church.
So, what about the Bible? I was taught as a young preacher to tell people what a simple book it was, and how everybody could read it and come to the same conclusions our church had reached if they only would…..but that was completely false, and I regret ever having said it. Just as doctors know how vast and challenging the scholarly literature is in their field, and attorneys know the intricacies of law set forth in thousands of books and journals, so any serious student of the Bible knows that religious scholarship has crated an equally challenging mass of information about how to use the Bible without misusing it. So, yes, the pulpit should inspire and comfort, but it should also inform. I am grateful that you are willing to listen while I try for that kind of balance in this good church. Soren Kierkegaard, to whom we say goodbye this morning, would be proud of you.
Next week is Palm Sunday, which means the kids will come in to wave branches and sing a song, and then happily trip out leaving you behind to hear a sermon entitled “Plows, Pruning Hooks and Palm Leaves,” entirely different from this one! Please come back and take a chance on it.

Help us, Eternal God, to remember the advice of a great apostle
who begged us to study so that we could use wisely the words
of Scripture. Amen.