Thursday, November 14, 2013

What Is Scripture To Us?

by Roger L. Ray, D.Min.
Community Christian Church 
4806 E. Cherry Springfield, MO 65809

Few things are more important than transforming how we think about our inner and outer nature, and our mortality. Thus far, the Evidential Reformation has been centered in science. We desperately need our faith traditions to celebrate this momentous time. We need all the experience that the traditions can muster to guide us today. For in truth, evidence is modern-day scripture.
Dr. Michael Dowd, Huffington Post, March 2, 2012

Woody Allen once said that he grew up in such a rough neighborhood that his mother actually made a good luck charm for him out of a rifle shell.  He wore the bullet on a chain around his neck under his shirt to give him courage when facing the bullies in the neighborhood but it so happened that the bullet actually ended up saving his life.  A crazed Gideon once threw a New Testament right at him and it would have gone right through his heart but it was stopped by the bullet under his shirt.

Of course, those of us who grew up in those primitive times when the Gideons were allowed to come into public schools and make presentations to students were all too familiar with the stories of soldiers in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam who had kept a Gideon New Testament in their pocket and when they were shot, the bullet pierced the pages of the little Bible and stopped like a molten lead finger pointing at Psalm 91, "A thousand may fall at your side, And ten thousand at your right hand; But it shall not come near you."

The Christian Bible was presented to us as having uniquely divine properties.  In Jewish faith communities, the Torah was to be copied by hand and once blessed for use in synagogue, it was never to be touched by human hands again, the text became sacred and was read publicly by lectors who followed along the ancient Hebrew with a golden pointer.  In the event of a fire, or military attack, people risked their lives to rescue the Torah.

Among Muslims, the Quran is of such sacred importance that it was considered to be torture when American captors would throw a copy in the toilet in Guantanamo or urinate on it.  An idiotic, xenophobic preacher in Florida could almost start a war by threatening to burn copies of the Quran.

Christians have not historically been too far off from this level of devotion.  Many of us can remember the day when it was common for families to display a huge open copy of the King James Bible in their living room, usually sitting on a hand carved olive wood stand from Israel.  Laws existed in many states against defiling the Bible or even against putting any other book on top of a Bible.

The first little New Testament and Psalms I was given when I was eleven years old, I was told, could stop a bullet.  Even as Biblical scholarship has shined the light of reason on this ancient text, some liturgical churches still carry a copy into their solemn assemblies accompanied by incense and a processional cross.  Some communities stand when the gospel is read aloud and reply "thanks be to God" when they were liturgically informed that it is, in very fact, "The word of the Lord."

But the solemn and sacred role of scripture in society has been under attack.  In recent years, as racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia have become socially unacceptable, the faithful have been compelled to play down or explain away the portions of the Bible that are clearly racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic.  What churches all of the way from fundamentalist and Pentecostal sorts to liberal main-stream denominations have been afraid to say publicly is that they simply disagree with portions of the Bible.

Maybe there was a period of time when reproduction was so vital to survival of ancient tribes that homosexual relationships were discouraged in order to promote propagation.  Perhaps in primitive agrarian societies there were reasons for patriarchal control of land and even for slavery but these attempts at white-washing the abuses of the past because they were either economically necessary or culturally expedient are, at best, embarrassing.

When we read the Bible honestly, we see that, for example, both creation accounts in chapters one and two of Genesis describe the creation of a flat earth.  The truth is that the earth is not flat.  While there are things of value to be found in those ancient and poetic accounts of creation, scientific facts are not to be found there.  In the real world, there are no talking snakes.  Women were not made from one side of a dirt-constructed man.  There is no magical garden guarded by a flaming sword and powerful angel.

It was always a mistake to turn to the Bible for information about science, anthropology, history or astronomy.  It has been a cultural resource of poetry, music, morality plays, and ethical instruction and even though we have attributed its authorship to God, or to Spirit inspired mortals, it is not even a collection of the best of poetry, music, morality plays or ethical instruction.  It contains both beautiful images of social justice, advocacy for the poor, the sick and the vulnerable but it also has its passages of undeserved homage to royalty and priests. It does, in parts, treat women as if they were property or livestock and it does disparage not only homosexuality but even some aspects of simply being a sexual human being.

