Sunday, July 26, 2009


I'm taking a bit of a break while I'm on vacation in Santa Fe, NM. I'll have a new post by the end of the week.

Friday, July 17, 2009

But will it preach?

Walter Brueggemann is certainly one of the most well known biblical interpreters and preachers in mainline Protestant circles. In this short video, however, he appears positively tongue-tied as he tries to explain the place of historical criticism in preaching. (Hat tip to Bob Cornwall for causing me to find this.)

Brueggemann acknowledges the now universally recognized obstacle that historical criticism has become to preaching and the church’s overall task of spreading the gospel. His proposal here that we somehow put historical criticism on a shelf to be admired but essentially ignored is, of course, nonsense. His stumbling hesitancy would seem to indicate he knows this himself.

The problem, he says, is that historical criticism “flattens” the text. But why would that be when essentially the same methodology is applied to other literature, like Homer or Shakespeare, with no ill effects? The reason, of course, is that such other literature does not claim to be “God’s word” or holy scripture.

What Brueggemann won’t acknowledge here is that historical criticism by definition grants no special privilege to any writing it analyzes. He does say that it “deconstructs the text” but doesn’t elaborate. This, however, is the crux of the problem for its use in the church. By accepting the legitimacy of historical criticism as a means of understanding the Bible, mainline churches and their colleges and seminaries have accepted its verdict that the Bible is simply one piece of ancient religious literature among many others. It can be evaluated as better than those others, or even as the best among them, but it can’t be evaluated as “true” or as speaking God’s truth.

More than flattening the text what historical criticism does is to bring the whole Bible down to earth. It is revealed to be the work of human beings, living in a certain time and a certain place, who inevitably wrote with all the limitations of any historical authors—limitations which the church heretofore had ignored or denied. And for ancient writers those limitations are pretty severe as far as contemporary readers are concerned.

Take for example the texts used most often in Christian preaching, the gospels. A preacher familiar with historical criticism is stopped immediately by a basic question: What am I looking at? That is, what kind of literature is this particular text?

While the gospels’ primary interest is in Jesus, of course, there are varying degrees of doubt as to what any particular text tells us about a historical Jesus. Did he say or do this? Did he tell this story, perform this act, or was this done to him? Historical criticism casts shades of factual doubt on virtually every text a preacher encounters. What is the "real Jesus" and when are we encountering what was said or imagined about him by the early church, the gospel writer, local folklore, legend, or mythology?

Thus most preachers are forced to hesitate doing what they most want to do, which is to announce with confidence, Jesus said or did thus and so. The texts are not necessarily flattened. Rather, viewed through the lens of historical criticism, stories remain just as fascinating, intriguing, meaningful or profound as before, so long as they are treated as stories. It becomes impossible, however, to treat them as newspaper accounts, if you will, of events that happened. It’s impossible, that is, if you want to speak with honesty and sincerity.

Brueggemann begins by talking about the need to declare the gospel to be “true.” Again, he gives no further explanation of this, but this is a huge can of worms. He may be nodding at what has in fact become mainline churches’ biggest conundrum: deciding what is the gospel today and whether we ourselves actually believe it.

What’s fascinating about this short video is how Brueggemann is able to skip along the surface of the contemporary church’s most profound problems without really diving into any of them. This, I think, is exactly why mainline churches are in the mess they are in today. Having gone down the road of historical criticism and modern thinking generally, it’s simply impossible for us to view our tradition the same way our forbears did. At some fundamental level, however, we still want to. But now we know too much—we can’t go back.

So, like Brueggemann, mainline Christianity pretends that its message and mission are basically unchanged, when in fact everything now is different. We are in a new time and a new world. Not only have our sacred texts been deconstructed but inevitably so too have the God and Christ that they speak of.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

We're here (Sunday Reflections for July 19, 2009)

"And God made great whales" Genesis 1:21

For well over a century humans have speculated about the presence of other intelligent life in the universe. Our fantasies have included little green men from Mars and H G Wells’ fearsome creatures in War of the Worlds; Hollywood’s cute and stranded E.T. and the benign and lonely beings reaching out to make Contact; and many others.

