Talking about the Bible

This is one of a series of videos about twin boys, Sam and Ren. Their parents make them available on YouTube.

It is human nature for us to talk with each other. We gather information, share thoughts, argue, and test new ideas on each other. We express feelings, pose questions, praise, protest, pray, and otherwise prattle on. From a very early age, we are doing the formative work of making sense of life, ourselves, everything, in conversation.

Imagine you have walked into a room full of people, who are engaged in a lively conversation. You know some of them, but other faces are new to you. A few people nod hello to you, but are quickly drawn back into the discussion that was happening before you came in. You see a few people leave, and another person come in, and you get the idea that this conversation has been going on for a long time, and that people come and go, but the conversation carries on. You are interested in what they are all talking about, and you find that you have opinions you want to share. You dive in with a question. Someone answers, and then someone else asks you a question. You begin to reply, and someone interrupts you, with a differing view point. The person beside you agrees with your position, and leaps to your defense. Before long someone makes a point that takes the discussion off in another tangent. You are enjoying the stimulating dialogue, and are learning a lot, and find it hard to believe that hours have passed since you came in the room. As you excuse yourself, and bid the room good night, someone else enters and takes your place. There is no sign that the conversation will be slowing down any time soon.

Marcus Borg used this metaphor of an unending conversation in his book “The Heart of Christianity”. He borrowed it from a scholar of culture and language named Kenneth Burke. It applies just as well to the ongoing exploration of how we relate to God, and how we live with each other. Borg wrote his book to encourage us to take part in the very large, ongoing conversation about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Borg borrowed the metaphor from something published in 1941. I re-wrote the illustration to bring some of the language up to date. I was tempted to change the image from a large room to an online chat. I spent time on Facebook yesterday, engaged in a lively conversation with some American friends about faith-based approaches to gun control in the United States My teenaged daughter stays connected with her friends in ways I would never have dreamed of- sometimes using her phone to text, while at the same time talking with people using Skype.

Technologies change. Cultures change. Jesus taught with examples involving vines and yeast and houses built on sand. In our day we talk about the internet and viruses and condos and timeshares. People came to Jesus with problems such as whether or not they should pay their taxes to Rome, or make ritual sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Interpretation is required to make sense of what they are talking about, to see whether it has meaning for us.

Today we are looking at Borg’s chapter about the Bible. He begins by saying that the Bible is at the heart of Christian tradition. The Bible points us toward God, and is centred on our relationship with God. It is possible to know God in other ways, but for those who wish to follow Jesus, the Bible is a necessary voice in the conversation.

Sadly, there are many times when the Bible is wielded like a blunt instrument, that actually brings the conversation to a stop.

The Bible, or rather, how the Bible is used by some, is a major stumbling block that prevents many people from taking Jesus seriously. Borg talks about the older paradigm of Christianity teaching that the Bible is infallible, and an accurate source of historical, geographical, medical, even astrophysical information. There are at least two major difficulties with these claims. The first is that they don’t really hold up under scrutiny. If we set the Bible up in competition with science we come out the losers. The second problem with presenting the Bible as something like an encyclopaedia is that it misses the point of what the Bible actually has to offer.

When one person, or group decides that they have all the answers, and they know what is true for all people, in all times and places, that is pretty much the end of conversation. We have all met people like that, I am sure. People who either have all the answers, or they want to convince you, or themselves, that they do. I heard a psychologist say that a fanatic depends on the absolute truth of an external authority. They gain credibility, by attaching themselves to that authority. They get to say they are right, because they can quote the truth as they have been given it. This seems to be to be more about power than faith.

My impression of Jesus is very different. I have this impression that Jesus actually listened to people. I have the sense that Jesus looked at people with love, and hopefulness. Jesus was about helping people, rather than showing them how right he was.

My motivation for teaching from Borg’s book, is to help us continue the conversation about faith, in a world that could really benefit from Jesus’ message of unconditional, freely offered love. Borg believes there is an emerging paradigm of Christianity, that helps us use the Bible in ways that will draw people into the conversation, rather than silencing them, and pushing them away.

The emerging paradigm has recovered the understanding that the Bible is not actually a book, but actually a collection of documents produced in two different religious communities. Ancient Israel produced the Old Testament, and the early Christian movement was the source of the New Testament. These documents were not written with the idea that they were sacred scripture. Individuals in faith communities wrote down stories, and poems, and prayers, and letters, and ethical statements, and lists of rules and laws, and words of wisdom. These writings reflect the spirit of the ongoing conversation in these faith communities, about who is God, and who are we, and how shall we live in response to our awareness that God is with us?

The documents preserved in the Bible give a sense of how some of our spiritual ancestors viewed their relationship with God. We can follow the story of how they heard God speaking to them. We can also take advantage of what has been learned by historians and archaeologists, and other scientific researchers, to place their spiritual insights into an historical context. It is helpful to know a bit about how the Roman Empire controlled the territory in which Jesus lived and taught, to gain a deeper understanding of what he had to say about paying your taxes to Caesar.

It took over five centuries for the religious leaders of ancient Israel to settle on which documents would be collected as sacred scripture. It took most of 300 years for the early Christian movement to make similar deliberations about which documents they should preserve and copy and share, and which they should not. The generally accepted list of which documents are included in the Bible is called “the canon”. There are small differences between the scriptural canon of the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, also called the Mormons, has a whole other volume that they consider to be sacred. There are also some who question whether the canon was ever officially closed. Some people think that the Letter from Birmingham Jail written by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would make an appropriate addition to the worldwide conversation about life with God.

We began today with the image of an ongoing conversation. That image, or metaphor, is a teaching tool. We use metaphors to help each other think in new ways. We use metaphors to get across ideas that we believe are meaningful, helpful, important. I don’t think it takes away from the usefulness of the metaphor to say it is just a story- and it did not actually happen as I described it.

The emerging paradigm of Christianity is far more open to the reading the Bible metaphorically- seeing the point of a story, truth that does not depend on the factual, historical, scientific accuracy of the story.

Today’s gospel reading may be a good example. We heard about Jesus making a lake crossing with some disciples. Stormy waves threatened to swamp their open boat. “The disciples went and woke Jesus, saying, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

If we read the story simply as history, and limit our discussion to whether or not Jesus would actually have fallen asleep in the boat, and whether or not he could actually do anything about the storm, we could easily miss the point. Why would the early followers of Jesus tell this story? Why was it passed on, person to person, and then later preserved in writing? What does the story have to say to us? How does it point us towards God?

We don’t require personal experience of crossing open water in a storm, to know that life can be hard, and at times frightening. A small sinking boat is an evocative metaphor for the trouble and confusion we sometimes find ourselves in. The story continued, “Jesus got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm. 25 “Where is your faith?” he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement the disciples asked one another, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

With such excellent questions, the conversation goes on. Amen

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