Sunday, December 13, 2009
Perspective on the Bible (continuing answer to Loren)
Spin doctors have a wonderfully easy lot. It's so easy to dismiss something complex with a one liner that portrays it in a too simple light. That's the real secret of the atheist criticism of the OT. they just reduce everything to the most utterly simplistic discretion, re-describe it in terms designed to denude it of anything valid and then rag on how stupid it is.There's a point to be made about O'Brian in 1984 re describing things to give them the ultimate propagandist cast. Atheist propaganda is very Orwellian that's all they do with the Bible. They try to make the evidence go away by describing it out of existence.
I can't blame them totally, because the fundies called the tune. the Fundamentalists set up the concepts of the Bible in terms totally removed from historical Christianity so that the Bible because a matter of the big man in the sky giving instruction in some sort of "owner's manual." That set's up the way atheists look at the bible and then all their criticisms center around incoherency and weather or not the Bible lives up to the task of being "perfect."
The perspective one takes to it in the first place is all important. Rather than understanding the Bible as a "memo from the boss" to the "shop floor" we should understand it as a collection of writings from different perspectives, all of them human, which contain to differing degrees the residue of contact with the divine. In other words the Bible is a collection of works that reflect divine/human encounter from the perspective of humans. The upshot of the encounter is manifest in many different ways. that's what the prophet was saying when quoted in Hebrews 1:1 it says "in many ways God spoke to our fathers through the prophets but in these last times he has spoke to us more prefectly through his son."(my paraphrase).
It's the son that is called "perfect" not the written record of the encounters. Each text is different, we have to access each one on its merits and not pretend it's indicative of the whole collection. The collection is filled with mythological accounts, and many of them seem pretty silly on face value. The Talking snake in Genesis, the sun created on the third day, and so on. Every atheist has thousands of things, most of them stupid most based upon not listening to the answers but many are valid. There are a lot silly sounding things, but that's because they are looking at it from the jaundiced perspective of a perfect memo from on high that can't have mistakes and communicates perfect knowledge.
Some of the major problems come from not understanding genre. For example the abhorrence of mythology, both fundies and atheists see this as damning because they don't know what mythology is. Its' a literary form. It uses symbols and archetypes gleaned from the psyche and it speaks to the psyche. It's a lie, it's a way to communicate truth, but not historical truth or scientific truth, rather metaphorical psychological truth. Much of the harm in misunderstanding the Bible stems from not approaching it as literature. This is one of the major reasons they can't see any value in it, because they can't see value in other great works of literature either. In another thread I was trying to hint that its like reading Shakespeare. You might be put off by outmoded language you can't understand, and you may not understand the conventions of the genre so the idea that a comedy has to end with a wedding may seem to silly if you understand about genres. This guy kept going "I'm so disappointed that you are just talking about Shakespeare" he thought I was making an argument from authority i think,, Shakespeare liked the bible and so should you.'
I was trying hint that seeing the profound nature of the bible is a lot like seeing the profound nature of Shakespeare. One might be put off from that for similar reasons. If one gets past these superficial problems then you might get down to asking "where do you find the profundity." One place is to analyze the stories as narratives rather than expecting profound aphorisms or maxims every few sentences. I urge you all to take a class on Bible as literature. If you look at it just form that perspective you can see it's fascinating. If you stop and think it's a reflection of human experience, it's universal to the way humans react and the way humans feeling and love and think and die, it becomes pretty interesting. You have to see that before you can start to see the messages.
Another disservice the fundies have done to the bible is to expect it to be historically accurate and scientifically so every time. So many times I see atheists saying "that's just something people observe and they just using human observations about life." Of course they are. They are humans, their reflecting upon their understanding of life. But it's their encounter with the divine that colors what they understand about life. It's a mistake to expect the truth it imparts to always be righ there in a "thus says the Lord" sort of message. Human ideas and human understanding is the basis for talk about the divine because we can't speak of that which transcends our understanding. Mystical experience is beyond words and images. In order to talk about it we have to load it into cultural constructs. that means it has to be filtered through human understanding. We couldn't talk about it otherwise. Suppose God just dumped a huge pile of extremely sophisticated mathematical equations on the Biblical redactors and authors. What good would that do anyone? It has to be filtered through the culture to understand it. That means it's going to relational to metaphors based upon our cultural understanding.
The truth of God is beyond our ability to comprehend or to describe. We can only get at it through our experience of God. The human perspective through which divine encounters are filleted is just enough to get an understanding of how to appraoch God so that we can begin our own relationship. It's not about words on paper it's about actual experiencing the presence of God ourselves. That's why the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah in speaking Jesus as the relation of God, and the immediately quotes Jeremiah about the new covenant where he says "I will write my laws on their hearts and they will all know me." It's not about the words on paper it's about using them as stepping stones to move into relation with the divine.
The skeptic is often taken with the primitive nature of Biblical narrative, with the talking snakes and talking Donkey, and the universal flood, that they fail to notice the evolutionary progression form the perspective of a primitive desert people and their tribal God who owns the cattle on a hill, which evolves into a universal moral philosophy that lunched Western civilization after the dark ages (for more see my essay on Christianity and Western civ)
The atheist makes the assumption that if it's perfect there would be the perfect perspective from the get go, seeing the primitive perspective spend so much time gloating on their powers of observation it never occurs to them to take a step back and consider the evolutionary perceptive as part of the divine plan.
When atheists ask questions of me on this point they always do so from the perspective of the perfect memo by the big man upstairs rather than considering the literary aspects. So they ask things like "which books" "how do you kow which parts are inspired and which aren't." All of those kinds of questions are reasonable but they stem form the assumption of the memo from the boss and the model of inerrant rather than viewing the whole as a literary employment of inspiration. It's not like all the inspired stuff is going to be in one section. Obviously it's mixed into the perspective. That doesn't get in the way because it's not about a list of rules or words on paper it's about finding the understanding through exposure to other people's divine encounters so that one can have his/her own encounters with the divine. The phrase I have used to describe this is "bestowing grace upon the reader."
The bottom line of it is this: the OT is there to create a framework in which the NT makes sense. The OT is the literary and cultural artifact of a people who serve as the miliue for the Messiah of Jesus as redeemer. Ot is not as important. Sorry if that doesn't play well for those form whom it is a cultural artifact but that's the way I see it. The NT is a record of the witness of a community to the prefect revelation of God to humanity; ie Jesus. The NT is not an owner's manual or a memo form the boss it's a record of those who were either in direct contact with the prefect revelation or became so accounted through their experiences of God. Thus it's a theological message based upon experiences of the divine. The actual revelation is Jesus himself and the literary works are just records of encounters between certain people and the revelation.
the truth of these literary works can ony be judged by their effects upon the lives of the readers. Those who read them merely to bad mouth of cousre will find nothing of value. Just as reading Shakespeare just to laugh at the way they talk will produced nothing but sophomoric humor. The testimony of millions tells us it works, grace is bestowed upon the reader when readers is honestly seeking, and that's the only standard of appraisal that matters as a test of truth.