by Browne Barr
Dr. Barr, a Century editor-at-large, is dean emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary. He lives in Calistoga, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 11, 1979, p. 403. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
No one who has been hindered from participating in the joy and fulfillment of sexual union by a constricting view of sexuality handed down in the name of religion will object to the work of those who have liberated sex.
So also with the Bible.. But in both cases a further step is in order because such liberation as an end in itself is a dead-end street. Many sexually liberated persons have come to that dead end in their sexual relationships. Many thoughtful Christians have come to that dead end in their relationship with the Bible. This article offers a word for them. The four guidelines it proposes to get them moving again may serve as a springboard boosting them forward into the Bible as a Book of Faith.
The Demystification of Scripture
Sexual liberation has brought many to a view of sex that causes them to snort in disgust when others claim that the old definition of a sacrament (in the religious realm) is also a fitting definition of sexual intercourse (in the personal realm): “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. They view sex as an outward and visible matter and nothing more, thus demystifying it.
When Walter Wink asserts (in The Bible in Human Transformation: Toward a New Paradigm for Biblical Study [Fortress, 1973]) that historical criticism of the Scripture has demystified the Bible much as Kinsey demystified sex, he is helping us to understand how the objective scientific approach to experience, sexual or biblical, is not the whole story and alone may be destructive of the essence! Wink prefaces his treatise with Nietzsche’s observation that “It is terrible to die of thirst in the ocean. Do you have to salt your truth so heavily that it does not quench your thirst any more?” Precisely! Recent scholarly work on both the Bible and sex has been heavily salted with the scientific method and a presumed value-neutral stance. In both instances this “salting” has been costly, depriving us of the beauty and mystery of both the Bible and sex. We have been robbed of the Bible’s power to bring us into touch with Someone beyond it and us.
Such disastrous demystification has been one of the unforeseen spin-offs of much liberated technical-historic biblical scholarship. We do not, of course, want to return to a “know-nothing” attitude about the Scripture which boasts that faith requires nothing more than the literal meaning of the words. I am told that the Chinese language has no character for the word “literal,” but that the one used means “on the surface.” We cannot be content with the surface of the Bible. Scholarly work can help us to delve more deeply. We do not want to lose the benefits of that liberation which modern scholarship has wrought. Indeed, many scholars who are themselves persons of faith are leading the way to turn us back from historical criticism as an end in itself. The guidelines to be suggested in these pages arise from the help provided by critical study of the Bible.
Private Piety and Public Religion
However, there is another peril in talk like this. Not only does it sound as though we should do away with scholarly research of the Scripture; worse, it gives aid and comfort to those who would have us believe that the Bible as the Book of Faith is solely a matter of private piety and individual concern. Such talk can appear to promote private or personal religion as opposed to public or social religion -- another way to turn our use of the Scripture into a dead-end street.
That same peril has accompanied the modern effort to liberate us sexually. We have wanted to help people experience the intensely inward and private aspect of sexuality. But individuals who make private happiness and personal fulfillment the primary standard for judging a marriage or other sexual arrangements have turned away from profound public and social dimensions. We are learning that sexual practices are not a private domain and that “living together” is more than a personal arrangement: it is a social contract. The church asks that the marriage vow be made in public as a witness, a public commitment. Sexual expression between consenting adults is often viewed as purely personal. But sexual permissiveness has public consequences. It may also reinforce other permissive attitudes that can have catastrophic public political implications.
Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, writes in a Time essay (May 8, 1978):
Transposing the liberation of the psyche to the social level, we have killed our neuroses and now live in. a permissive world. But permissiveness turns out to be very naïve, and the world today is in danger of being taken over by the naïve. Many newly liberated people are astonished at how easy it is to rule or be, ruled: all that is needed is a single party and a brutal police force: But rule was, never meant to be easy.
People of the Western world who have read the Bible as a Book of Faith have given us a vision of a public order based on personal discipline that does not require weapons checks at every airport, a vision of a corporate freedom unmarked by holocausts and terrorism. Such freedom is disciplined by the Bible’s realism about human nature. That realism understands, the necessity of appropriate outward restraint and inner control. But when the inner control is abandoned, then the outward restraints grow out of proportion and take over public life; dictators are welcomed, and the Bible is once again considered subversive literature. Like unhappy children, we need and yearn for ultimate authority. It is better found in the Scripture than in the state. But biblical literalism provides authority in a manner insulting to our intelligence and distressing to our humanity. To read the Bible as a Book of Faith is to discover in it the true biblical authority of truth and meaning. So now we return, to the original question How can we so read it?
