Saturday, May 23, 2009

Keeping closed the "book of faith"

Opening the Book of Faith is the introductory guide for the ELCA’s Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI) and an introduction to Bible study from a Lutheran perspective. I think this book has a lot of problems (certainly due in part to the fact that six different people had their hands in authoring its hundred pages). One that jumped out at me illustrates well the concerns I have discussed elsewhere with BOFI and with our attempts to revive Bible study today in the church.

In the book’s third chapter, BOFI’s director Diane Jacobson (a professor at Luther Seminary) lays out four perspectives for reading the Bible: devotional, historical, literary, and Lutheran. In discussing the historical approach she correctly emphasizes understanding a text’s authorship and context. In the first of four sample Bible studies which follow (and which Jacobson also writes), this guidance somehow goes out the window.

The text is Exodus 3:1-15, the story of God’s call of Moses at the burning bush on Mt Horeb. In the previous chapter on study methods, Jacobson lists several appropriate questions (p. 53) that should be asked about a text and its author: who wrote it, who was it written for, what do we know about the political and cultural context when it was written, and so on. But when she turns to this study she focuses on the events in the story. She says nothing about authorship of the text or any possible context for the story’s writing, ignoring her own instruction. Why? Because it avoids the presumably too controversial issue of the historicity of the Exodus events.

Who wrote Exodus? Certainly no ELCA seminary or university Bible department would say it was Moses, the tradition added to the Pentateuch well after it was written. Without needing to get into specific theories of authorship (like JEDP), the key point to be made is that this certainly is not an eye witness account but rather was written centuries after the presumed time of these events. Given that, and given that we are trying to emphasize relating the Bible to adults as adults, certainly some attention has to be given to the obvious question: Did any of the events in this story actually happen?

Surely Professor Jacobson is aware (whatever her own stance) that a significant portion of biblical scholars would say “No they did not”. And they say so, not because they believe God doesn’t speak through burning bushes, but because there is simply no historical evidence for any of the Exodus saga and ample reason to take that silence as telling. In this view, Israel was not enslaved in Egypt, Moses therefore did not come and rescue them, the Israelites did not wander in the Sinai and then invade Palestine, and there probably was no Moses, at least not as he is depicted in the Bible. How, when you are supposedly looking at a text from a historical perspective, could you not identify it not as history but as story, not as a recounting of events that occurred but rather as part of the larger mythology of Israel’s origins?

Perhaps one of the most disingenuous statements in the chapter is this (p. 71): “Though we cannot always know how much of each story is precise historical fact, we do know the story of God’s saving action in the Bible includes real people and places.” But what does that mean? If I read a story about George Washington’s brilliant leadership in a Revolutionary War battle in Texas, then it’s valuable because George Washington was a real person and Texas is a real place? However great a story it may be, as history it would be preposterous because we know there were no such battles in Texas and, while Washington may have slept in a lot of places, we know he never laid down his head in Texas. And we know, in fact, that this kind of mix-up of names, places and times happens all the time in the Bible.

What frustrates me is that I know Professor Jacobson knows all of this. What is she afraid of? What are we afraid of? Why is it so awful to think that the Bible tells stories, just as every other culture and religion of the ancient world told mythological stories about their origins? Here again we are applying contemporary values and perspectives (“precise historical fact”) to ancient writings and getting confusion and misunderstanding.

The main issue here, however, is that once again we are paternalistically deciding what people should be told. To discuss this text from a historical perspective and not even hint at the fact that many, and probably most, non-fundamentalist scholars consider this a fictional tale is simply deception. And what does it do to the church’s credibility when people find this out on their own? How can they not conclude that they were lied to?

Opening the Book of Faith could have been written fifty years ago and most of it probably a century or more ago. Some will view this as a testament to its faithfulness to tradition but I see it as evidence of its failure to realize how fundamentally our world has changed. The first two chapters trot out the tried and true chestnuts of Lutheran hermeneutics and theology without any awareness that many of these have become meaningless gibberish to ordinary people. The authors cheerlead and cajole (“Lutherans read the Bible…they believe the Bible…they love the Bible” p.26) seemingly unaware that BOFI was launched precisely because so many of their assumptions are no longer true.

All of this raises the question of who this book and BOFI generally are intended for. Most of it seems aimed at the faithful remnant who already know the church’s language, are still regular worship attendees, and already have a traditional familiarity with the Bible. And so to protect their sensibilities we will avoid offering anything new or challenging to the Sunday school view of the Bible they received a generation ago. For the vast majority of people with little interest in or familiarity with the Bible, however, this approach will ensure that it continues to be seen by them as an antique curiosity, cherished by our ancestors but largely incomprehensible and irrelevant to contemporary life.


Diane Jacobson said...