We have also speculated about who would contact who first. Perhaps not unreasonably, many assume there ought to be civilizations somewhere that are more advanced than ours. As a result we are on the lookout for UFOs and, with somewhat more sophistication, for radio signals with the SETI program. Others have speculated, however, that extra-terrestrial probes would likely be small, remote controlled, and possibly “cloaked” to observe us without interfering in our own cultural development. Thus, we might never know we are being watched.

The assumption is always that intelligence means, in some way, “like us.” Such creatures may or may not look like us but they would think like us. What if, however, there were other intelligent creatures whose thinking was very different from ours? And what if such creatures existed not in outer space but right here on our own planet Earth?

Almost by definition it’s difficult for us imagine a different kind of intelligence. What does it even mean? Would such thinking really be “intelligence”? Animal researchers having been dealing with these questions for quite awhile and to the latter question they would answer unequivocally “Yes.” Animals are intelligent though in ways different than us. The question that is increasingly intriguing them is whether the intelligence of large-brained animals in some way approximates or even equals ours.

cover story of the July 12 Sunday New York Times Magazine tells of a community of intelligent creatures living on our planet yet in a different world, if you will: whales. Unlike humans, there are multiple whale species. This article tells of researchers’ fascination with the gray whales which frequent the warm lagoons of the Baja peninsula’s western shore.

Hunted to extinction in the Atlantic and nearly so in the western Pacific, these eastern Pacific gray whales also nearly disappeared but have staged a dramatic comeback in recent years. Now numbering an estimated 18,000, they are the first marine mammal to be removed from the US endangered species list. Nonetheless it was not that long ago that these same Mexican waters, where the gray whales come to give birth, literally ran red with their blood from an unbridled slaughter.

Recent studies have revealed whales to be perhaps the most remarkable animals with which we share the planet.

“Whales, we now know, teach and learn. They scheme. They cooperate, and they grieve. They recognize themselves and their friends. They know and fight back against their enemies. And perhaps most stunningly, given all of our transgressions against them, they may even, in certain circumstances, have learned to trust us again.”

At this point, however, deep and troubling questions begin to arise. The article’s writer, Charles Siebert, says, “Somehow the more we learn about whales, the more we’re coming to appreciate the sublimely discomfiting reality that a kind of parallel “us” has long been out there roaming the oceans' depths, succumbing to our assaults,” assaults that are still ongoing.

“Whaling” (the innocent sounding term for killing whales for their oil and other body parts) is much reduced from the past but still continuing. Whales are probably more seriously impacted by human pollution of the oceans, including and especially noise pollution.

It has now been demonstrated that the use of sonar and other underwater sound-making devices can seriously harm and even kill whales. Beached whales have been found to have bleeding in their ears and brains. In addition, dead whales have recently been found to have all the symptoms of “the bends,” the condition experienced by deep sea divers who surface too quickly. The picture is now clear and gruesome: tortured by the literally ear-piercing sonar blasts, whales frantically rush to the surface to escape them and then die from their too-rapid ascent.

Humanity’s history of relations with the other creatures of this planet has certainly been mixed. In modern times it has often been horrendous. One of the lowest points was surely the near extinction of the Great Plains buffalo. Animals were slaughtered by the thousands, shot for sport by men from horseback and even train car windows. Most carcasses were then left to rot in the sun, a waste that left the observing “savage” Indians incredulous and horrified.

There has been growing sensitivity to the treatment and killing of “dumb animals.” Now we are facing the realization that some of the animals we are abusing aren’t so dumb after all. Whale intelligence may well approach our own, its differences due primarily to the very different environment in which they live. Are they self-conscious? It would be hard to dismiss such a notion out-of-hand. Do they then have rights and do we then have responsibilities toward them? Again, it is becoming increasingly difficult to brush such notions aside.