I am grateful to a trusted colleague of more than, a dozen years who would scrutinize my sermons and then look imperiously over her typewriter at me and demand: “But how do you do it? Give us some “how to’s.”, Here, then, are four “how to’s”: one, Hang loose; two, Hang in there; three, Hang together; and four -- well, that one is a surprise. We will come to it in due season.
Freed From Literalism
First, then, Hang loose! Be relaxed about all the limited human ways in which the Faith Story is conceptualized in various times and cultures. We don’t have to believe impossible things just because they are in the Bible; after all, the Bible presents a flat earth in a three-story universe. If I must accept that world view to respond to the claim laid upon me by the Savior of the world, then I cannot respond.
I believe in the spiritual reality of the Ascension. However, if I must believe that Jesus’ body floated through the sky like some Palestinian Mary Poppins in order to believe that he lives in the bosom of the Father, then my faith is badly shaken. The biblical texts’ expressions or symbols that are part of a world view foreign to us have been the bars of the prison where the spirit has struggled for freedom in this ancient literature. Countless modern Christians are already largely liberated from that prison of literalism -- freed, however, only to enter another prison; namely, the belief that through historical criticism and objective scholarship we can discover, in Luther’s words, the “single, simple, solid intent and stable meaning” of Scripture, the author’s original intent.
This, too, is a kind of literal-mindedness, one that hampers the free movement of the Spirit working in and through these ancient words. How much freer is the view of Augustine: “What more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses
If we cannot “hang loose” in regard to these “period pieces” in the Bible, these human conceptualizations, the church may lose those who cannot be content with a world view that regards women as innately inferior to men. The God of all being who encounters us in Scripture will manage to get to us through that and every other barrier of human conceptualization -- even as God gets through the pre-scientific world view -- only as we hang loose about them and are able to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Hanging loose, however, can result in “reductionism” whereby we reduce our encounter with the Bible to terms agreeable to us. We need some sound way to make these judgments, rather than relying simply on what is pleasing to us in our limited time and place. When Augustine spoke of the fruitful provision God made for the same words to “be understood in several senses,” he went on to say, “all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testi
mony of other passages equally divine.” He is proposing that the Scripture itself holds within it a basis for the appropriate evaluation of the various meanings any one passage might present. Scripture, like the church itself, contains the principles by which it is to be judged. “There are many Christians,” John Herbert Otwell has written,
who have turned to . . . modern art for their description of truth. . . . Those who prefer Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. to the book of Job represent this faction for us, since Mr. MacLeish removed God from the center of the book of ‘Job when he rewrote it to make it a description of the human, situation [I Will Be Your God (Abingdon, 1967), p. 207].
It is that center which we need to identify so that we can hang loose about the rest, What God is it who is central and who provides the plumb line so that as we’ hang loose we do not inadvertently let go?
Here “doubting” Thomas, that maligned disciple, is our guide. Not having been with the other disciples when the resurrected Christ appeared to them, he heard their testimony but resisted: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” What a service he rendered in demanding as absolute continuity between the historic Jesus and the Risen Christ. Unless the Spirit one has encountered matches Jesus at the point of his absolute self-giving, at the point of that love which suffers long and is kind, at the point of that love which for the joy that is set before it takes up the cross, then one has not been encountered by the God of Jesus Christ.
Telling the Story in Word and Deed
So hanging loose is only introductory, a warm-up discipline to limber us up to be open to the central core of the Bible. When we discover that or are discovered by it, then we must engage this second guideline in reading the Bible as the Book of Faith; namely, Hang in there!
There is a central, abiding, incontrovertible Story in the Bible, a melody that will not be silenced despite many poor notes, bad notes, wrong notes, hesitations and repeats sounded by the human musicians. This core of faith-tradition must not be surrendered. The obedient church is not the church defending any theory of Scripture or explaining away its contradictions or pressing its human limitations as divine mysteries; rather, it is the one telling the Story in word and deed.
The center of this story and of all stories is Jesus, the Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who has in his hands the print of those nails which go through to the hands and heart of God. What think ye of Christ? What is your Christology? That is the question, and it informs the way one reads the Bible -- as a Book of Faith, as a secular book or not at all. But the reading also informs the faith. For example, some of the most exciting new writing about the nature of Christ has been done by Hans Frei in The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology (Fortress, 1975). He applies a model of personal identity to New Testament narratives about Jesus. The result is to see how Jesus is most himself in the Passion narratives. Before that, Jesus’ identity is understood in terms of the hopes and history of Israel. “Are you the Messiah or should we look for another?”
But in the Passion narratives, where he is most himself, there is a dramatic switch and Jesus then “identifies the titles rather than they him” (Theology Today. April 1978, p. 60).