I am pleased with and grateful for your thorough review and important reactions. I wonder if some response from me might be helpful.
First, you are correct that writing a book quickly and having a number of hands active is a deep challenge. So I would concur that this book is far from perfect. I also know that I have learned a great deal myself in the last year about how to ask good questions and how to ask them in such a way that they are helpful for folks encountering, studying, and delving more deeply into biblical texts, particularly folks encountering texts for the first time. So I wish I could rewrite my own chapter on Exodus, because I would write it very differently today.
That said, let me respond to a few specific comments you made.
“She says nothing about authorship of the text or any possible context for the story’s writing, ignoring her own instruction. Why? Because it avoids the presumably too controversial issue of the historicity of the Exodus events.”

Actually, I am not at all worried about avoiding controversy over historicity. I simply often think such questions are often not at all helpful. There are two reasons for this opinion. One, because I do not think the main question of history is “did it happen?” I think the main question for historical study of the biblical text is “What insights from history would be helpful to know in order to hear, read, study, or understand this passage more accurately?” Do I think the events at the burning bush happened exactly as reported. No, I don’t think the Bible is primarily a blow-by-blow eye witness report of history. No CNN. But do I accept that Israel (or some tribes of Israel) were slaves in Egypt and followed a leader named Moses. I have no problem with this, but the historicity is for me is not the point in any case. So in fact theories of JEDP are more interesting to me, but I don’t much buy them either. I think the 4 source theory is too simple. Whoever wrote this text (presumably E, because of the name “Horeb”) makes a pun on bush, which in Hebrew sounds like Sinai. So the author knows much more that a simple JEDP gives him credit for. Which means, we have a very hard time knowing who the author was and using such insights to help us hear this text better. This means that in the case of Exodus 3 historical questions are not as helpful in my opinion as literary questions are.
You say “there is simply no historical evidence for any of the Exodus saga.” Perhaps. I simply am not at all bothered or much interested in this. I am interested that “the story of God’s saving action in the Bible includes real people and places.” I find such a statement helpful and not limiting or problematic. I don’t think this is being paternalistic. I simply think the text is infinitely deeper and inviting if we begin with other questions.
I take very seriously your correct perceptions that we often are talking to ourselves, and this presents an enormous problem for the church. We do too often speak to the faithful remnant. I am speaking with many folks across the church about how we might get past this. I, however, sense that the problem is not that we have lied to folks, or hidden the truth about history. I think it is more that we have not learned well how to read the Bible in ways that are fun, demanding, deep, challenging, and faithful. That indeed means understanding modern curiosity and thought. I hope and trust that together we are up to this challenge.

Doug said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Diane. As I said in my email to you, I can only imagine how crazy your schedule must be combining being a seminary professor with directing this project. I hope summer gives you some chance for a break from both endeavors! In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to respond.

This probably isn’t the place for a dialog on these issues. Most of what I would say would probably be a repetition of what I wrote in my other posts about BOFI. I will just add one point. I understand why you would say that historicity is not of great concern to you in understanding a text. From my experience, however, it is often of great interest to lay people less familiar with the Bible than you or me.

In my teaching, I have often experienced considerable anger and frustration directed not at me but towards previous teachers and pastors who didn’t teach such things. “Why am I hearing this for the first time?” is a question I have heard often. Whether the motivation was paternalistic or not, they feel as if they were treated like children who couldn’t be trusted with “the real story.”

As I have written elsewhere, the North Carolina Synod memorial which started all this specifically asked for guidance on the question of just what is the Bible? How do we use it to guide us as a church? Does it teach homosexuality is wrong or not? Does it matter? Should women “keep silent”? If we don’t believe that, why not? Did God promise “greater Israel” to Abraham’s descendents for eternity? How could we know?

I think BOFI sidesteps this issue. Of course it’s messy and difficult but that’s why the memorial was sent. In sidestepping the question of what the Bible is, BOFI then also sidesteps the question of why read the Bible at all. Is it good literature, like Shakespeare or Jane Austen? If it’s something more, than what and why and how? And does it matter in making that evaluation whether or not the people and events it talks about are historical?

When prominent Los Angeles Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe preached in 2001 (at Passover, no less!) that the exodus was likely not historical it certainly created more than a little consternation in Jewish circles. The ensuing debates went right to the heart of the questions of what is faith, on what is it based, where does the Bible fit into this, and how does such faith guide our lives.

Personally, I would welcome such a conversation/debate in the ELCA and frankly think it is long overdue. I think it could provide some much needed clarity on our beliefs and even our purpose and identity. My sense, however, is that there is a perception that the ELCA is in too “delicate” a condition to withstand such discussion. Avoiding it, however, will not make the question go away (as this August’s Churchwide Assembly will certainly remind us).