In reference to extra-terrestrial intelligence, a variety of scientists, philosophers and even theologians have speculated what it would mean to discover that we are not alone. Why speculate? In reality, we have never been alone. We have always shared this planet with an incredible diversity of life. We are gradually abandoning the conceit of our presumed species independence and recognizing that we survive only as part of a complex ecosystem. We have become aware of how our unconstrained development and waste is endangering our own livelihood and even survival, stressing and even eliminating countless plant and animal species.

And now, added to this, is the awareness that someone else may also be aware of us. The most moving and unsettling experience reported by those interacting with whales is that of being watched. It has been said that eyes are windows to the soul. Being watched by a whale’s large eyes leave many feeling that they have seen, and been seen by, another soul.

Why are whales seeking out human interaction? What are they trying tell us? Perhaps at this point it’s nothing more complex than, “We’re here.” That alone, however, could take quite some getting used to. Fully appreciating it could also be one of the best things to happen to us.

Monday, July 13, 2009


A fun and creative rendition of one of my favorite songs, by Perpetuum Jazzile from Slovenia. Crank it up at the start to hear the "rain." (Hat tip to John Shuck.)

Economic recovery: Not V or U but X

Robert Reich, Sec of Labor under Bill Clinton, has spoken often and wisely about our current economic predicament. In particular, he has tried to express a viewpoint that is more concerned with average consumers and less with banking and politics. In this blog post, Reich says the economy we had won't and can't recover because it was unsustainable. That's why we are in the mess we're in.
"My prediction, then? Not a V, not a U. But an X. This economy can't get back on track because the track we were on for years -- featuring flat or declining median wages, mounting consumer debt, and widening insecurity, not to mention increasing carbon in the atmosphere -- simply cannot be sustained."

Friday, July 10, 2009

It's all in your head (Sunday Reflections for July 12, 2009)

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one was there to hear it, did it make any sound?” We’ve all heard this teaser question—how would you answer it? According to a new book, Biocentrism,the answer is clear and unambiguous: there was no sound. Why not? Because sound only happens in our heads. And that’s because, says author and medical doctor Robert Lanza (assisted by astronomer and popular science writer Bob Berman), all of our experience of the universe is only in our heads.

I was a philosophy major in college and have always appreciated people who made me look at the world around me, and at myself, in a different way. Biocentrism certain does that. The book’s subtitle gives a clue to what it’s about: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe.

Robert Lanza is not some kind of New Age quack. He is, in fact, a very accomplished scientist. A Fulbright Scholar, Lanza was on the team that cloned the first human embryo, among a long list of achievements, awards, papers, and books.

What is consciousness? It’s our awareness of our self and of the world. But how does it happen? Where is it? Those have been much more difficult questions to answer, though humans have been trying to figure them out since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. We know consciousness is in the brain (isn’t it?) and we know quite a bit now about how the brain works. Just where exactly in the brain consciousness happens, and how the brain does it, are still mysteries, however.

For Lanza, this isn’t just a medical or physiological curiosity. Rather, it’s where it’s all at—literally. And affirmation of that judgment has come from—of all places—the realms of physics and astronomy. Einstein’s theory of relativity was the first to demonstrate that human perception affects our experience of the universe. Time, for example, moves at different rates for objects moving at different speeds.

Then came quantum mechanics, which has shown that human perception actually determines at least some aspects of the universe. Moreover, perception is even required to make some parts of the universe “happen.” This is one aspect of the famous Heisenberg “uncertainty principle” which says that the location or momentum of a subatomic particle is not determined until it is observed.

For biocentrism, the strangeness of these discoveries is the result of the fact that our experience of the universe happens only in our head. The universe happens in our consciousness. Sound, for example, is purely a biochemical process in our brains. That’s why that unobserved tree fell in silence. Sound isn’t “out there” for our ears to grab. Rather our ears collect vibrations which are transmitted to our brains and where they are then interpreted as sound. No ears, no brains, no sound.

