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On “Stomaching” the Bible

There are a handful of topics and themes that I can fairly reliably count on to cause questions or concerns in the life of the church. Near the top of the list would be questions about the Bible. What about all of the problem texts of violence and misogyny? What about the history of canonization—which books got in, which were left out, and why? Which parts are “historical” and which are “symbolic” or “metaphorical?” What about all of those long, boring, irrelevant lists of sacrificial rituals and antiquated, bewildering legal codes? Why, in short, do we have such a messy, complicated, difficult book to deal with instead of a book that conforms to our expectations of what an “inspired” text ought to look like?

There are many approaches to questions like these, but one of the most important places to start, in my view, is to examine our assumptions about the nature of Scripture—about what we expect from the Bible and why.  Very often our assumptions about what the Bible ought to be and do fit awkwardly with our professed convictions about the God to whom it points, and this God’s way of being in the world.

This morning, I came across a quote from C.S. Lewis (via Brick by Brick) that expresses this well:

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in.

An interesting approach—begin with Christology rather than an a priori conception of what a “holy book” should look like.  For those prepared to accept God entering into the mess of human existence in the person of Jesus, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to accept God choosing to reveal himself in and through the mess of human language, culture, and modes of transmission.

If we can stomach one, we can stomach the other.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Where does Christology begin?

    July 31, 2012
    • With Christ.

      July 31, 2012
    • Ken #

      I understand that. Please explain more. How does one know Christ independently of the Bible? Do you have a conception of Christ than differs from the Bible?

      Why with Christ, not with God?

      July 31, 2012
      • Obviously Christology is dependent upon Scripture. Perhaps this is so particularly for Anabaptists who do not have anything resembling the Roman Catholic mystical tradition where Christ is encountered directly in human experience. I imagine it something like an ongoing feedback loop—Scripture shows us the nature and character of Christ which then informs how we read Scripture, which then adds further insight into how we understand the person and work of Christ, which further deepens and sharpens our reading of the rest of the Bible, etc. Hardly an objective process, I know, but it is borne out of the conviction that the Word written exists only to point to the Word made flesh.

        Why with Christ, not with God?

        The Anabaptist conviction is that beginning with Christ is beginning with God as God has most fully revealed Godself.

        August 1, 2012
  2. Ken #

    Thanks. That is clear. It is “like an ongoing feedback loop.”

    August 1, 2012
  3. Ken #

    Another thought has been going through my own mind as I considered what you wrote here.

    I think that for me awareness of the holiness of the Bible did not come a priori, but posteriori, which is to say it was something I experienced before I believed it. Ironically, perhaps, my church experience in the PCUSA diminished my experience of the Bible as holy, while my experience studying Hebrew and the Bible with David Noel Freedman at a public university gave me a greater sense of its holiness than I ever had through church. Looking back, I don’t think I ever saw the holiness until those years with Noel.

    As you know, I read the Bible as myth and I see Christ presented in it in a mythological way, even while history does support belief (on weak evidence) that the man Jesus really lived and was crucified. My Christology, in that sense, is bound up with the Bible, and could not said fairly to be tied in any sense directly to the man Jesus. In the Roman Catholic Church, I experienced Christ, Jesus, through the Eucharist in a profound and immediate way, which although connected with the “feedback loop” is indeed separate from it as well, mediated as it is directly through the Eucharist and other sacraments of the church.

    Today, my faith is, I think must say, more defined by ecology than by the Bible or Christ and is quite independent of the church. I try to put the pieces together of my fragmented faith. I still read the Bible with a sense of its beautiful holiness, and I still cherish the moments I once spent in the presence of Christ through the Eucharist. I love to think of the universe as Chardin did as the body of Christ. This matches my posteriori experience of the holiness of the universe, of the earth and its heavens, with my experience of Christ in the Eucharist and with the holiness of God as expressed in the Bible. That is where I find unity.

    August 1, 2012
    • Can you help me understand the appeal of conceptualizing the universe as the “body of Christ” when this same Christ is understood to be a mythological figure with an undetermined connection to a weakly-evidenced Jesus. It seems to me that if one has already come to these kinds of conclusions about Jesus, there ought to be more fruitful ways of conceptualizing the universe. Why not the universe as the body of someone/something else? Why Christ? What does thinking of the universe specifically in connection to your understanding of Christ add to your worldview?

      August 1, 2012
  4. Ken #

    It may appeal only to those of us who seek to reconcile ecology and theology. It is not a conception of the universe in any concrete or metaphysical way. It is a sentiment, not a worldview. It is a mystical expression of faith.

    August 1, 2012
    • Yes, I understand this. But I’m wondering what it is, specifically, about the figure of Christ that is appealing.

      August 1, 2012
    • Ken #

      Hard question to answer. I don’t think this process of reconciling ecology and theology, as in the example of Chardin or me, is driven by Christ being appealing. It is more like trying to bridge two narratives, an older one and a newer one, for the sake of inner peace. It is an imaginative process in which a somewhat different Christ from the one of the past is imagined, one that is harmonious with the contemporary narrative of ecology.

      Why, in the age of ecology, does one person just abandon the Christian narrative, another attempt reconciliation, another attempt to abandon the ecological narrative, and another does not care? I think the answer varies from person to person and is not at all easy to find. The answer may well be that for each person it was just one thing after another, with no recognizable beginning or end.

      Theology is so flexible. So amenable to imagination.

      August 2, 2012
      • Yes, that makes sense. I suspect that all of us are engaged in the task of bridging narratives for the sake of inner peace, whether we are aware of it or care to admit it or not.

        It is an imaginative process in which a somewhat different Christ from the one of the past is imagined, one that is harmonious with the contemporary narrative of ecology.

        So what does this “different Christ” look like? In what way is this Christ harmonious with the narrative of ecology?

        August 2, 2012
    • Ken #

      Looks like the universe, and in that way is harmonious with the narrative of ecology. Theology becomes ecology.

      Harmony is mostly achieved by seeing ecology as theology and seeing the universe, which is to say the earth and its heavens, as the body of Christ, of God – the subject of ecology and theology.

      My sense, posteriori from time spent in wilderness, is that something like what we call love permeates the universe, even through the suffering and death. It is inexplicable, but also inextinguishable, just like the love of God for Israel.

      August 2, 2012
      • I think I see some connection when you talk about things like suffering, death and love. But it seems to me that “body of Christ” is mostly functioning as a placeholder for “where I find holiness/meaning.” Fair enough if, as you say, “theology is so flexible and “so amenable to imagination.”

        For my part, I suppose I feel more constrained by the shape of the Christian narrative and the range of meanings it opens up for terms like “the body of Christ”—even if, like everyone else, I am engaged in the ongoing project in building bridges between narratives. Perhaps everything depends upon which narrative we prioritize (and how) in our bridge-building efforts.

        August 2, 2012

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