See how this model fits with Herman Waetjen’s Origin and Destiny of Humanness (Omega, 1976), a fascinating work on Matthew’s Gospel. In Matthew’s account, unlike those of Mark and Luke, we encounter two donkeys for Jesus to ride in the Palm Sunday parade -- a procession which is re-enacted annually in our liturgy. But what are we to do with the two donkeys? The literalist must somehow get Jesus on both of them. The liberal, on the other hand, has long since dismissed them as one of many textual distortions. Some monk made a mistake in copying. Or Matthew was trying to remind people of their history.
But Waetjen says No: words have more than one meaning. When we say that someone wears two hats, we do not mean it literally but are describing something important about the functions that person serves. So here are two beasts of burden -- one a coronation beast, the donkey; the other the “son of a pack animal,” a colt. The first is a symbol of “messiahship”; the other suggests “the Servant of the Lord.” Here, Waetjen sees, as Hans Frei does in his work on Christology, that there is a change at the beginning of the Passion. At that turn in his life Jesus no longer takes his identity from the history of Israel. Now he is no longer a nationalistic savior but the universal Savior; forsaking the coronation beast, he rides the pack animal and becomes the suffering servant of the whole creation.
All of this is only a sketchy illustration of the trembling life breaking out of the Scripture when we hang in there on the central Story and the primary issue. When we press at this living core of the written word, we discover that it is not the dead letter of the ancient past; it breaks out to bring us to our feet -- or to our knees. Some years ago I heard a Scot discussing the decline of the stir over Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing” of Scripture. “We are called,”, he said, “to be listeners of the word. The outcome is that what is demythologized is not so much the text as ourselves.” When the Bible is alive, it strips us of our deceptive and comfortable myths -- myths not about God but about ourselves.
Conversation in Community
So we must first of all hang loose about the human ways in which the Bible’s Story is conceptualized; having done that, we are prepared to hang in there with the central theme, the biblical melody of creation and redemption. But now mark this third: Hang together.
The Bible is a community book, and it yields up its treasure only when it is shared. It is basically “oral” and asks to be read “in community.” The church comes into being wherever two or more persons gather in Christ’s name. To gather in his name is to be open to him. The Christ event -- Jesus’ birth, teaching, healing, praying, suffering, dying, rising again and the descent of the Holy Spirit -- this Event and all that led up to it and “all that has followed from it are what the gathered community talks about, in all its liturgy and all its life, if it is Christ’s church.
The heart and core of all that talk are the heart and core of the Bible, Jesus Christ. “Bible conversation,” if you will, is the church’s talk, and lies behind all its liturgy and its action. When the church ceases this conversation, it makes itself increasingly vulnerable to being cut off from the Spirit of him in whose name it has gathered. This conversation and its consequences are the faith community’s business.
It is often said, and rightly so, that the world sets the church’s agenda. Yes, indeed, for it is the world -- especially that hurting, suffering, vulnerable part of it -- for which Christ received the nails in his hands. But Paul Hoon suggests we not forget that “it is God who, in the Event of Jesus Christ, has called the meeting.”
That “meeting” in his name breaks open the Scripture as the risen Christ opened its meaning to the disciples blinded by fear and disappointment on the road to Emmaus. “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The fruitfulness of such meeting comes not because two or three heads are better than one numerically but because the interaction between persons is creative of the new. The conversation is itself recreative of Christ himself when it is held in his name. “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name . . . will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you . . . . Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:26).
So let the preaching of the church. be not the responsibility of one person, but let that one conduct the conversation about Christ so as to bring to bear the witness of the generations in order that we may see and hear Christ, our eternal contemporary, re-enacted in the miracle of sign and symbol, word and sacrament, our mutual life in his love. Only so can we protect ourselves from dead-end biblical head trips and be addressed in the whole person by the Word.
When contemporary Christians gather to read the Bible together and seek to be addressed by more than the surface meaning of the words, they need to leave much time for mutual reflection, sharing and prayer. This exciting process can be accelerated for English-speaking congregations if they read together from several different translations.
To Expand Our Understanding
“Working from a single English translation,” writes Lamar Williamson, Jr. (“Translations and Interpretation: New Testament,” Interpretation, April 1978), “is like listening to a high-quality stereophonic recording on a single-track instrument. The melody comes through all right, but its quality is limited by the capacity of the machine.” He suggests reading from three translations. One of them should be based on “formal correspondence” to the original text and two on “dynamic equivalence.” Most recent translations are of the latter kind. The first retains the ambivalence of the source; the second seeks to use the word which conveys the meaning the translator believes the original writer most likely intended.