Consider this question: What color is that daisy in your garden? White with a yellow center? What about at dusk? What about at midnight? What about at night under the garish light of the amber street light in my alley? All of these experiences of that daisy are just as real as when we see it in broad daylight. It’s only by convention that we agree that only under that condition do we see its “true” colors. In fact, the colors of that daisy are only happening in our brains and will vary with conditions and with the observer (as when someone is color blind). No experience is any less real than another.

Or how about a rainbow? We’ve all seen them. Have you ever found one? Where is a rainbow? You know the answer by now: it’s (only) in your head. Yet it’s not a “figment of your imagination.” Someone standing next to you would also see it. But find someone outdoors at the same time even just a few blocks away and they may not have seen it. That’s because seeing a rainbow is a function of an observer’s angle to the rain drops and the light passing through them. In fact, everyone looking at a rainbow actually sees it slightly differently because their angle is different. The rainbow in your head is not the same as the rainbow in mine.

What value is biocentrism? For one thing, Lanza says, it helps steer us away from false questions and fruitless pursuits. He thinks much of physics’ search for a “grand unified theory” (GUT for short) falls into this category. But consider this simpler example. With astronomers able to tell us with some precision the size of the universe we inevitably wonder, “What’s beyond the universe? What’s the universe inside of?”

From the perspective of biocentrism this is a meaningless question. “The Universe” is a model we use to make sense of our conscious experience, which we then make the mistake of imagining as a “thing out there.” The universe’s “out-thereness” is only a convention which enables us to interact with it and with one another. Our sensation of the universe, however, is only in our head.

Is your “head” spinning yet? This is what it means to experience a genuinely new idea, especially one that runs counter to what everyone “knows” to be true. I think we are in a time when we are getting bombarded with a lot of new ideas. They can make us giddy and give us a headache. It’s understandable that our immediate reaction is to say “Nonsense!” and go on with our lives. It’s why times of transition like we are in now often feel so unsettled and even threatening. While they may not be particularly fun times to live in they often result in dramatic advancements over time in the quality of life. The Reformation and Renaissance are well known examples. So, for that matter was the rise of Christianity.

Is biocentrism “the next big thing” to alter human life and the way we see the world? Perhaps, but it’s way too early to tell. I actually think Lanza may be onto something important here. He also has some interesting spiritual speculations at the end of his book. To me biocentrism seems to be a strong affirmation of the incredible value of human beings, both individually and as a species. And it gives a whole new dimension to Jesus’ statement that “the kingdom of God is within you.” In any case, biocentrism will be something to pay attention to, even as we continue on with our everyday lives in the world (we think is) “out there.”

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

"Invest" in a house? Not so much

“Your house is your biggest and best investment.”

In how many ways and from how many sources have we heard this bit of commonly accepted wisdom? The collapse of the real estate bubble is, of course, the universally acknowledged source of our current economic downturn. Everyone now agrees that in many, if not most, markets house prices had increased at unsustainable rates. Bottom line: all at once it was recognized that real estate prices were too high and had to come back down—in some places, way down.

Okay, so things got out of hand and it’s going to take awhile for prices to readjust to realistic levels. A lot of people are going to lose money and/or their houses, but a lot of those were houses people really couldn’t afford anyway. But, conventional wisdom says, “Your house is still your biggest and best investment.” Isn’t it?

A recent post and resulting conversation at
Economist’s View makes clear this “conventional wisdom” isn’t nearly so simple or obvious, and may be just plain wrong. The post is a look at causes of the housing bubble, especially the question of whether easy credit (and the financial chicanery that created it) was the primary culprit. Read the post and the comments yourself for that debate (the whole thing is very informative).

