Thursday, July 02, 2009

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.


Arlie said...

Doug, AMEN to that! In my experience as a seminary student and a lay pastor, I've been disappointed again and again by the silence around these questions. It's no wonder that thinking people are so often turned off by mainline churches that cannot break open these interpretive issues and talk about them in the pulpit and the classroom. Modern believers need honest teaching and discussion about what the Bible IS and what is IS NOT. We are, in a way, doing exactly what the children of Israel were doing when the story of the Exodus was created in community: We're trying to define our identity and our status as children of God in new and unfamiliar territory. Stories are VERY POWERFUL and effective for that, but if we keep clinging to ancient literature and pretending that it is something that it is not, many hungry souls will simply never understand why church is relevant at all.

Doug said...

Thanks for your response, Arlie. I am afraid mainline churches are becoming more irrelevant by the day. The fear and anxiety of fundamentalist and conservative churches have been obvious for a long time. I (along with many others) have finally recognized that moderate Xty is just as scared, tho perhaps for different reasons. Decades ago their leaders should have seized the new understanding of the Bible and church history scholars had given them and purposefully redefined the church and its mission. Instead, because they hadn't internalized the full implications of this themselves, they timidly kept most of this under wraps and endorsed only the most obvious discoveries, e.g. the world wasn't created in 6 days, Jonah wasn't swallowed by a fish, etc.

Next month our denomination (ELCA) will finally confront the irrationality of keeping LGBT people out of ordained ministry and not recognizing their committed relationships. While this very likely will finally be changed, it will be done with little enthusiasm, especially from our denominational leadership. Why? Because their concern is not with doing what is right but with what the cost will be in church "unity" and in loss of members and congregations. This is the same mindset that has resisted being honest about the Bible and much of orthodox doctrine. That it is totally self-defeating still has not occured to most of those in authority positions. I am heartened, however, by the number of pastors and lay persons I talk to who realize the church must undergo fundamental change if it is to survive. Hopefully this awareness will work its way up the ecclesiastical ladder.

Jim said...


While sitting in the Toyota dealership waiting for my car to be repaired, I'm finally getting around to checking out your blog - something I've intended to do for quite a while now. I've read a couple of your posts and I enjoy your writing.

This post reflects what I've been thinking for a long time about religion and what makes if difficult for me to consider joining a church again. The more I actually read and learned about the bible, the more I realized I didn't believe in a literal interpretation. I saw the books of the bible as works of fiction with many valuable lessons imbedded. This always seemed in direct contrast to what we are 'supposed' to believe according to traditional religion. I wondered if it wouldn't be hypocritical attending a church when I didn't believe in the virgin birth, literal resurrection, etc. (not to mention the Old Testament). My response was to walk away from the church.
On the other hand, I had seen religion as a way of building community and I think it has the potential to improve society. I was fortunate to grow up attending a church in which people looked out for one another; it was like an extended family (think Clinton's 'It Takes a Village'). Most of my parents' friends came from the church and those friends were there when my parents fell ill. In Oak Park I joined a church that did a lot of outreach, including work with Chicago House. I believe religion can be a good thing (when it's not being used as a political tool) and I do hope the movement to rethink Biblical interpretation, as you describe, gains momentum.
My Wednesday night men's group discussed how to deal with religious zealots in light of the referendum on same-sex marriage we are facing this fall. Many guys shared stories of their Catholic upbringings and how difficult it was to be gay under those circumstances. Listening to that, I have to agree that the mainline churches really need to engage in the questions you bring up if they are to survive.
I could go on and on, but I'll spare you. Good luck with your work and, hopefully, I'll be inspired to consider joining a church once again.

Doug said...

Thanks for posting Jim. I am sure your experience is not unlike that of millions of others. I do believe Christianity and religion generally will continue but just how is still very much up in the air. We are in a time when many institutions are being forced to reinvent themselves. I don't think we will know the outcome for some time.