The comparison of translations can be done easily by anyone who can read at all. It should be done not in order to decide which is “correct” but, according to Williamson, “to expand [one’s] understanding of the text, to hear its several nuances. . . . Listening to several translations at once . . . enables the interpreter to hear far more of the richness of the original stereophonic recording.” The depth and height of the text are immeasurably expanded, and we discover that it may address depths and heights in us we did not suspect. The Bible then is enabled to become for us far more than an ancient document. It strangely and wonderfully addresses the whole person and more.
In a recent preaching class one of my students -- a Lutheran -- stood up to read the lesson before the other class members (all of whom happened to be United Church, Presbyterian and Methodist). As he stood looking at us imploringly, silently, we wondered at the hesitation. Then he motioned for us to rise and said: “In our church we stand for the reading of the Gospel.” As we stood there, I thought how this was more than a gesture of deference to the Holy Scripture. The body as well as the mind was asked to be attentive; every part of us was asked to submit to the discipline of the reading.
However, if we are to hang together in our reading, every group needs a skilled interpreter of the Bible. The role of the professional minister is to help make the Scripture accessible to the people. Luther maintained that the ministry, with all its warts, was God’s gift to the church. Indeed, it provides for the church’s continuity, and for an unending conversation about the Event we call Jesus Christ. Such a definition of ministry excludes no part of it -- pastoral administrative, preaching -- but gives it unity and coherence. Toward that end, I believe that our churches should once again urge as normative for ordination a working knowledge of biblical Hebrew and Greek.
Shattering Our Expectations
So there are three guidelines for reading the Bible as a Book of Faith: hang loose, hang in there, and hang together. For the fourth and last, we break the rhythm and utter a jarring phrase out of keeping with expectations: “Well, I’ll be hanged.” That outdated expression was once used to convey intense surprise. We heard unbelievable news and expressed our shock and consternation when we said, “Well, I’ll be hanged!” or “Who would have ever believed it?”
If this fourth phrase jarred you, caught you unawares, it has served its purpose and well represents the substance of this fourth guideline. If we are to read the Bible in such fashion that it can become the Word of God to us, we must not be turned from the pursuit when its message does not match our human expectations. If it is the Word of God, it is the word of God who says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Isa. 55:8).
After his wife’s death, C. S. Lewis wrote, in A Grief Observed: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence” (Seabury, 1961).
Dominic Crossan, a New Testament scholar who has done particularly “iconoclastic” work on the parables, draws our attention to the evidence that Jesus’ parables often have that reverse twist that shatters “our ways” with “his ways.” He believes that we often miss the punch line, so to speak, because we don’t understand the cultural presuppositions of those to whom Jesus spoke. Crossan cites the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan and our assumption that its purpose is to teach Jesus’ disciples to love their neighbors, even, if they are strangers, even enemies. But, he asks, “if the story really intended to encourage help to one’s neighbor in distress or even to one’s enemy in need, would it not have been much better to have a wounded Samaritan in that ditch and have, a Jew” (to whom the story was addressed) “stop to aid him”? (The Dark Interval [Argus, 1975], p. 104 f.).
In the parable the one who performs the good act is the one least expected to do so. The hearers’ expectations are turned upside down, their structure of reality is broken. To make that parable heard in Italy today would require that it be addressed to the establishment, with the role of the Samaritan given to a terrorist -- then the hearer might recognize that such an outcast is capable of compassion. To have it heard among theological students would require that the role of the Good Samaritan be taken not by a radical woman of whom risky good deeds for the injured are expected, but by a white, middle-aged male, or by the minister of an affluent congregation or, better, by his church’s wealthiest and most conservative trustee -- all of whom are supposedly resistant to doing high-risk good deeds. What a surprise! What a twist! What a shattering of our perceptions of reality!
The Word of God comes to us in surprises so we say again: “Well, I’ll be hanged. I would never have guessed it.” The surprise is offered not to make us jittery or uncomfortable, but to keep us open and expectant and prepared. “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 15:13). That watchfulness is reserved not for the final hour, which no person can miss, but for the moment of illumination which can easily be missed. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (I Cor. 2:9-10).
To be surprised to have our illusions of reality broken by the Word of God, is not to be destroyed, but to be saved. If we expect from the Bible the setting forth in clear terms of the absolute nature of reality, a final truth, then we shall be disappointed. The Word that comes is not a detailed description of a completed, final absolute. Rather it is a Living Word and it allows no such final word.
Expectations will be shattered to make room for the possibility of the experience of that mystery and for the invasion of that peace which passes all. . . understanding. The Word overflows all categories of the intellect because it is in absolute alliance with that God who in Christ shattered our one certainty, death, and has thus made possible all the eternal possibilities of him in whom is every beginning, every ending and no ending at all.