What jumped out at me, however, was the assertion that something that has become a staple of popular financial wisdom is likely wrong: houses, even over the long haul, do not increase in value. “[T]he belief that real housing prices rise over time is false, the evidence suggests that real housing prices are relatively flat over the long-run.” The piece looks at and shoots down several of the reasons people believe real estate will inevitably increase in value. It also recognizes that in such a large and complex market there are exceptions, but at the national lever these are balanced by exceptions in the other direction.

In any case, the assumpton that you can buy a house at a reasonable price and in a good location, live in it for twenty years, and come out money ahead, it would seem, is simply wrong. Much more likely is that you will break even. Am I wrong that this directly contradicts the beliefs of the typical American consumer?

In other words, don’t think of your house as an investment. Perhaps you can think of it as an enforced savings plan. Best of all, however, is probably just to think of it as a (nice) place to live. This is not a message you are likely to hear on HGTV, from a mortgage loan officer, or from a real estate agent. But as the mess on Wall Street and Main Street continues to spread we should all be relearning this basic truth: when someone is trying to sell us something always ask, whose interest do they most have in mind?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

"Biocentrism": The universe is in your mind

“Custom has told us that what we see is ‘out there,’ outside ourselves, and such a viewpoint is fine and necessary in terms of language and utility, as in ‘Please pass the butter that’s over there.’ But make no mistake: the visual image of that butter, that is, the butter itself, actually exists only inside your brain. That is its location.” (Robert Lanza in Biocentrism)

“The kingdom of God is within you” (Jesus)

“It’s all in your head” (anonymous)

I've just finished reading Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe and there is still a lot I need to process. (MSNBC has a
good summary piece by the author that introduces the ideas in the book.) The comments I have read on various sites have been, not surprisingly, mostly negative. Personally I do think Lanza is on to something important. Reading the many criticisms of his ideas, however, makes me aware that evaluating biocentrism is going to be difficult because what Lanza is proposing is a paradigm shift. By definition, a new paradigm always appears to be nonsense from within the established paradigm. A proposal to change from one paradigm to another is very different than a proposal to replace one idea with another within a paradigm. Most of biocentrism's critics, it seems to me, are treating it as if it's the latter rather than the former.

It's been a long time since I read Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions but this is, I think, one of its most profound insights. For example, from the Ptolemaic perspective Copernicus and Galileo were crazy. Their establishment critics and persecutors were not unreasonable. What Copernicus and Galileo were proposing, however, was a change in reason. As Kuhn shows, the shift from one paradigm to another is inevitably messy and chaotic. In the end, a new paradigm is finally adopted for very pragmatic reasons: it works, or at least works better than its predecessor.

For this reason, I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of what Lanza is proposing. He is being critiqued from within the assumptions of the paradigm he is seeking to replace, which is understandable and even inevitable, but nonetheless very confusing. For example, traditional Christianity and modern science have debated whether God created the universe or whether it originated spontaneously in an event like the Big Bang. When Lanza says consciousness creates the universe he is not now offering a third alternative. Rather, he is proposing a model in which origins-in-time questions are meaningless.

For Lanza, the universe is created and re-created in our consciousness every time we interact with it and this is its most important moment of creation. To many/most, such an observation will seem obvious and inconsequential. Lanza's assertion is that in practice this is much more significant a truth than we are aware. Ignoring the universe in our heads, he maintains, is leading scientists and others to numerous misunderstandings and on a whole assortment of fruitless quests (e.g. for a GUI or "grand unified theory").

In the long run, biocentrism will be judged on its utility. Lanza is certainly right in identifying the many problems that exist with our current model of reality, which are more profound and consequential than probably most people realize. It will take awhile to see if biocentrism is the replacement model that both addresses these problems and opens up new avenues for exploration and problem solving. In any case, I think Lanza has opened up a path that needs to be explored.

Another area of speculation is biocentrism's spiritual and religious implications. Lanza does, in fact, deal with some of this in the last chapters. It certainly would force a re-examination of the notion of creation. Even more, it shows another way to reflect on God's "location", hence the Jesus quote at the top.

