Back to the Bible?
Well, it’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks of travel and holidays back in British Colombia which has, obviously, meant less time for writing here. I plan on posting a bit more in the coming weeks, but things will likely remain a bit slower than usual over the next little while as I try to get caught up and settle back into a regular routine. I am also planning on tackling the intimidating stack of unopened/half-read books that I have accumulated over the last year or so. I spent much less time reading than usual during the last year as I stepped into a new job, and I am beginning to think this needs to change. I plan on reading more and, perhaps, writing a bit less over the rest of the summer.
So much for the update/explanation/quick look ahead.
On another note, the last few days of my time in BC last week was spent at my first Mennonite Church Canada National Assembly in Vancouver. It was very interesting for me to compare and contrast this conference with my previous experiences at Mennonite Brethren Conferences. There were many similarities and, of course, differences too. Mennonite Church Canada is, perhaps, afflicted with more of the kinds of challenges facing mainline denominations across North American than their Mennonite Brethren cousins—challenges like how ought declining giving, declining church attendance, problems around hot-button issues like human sexuality, religious pluralism, and other thorny controversies arising out of differences in biblical interpretation be addressed? Indeed, the theme for the conference was “Dusting off the Bible for the 21st Century” and the plenary lectures and workshops throughout all dealt with some aspect of another of if/how/why we ought to read our Bibles for the love of God and for the life of the church.
I won’t attempt anything like a comprehensive report or response here. I thought I would simply throw up a few of the quotes I jotted down during one of the excellent plenary addresses by professor Thomas Yoder Neufeld (outgoing CMU president Gerald Gerbrandt also had a very engaging and stimulating address, but for some reason—perhaps the breathless pace of the lecture!—my notes from this lecture are barely legible!). Hopefully these will give you a bit of a sense of the flavour of the conference and the nature of some of the issues Mennonite Church Canada (and others, no doubt) are processing/wrestling with these days:
We are in our own time of crisis… We struggle with a loss of confidence in the role of the Bible in the church.
Without the Bible, people lose their memory, identity, and vision. We head out into the world not knowing where home is or how to get back.
The Bible is one huge, messy archive of God’s ongoing interactions with people—and that’s what makes it such a profound treasure.
We should never use the Bible as a “chain-cutter” by which to break open the chains of peace by which Christ has fettered us to one another.
To dust off the Bible is to play with fire.
There are times when we need the Bible to destabilize us—not to settle an argument but to start one.
Re: the Bible as “destabilizer”:
This is Scripture truly coming to us as the stranger. Such a Bible is not well-suited to serving as a manual by which to solve problems. But there is no way that the cross would have ever been seen as good news nor is there any way that the Gentiles would ever have been welcomed if the first Christians treated the Bible as a manual. The New Testament is a “non-manual” use of the Old Testament.
Re: the Bible as a “rock”:
Sometimes we use the Bible as a rock, certainly, and then throw these rocks at each other. Our Bibles may not have dust on them, but they certainly have blood.
Re: how Anabaptists have used and continue to use Scripture:
Many Anabaptists are guilty of being “practical Marcionites.” We think Paul was a Lutheran and Jesus was a Mennonite… and we don’t read the book of Revelation at all.
Re: getting the order right:
It is not our trust in the Bible that matters, ultimately, but the God to whom it points.
We don’t trust God because we trust in the Bible; we trust the Bible because we trust God.
I missed Sunday morning. What’s your recap of Tom’s talk then?
My memory of Sunday morning’s talk is a bit foggy, truth be told. It was a late night the previous night, and I was fighting weariness throughout :).
From what I do remember, Tom spoke from 2 Corinthians 3 and about the church as a “letter” from Christ – a letter that, through the Spirit, brings life as opposed to death. I recall some similar themes from his previous address about allowing Scripture to destabilize and push beyond itself. Not much of a summary, I know, but that’s the gist of what I remember.
Thanks for the summary. I wish I could have been there, not only for the content, but to have connected.
Yes, it would have been great to meet you Jamie. Another time…
The audio is now up at the Mennonite Church Canada website. I listened to Tom’s Sunday morning address. I like the direction he is heading. However, I wonder if he is still being a little reticent or is not pushing the implications far enough yet. An important move in all that heard from the weekend is that after we have dusted off, danced with, and rubbed the Bible there will also be a critical time of putting the Bible down to view, engage, and respond to the world around us. . . . I guess that will be the interesting part.
I had similar sentiments throughout the weekend. The vision of Scripture presented in various contexts throughout the weekend was one that I resonated with (aside from the mildly creepy metaphors… “rubbing” the Bible?!), but I found myself often thinking, “OK, and what does that mean?” How ought this understanding of the nature of Scripture and how its authority is exercised touch down in real life and real issues? Especially the ones that typically prove so divisive.
I’m curious—where would you have liked to see Tom push the implications further?
I went to the workshop where Tom and Gerald answered questions. I tried to push on the notion of the deeply ‘reflexive’ nature of our engagement with Scripture. Now, I would argue that this is true of engagement with any text in the fact there are always a multiple number of voices present and not just text and reader. So by reflexive I mean that we are situated in the midst of a massive conversation where influences and voices can be detected at any number of levels in the text (manuscripts, transmission, divisions, translators, etc.) as well as in the reader (cultural conditioning, personal experience, etc.). So again, this was alluded to but I don’t think emphasized enough and when I pushed Tom on this he came back with a prioritizing of Scripture’s authority in that relationship. Sure, okay but that does not really answer the question. I guess I still get a hint of the Bible as having some sort of inherent or ‘ontological’ priority (the magic manuscript from heaven; or magic lamp . . . . hmm that metaphor is less and less appealing) as opposed to having influence because of its amazing witness to the engagement of this particular community and the vision(s) engendered from it.
So again I want to see an acknowledgement of having the Bible put into play on a level field as one manner of our engagement and response to God. This opens up the surprise of God in the work of engaging Scripture, wrestling in community, reflecting in isolation, pursuing other disciplines, loving in practice, etc.
It may well be that I have not thought through the implications of this thinking (and I don’t think [or at least hope] it is just re-packaged liberalism) but I sense that is where we are heading and we should either figure out how to make that more clear (otherwise I am concerned we are being evasive or deceptive) or establish a more traditional articulation.
Or, as I am rambling here, at least name the paradox of Christian Scripture in that we recognize the authority of it but that it always evades taking on that authority.
Anything intelligible in there?
Oh, there’s plenty that’s “intelligible” in there :). I’ve wondered about many of these things myself, both during my brief time in MC Canada and during my much longer time in the Mennonite Brethren Conference.
I’m intrigued by the idea of Scripture having “ontological priority.” I have been part of many conversations where the “magic manuscript” view of Scripture was operating. These conversations have rarely been fruitful and tend to follow very predictable and tiresome patterns. At the same time, I wonder if there is a way of privileging Scripture in the life of faith without degenerating into some of the simplistic approaches we are all too familiar with. I get nervous about the Bible being conceived as just one option among many in the life of faith if only because I think it is crucial to, as Yoder said, allow Scripture to “confront us as a stranger”—to confront, challenge, destabilize, judge, and in some sense to stand over us. I suppose that Anabaptists have attempted to preserve and express this conviction through our efforts at interpreting in community with the help of the Holy Spirit, etc… But these can very quickly degenerate into something impossibly vague (as you have noted here) or into simplistic forms of biblical literalism—neither of which are very helpful.
I like what you say about the paradox of naming Scripture as authority while acknowledging that its very nature is to evade that authority. My sense is that we could spend a good deal of time unpacking the important implications of that statement…