Many scholars have for years tried to educate the literate public to a more sober view of the Bible as a collection of differing views of various peoples who lived over many different centuries and none of whom, as comedian Bill Maher likes to point out, had any idea where the sun goes at night.  Some of it is stunningly insightful but some of it is horrifyingly evil.  We would be crazy to try to read every part as having equal value for our time.

Some, such as the popular writer and thinker, Michael Dowd, have suggested that it is time to simply set these ancient texts aside and to focus on the facts of our scientific age as our new scripture.  Those of us who have spent our lives in the formal study of scripture hear that with all of the enthusiasm with which the wagon builders heard the sound of the first Model A coming down the road.

We have studied ancient languages, poured over ancient texts, devoted ourselves to years of challenging and complicated biblical studies to become experts in a topic that may soon leave us looking like the last nerd with a slide rule in a leather holster on our belts.  Already the Bible has the approximate value of a rotary phone to most people in Europe and the United States.  Most people can remember when they had one and they have nostalgic feelings about it but if you gave them one today they would have no use for it beyond decoration.

I still find the Bible to be endlessly interesting and I cannot even resist ordering the next new book produced by any of my favorite scholars.  And I even find the Revised Common Lectionary to be a helpful tool that I use as a personal discipline to force me to consider the preaching topics raised by this three-year cycle of prescribed scripture lessons.  For me, now just ten or fifteen years away from retirement, I no longer see scripture as an authoritative voice in my life or in the church but I find it to be helpful, in part because it is so familiar to our generation.

I need only to say the name "Noah" and a story comes alive in your minds.  I can mention David and Bathsheba and we have a shared story between us.  The passion narrative in the gospels is an archetypal story.  Who can hear the name "Judas" and not remember a former friend who has betrayed you?  Who does not know what it is to have your closest family and friends stand in the distance watching you suffer through your darkest hour without saying a word?

Our generation will never have an entirely dispassionate relationship with scripture and we will continue to use it as our common ground for study, instruction and in our rituals, in both weddings and funerals, on holidays and even most Sundays.  But this will not always be true.  Inevitably, the generations that will follow us will not spend hours and hours of their growing up years studying and memorizing Bible passages and those who will be the pastors of future faith communities will not likely feel the need to be immersed in biblical studies.

When I entered the ministry in the late 1970's, among Protestant Churches, Sunday School attendance was approximately the same as the worship service attendance.  By the end of the 1980's that ratio had changed with Sunday School attendance falling by more than half.  Many main-stream churches have given up and no longer offer religious education at all because they simply do not know what to teach and their members will no longer attend traditional classes.

The Center for Progressive Christianity is to be applauded for making a serious effort at recreating ethical religious education materials for use in progressive churches.  It remain to be seen whether or not progressive leaning parents will make it a priority to expose their children to this education.

At this juncture, we know more about what we don't want to pass along than we know with certainty what we do want to preserve for the generations to come.

Progressives make the conscious choice to abandon false certainty in favor of honest uncertainty.  For us, the only scripture that matters is the truth, wherever we can find it.  We will sometimes find our truth in science, sometimes in philosophy and sometimes in a popular song or even a bumper sticker.  As we throw our arms open to the whole world in a search for meaning, insight, honesty, we no long have a single book that will call scholars and sages to a common place where they can debate and evaluate a shared body of literature.  We are losing something as the Quran, Torah and Bible lose status in the minds of modern people of faith but we also gain a new and exciting liberty to find a new way of living, unchained from loyalty to ancient texts that polluted our lives with irrational prejudices and neurotic guilt.

We once enjoyed a certain stability in being able to say authoritatively, "The Bible says!" but to be honest that injunction has not worked well for a long time, if, in fact, it ever did.  I cannot think of a time in history when it was common for people to sell all their owned and give it to the poor nor even to predictably forgive someone seventy times seven times.

We have always had a rather cafeteria styled approach to scripture and we have not usually even chosen the more important passages to take home with us after church was over.

Our generation turns to our faith with less confident certainty but with new liberty to focus on truths that are more substantial.  We will serve more meals in homeless shelters than we will serve communion in our sanctuary.  We will dig more wells for safe water for the poor in Nicaragua and Haiti than we baptize people in solemn rituals.  We will not speak confidently of a heaven in the afterlife but we will fight with determination against the hell that is all too familiar in this world to those who live in poverty, who are refugees of wars and who live in the pollution of an economic system that trades our only planet for current profit.

The church is not being destroyed by setting aside its ancient magic and superstition, it is being set free.


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