Biocentrism is not overly long or technical and is well written, including several enjoyable and even moving passages from Lanza's own life. It will certainly make you think and see things from a different perspective, which I believe is always a good thing. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The greatest stories ever told (Sunday Reflections for July 5, 2009)

One night last week I watched a documentary on the life of Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille is credited with being one of the founders of the Hollywood movie industry and was a truly great and innovative director. His movies were known for their action, color, drama, and sex.

According to people interviewed, DeMille was also a genuinely religious man—at least of a certain type. His father was a preacher who read aloud from the Bible to his family every night. As a result, the Bible’s stories and images were lodged permanently in DeMille’s imagination. It was this love of the Bible’s drama which would later inspire several of his greatest movies, including King of Kings, Samson and Delilah, and The Ten Commandments (twice).

Beyond that, however, DeMille’s own religious beliefs were amorphous. His granddaughter said that DeMille didn’t really go to church but rather that he “went into churches,” where he would sit alone and in silence. DeMille would often hold court in the studio cafeteria with the likes of Billy Graham, the local archbishop, or prominent rabbis. His even-handed treatment of Moslems in The Crusades enabled him to get permission to film the second Ten Commandments on location in Egypt. (In the movie, many of the fleeing Israelites were played by extras from the Egyptian army, who would later fight the real Israeli army the year the film was released!)

As I watched clips from DeMille’s movies, I thought of last week’s Reflections column and some of the discussions in our last book group. The scholarly understanding of the Bible has changed dramatically over the past two hundred years, and especially in the period since World War II. The difficulty has been, however, that little of this information has made its way into the consciousness of the general public. And DeMille may be partly to blame for this.

In DeMille’s 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, the ancient biblical story of Moses’ delivery of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt explodes across the screen. No picture Bible, Sunday school book or film strip could ever compete with such a retelling of this tale—nor could a simple reading of the story from the book of Exodus. While the story may have endeared itself to DeMille as a child when he heard it read at the family dining table, his nearly 4-hour, Technicolor, “cast of thousands” film version left that story in the dust.

Despite usurping (and certainly altering) the biblical version, religious people—clergy and laity alike—loved DeMille’s Ten Commandments, in part because he made it so real. Who was Moses? He was Charlton Heston! Who was Pharaoh? He was Yul Brenner! What did the “angel of death” look like? It was an eerily green, snaking cloud (who knew?) wrapping itself around its victims. What was it like to part the Red Sea and then close it again, drowning Pharaoh’s army? A huge tank built in Hollywood especially for the purpose, plus special effects photography, showed us.

Ever since, those images have lodged themselves in the minds of anyone who saw DeMille’s version of this biblical tale. DeMille and the other cinema pioneers recognized the incredible psychological and emotional power of this new medium. Humans have been story tellers for as long as anyone knew. The popularity of the novel had spread across the globe after its modern invention in the 18th century. Now moving pictures, sound, and spoken dialog were combined to bring stories to life more vividly than . . . well, more vividly than life itself. That was cinema’s appeal, its magic, and its power for deception.

Like a painting, novels and movies are images, representations of real life. Real life, of course, is mostly ordinariness and routine (a quarter of our life, at least, is spent sound asleep). Stories sift out the all the “boring stuff” and focus our attention on the intense feeling, action, planning, and consequence that most interests us. They allow us to experience and reflect on these events in the lives of others (both fictional and real) so as to make sense of, and inspire, our own lives.

Movies, however, are “real” in ways written stories are not. Novels must rely on our imagination while movies do the imagining for us. In fact, movies hijack our imagination. Can anyone imagine Rhett Butler as someone other than Clark Gable after having seen the film version of Gone with the Wind? Indeed, movies are so powerfully vivid that they usually push aside any written version of a story, where one exists. Ironically then, DeMille’s movie is now much better known than the Bible story he heard as a child. And however DeMille himself imagined Moses, for millions of people he will always act and sound like Charlton Heston.

As I wrote last week, the epic tale of the founding of Israel told in the first books of the Bible is increasingly viewed as just that: a tale and not history. There isn’t space here to explain why this is so, except to say that there is simply no evidence to support any of it and quite a bit of evidence that contradicts the Bible’s depiction of that time. As a result of the archaeological data, biblical scholars increasingly view the story of Israel’s founding as a mythological story of Israel’s origins. It was written to give Jews, living three to four centuries before Jesus, a sense of identity: their meaning, purpose, and place in the world.

DeMille once said, “Give me any two pages of the Bible and I’ll give you a picture.” He knew the Bible overflowed with human narrative and drama which could be adapted for any age. It’s widely recognized, for example, that The Ten Commandments is as much about DeMille’s Cold War politics (with enslaving Pharaoh as a stand-in for the oppressive Communist Joseph Stalin) as it is about either religion or ancient history.

By making the Bible “real”, however, movies unfortunately also freeze it in our mind: this is the way it was and must always be. Most remakes flop because they inevitably challenge impressions already in people’s minds left by their predecessors. Thus it becomes harder for us to reimagine a Bible story we have “seen” already, let alone accept that many or most of the Bible’s stories are just that: stories. If people knew only the written text of Exodus, learning that it is likely fiction wouldn’t be so surprising or hard to believe. Now, however, we’ve seen the waters part, we’ve seen Moses/Heston come down with the tablets. It must have happened.

Scholars are also recognizing that biblical stories were treated much more fluidly in the ancient world. They were often revised and retold, sometimes with dramatically different outcomes and meanings. This can be seen even in the Bible itself where similar stories are told multiple times. The gospels contain perhaps most familiar examples but the two creation stories that open Genesis is another. DeMille also had this instinct as he had no problem revising biblical tales for the sake of his pictures.

It has only been in recent years that the Bible, for some, has become frozen—Gods’ “inerrant Word.” It’s also becoming obvious that frozen equals lifeless and dead. Stories can’t stand still if they are to survive. Where DeMille saw the struggle against totalitarianism, African American slaves and their descendents saw the struggle for freedom and the hope for a Promised Land. And that, scholars tell us, is why the story was told in the first place: not to remember past events but to inspire struggle and resistance against Israel’s then Greek and later Roman oppressors. Real stories, true stories, bend and adapt. So it is today that these stories can only live and inspire us if they are allowed to float free. Anchored to “history” and to the past, all we can do is pass them by.

Getting honest about the Bible (Sunday Reflections for June 28, 2009)

(Note: this is a revised version of an earlier post.)

Recently I had an email exchange with the director of the Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI), Diane Jacobson. Jacobson, a lay person, is professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. BOFI is the ELCA’s new effort to raise biblical literacy and, as I have written previously (
here and here), I have serious doubts about its value.

I wrote Jacobson to draw her attention to the critiques I had posted on my blog about BOFI and its introductory book, Opening the Book of Faith.
Her response was very gracious and appreciative of what I had written. Some of her specific points, however, illustrate just the problems I have identified in BOFI and in our current confusion over what to do with the Bible.

my review of Opening the Book of Faith, I had criticized one of its sample studies (written by Prof. Jacobson) of the story of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15). Specifically, I criticized the study for never making clear whether in this text we are reading a report of actual events or a piece of literature, a mythological tale about Israel’s origins. I noted that virtually no non-fundamentalist scholar would say this is an eyewitness account by Moses (a tradition added long after the story was written). Further, many would say that little if any of the Exodus saga was supported by historical evidence and very likely did not occur.

In reply, Jacobson writes that she agrees that the Bible is not primarily eyewitness history—“No CNN” as she says. And I just note here that such a clear statement is nowhere to be found in this book or any BOFI materials I have seen. She goes on, however, to muddy the waters in a way typical of the current approach to the Bible in mainline churches, due primarily to our desire to have it both ways. Jacobson says that she does “accept that Israel (or some tribes of Israel) were slaves in Egypt and followed a leader named Moses.” But then she says this a little later: “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.”

What’s going on here? Jacobson says she “accepts” the basic story that Israel was enslaved in Egypt and led to freedom by Moses. Yet to my flat-out statement that there is no historical evidence for this, she replies, “Perhaps.” In effect, she’s saying: Yes, that’s true but (for whatever reason) I can’t or won’t come right out and say so. This means, of course, that this has stopped being scholarship and become something else.

I don’t mean to pick on Jacobson here because I think she is representative of the fog that has descended on biblical scholarship throughout moderate and liberal church higher education. Many such teachers have followed contemporary biblical research to a point on the road where they don’t like what they see ahead, or aren’t sure how to respond to it. So they stop, saying in effect,. “I don’t need to go the rest of the way. I like it here. It doesn’t really matter what’s on ahead.”

Consider this statement by Jacobson:
Actually, I am not at all worried about avoiding controversy over historicity. I simply 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?”

In my experience, most mainline pastors and educators are actually deathly afraid of “controversy over historicity,” and not without reason. I still remember vividly an adult education class on Genesis at my first congregation, led by a seminary Old Testament professor. That particular night ended with one of our members screaming at this poor man about his heresy in saying that the Genesis creations stories were not historical fact. He later quit our church and joined a fundamentalist “Bible church”—which of course is where he belonged.

And so, Prof. Jacobson’s first statement is simply nonsense. One of the main questions—and certainly the first question—of history is always “did it happen?” Because if something didn’t happen, then it’s not history. Her second statement is, on the other hand, certainly true but it makes a subtle sidestep away from the historicity question. Now she is talking about the value of history in helping understanding a text and, of course, this is true for any kind of literature. Knowing English history is essential for fully appreciating Shakespeare, for example. You would certainly miss a lot reading Gone with the Wind if you knew nothing about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

So is the Bible more like Shakespeare and Gone with the Wind than a history text book? The emerging consensus of biblical scholarship is simply, yes. Just as you will search in vain for Scarlett, Rhett or Tara in Georgia state historical records, or for Hamlet in Danish ones, so too has the search for Moses, Aaron or Pharaoh’s drowned army been a fruitless one. Prof. Jacobson knows this, as do other biblical scholars and writers working on the materials of BOFI and similar projects, but they won’t say so in those materials ostensibly because they are “not at all bothered or much interested in this.”

Well, I just don’t buy it. I know that a large portion of the church’s lay membership is very interested in this, and not a few are also bothered by it. Personally, I find the history questions very interesting but I am not (any longer) bothered by them. In fact, since I stopped viewing the Bible as history my interest in it has actually grown and it has become more credible. I no longer feel like the White Queen having to believe “impossible things” everyday. And this is why I believe it is so important to teach this and not avoid it, because the Bible is more useful to modern people when read non-literally, not less.

We as leaders of the church have to stop being afraid of telling people what we know to be true. By not doing so we are only creating more trouble for ourselves, not avoiding it. We are also certainly creating it for our members. For every member who reacts in horror to the notion of a biblical character or event not being historical, I have had many more ask, “Why was I never told this before?” Jacobson denies my charge that the church has been paternalistic in avoiding this topic, yet I often talk to people who feel like they have been treated like children, as if they were incapable of handling “the real story.”

I believe the Bible is the world’s greatest collection of ancient religious literature. It can’t be anything more than that, however, nor does it need to be. The church can only be relevant in this world when it is honest with itself and others that its scriptures are a product of the ancient world—a world in which we no longer live. That doesn’t make it irrelevant but it does tell us how the Bible, like all ancient literature, needs to be read and appreciated. It indicates both its value and its limitations. We accomplish nothing by pretending to turn back the clock. The church is in this world, our members are in this world, and God is in this world. All of us can handle that fact, and so can our two thousand year-old Bible.