Sermon Outline (loosely followed)
Posts Tagged ‘authority’
For my family and sexuality in the Bible class, I was asked to reflect on how I viewed biblical authority. In the spirit of laying my cards on the table and to cap the How to Read the Bible series, I thought I might post it. Sorry it’s so long. — Scott
Certainly, my current understanding of the authority of Scripture is shaped in reaction to my upbringing in a fundamentalist church. Scripture was thought to be inerrant and God-breathed. Further, the Bible was thought be a monolithic text with a clear narrative arc and consistent theological view. Most importantly, the Bible was the center of our faith. In spite of the problems I saw, I was assured and comforted that it all really made sense if I could just see how, if I could just read it with the Holy Spirit. College ended that. Not only did the factual problems I had noticed gain credibility from real scholars, but I started to see how my worldview centered on Scripture actually excluded and harmed a lot of people. In trying to find a church to attend during college, I discovered that my questions were unwelcome. I gave up on the whole thing – not just church, but Christianity as a whole. The journey back lasted twenty years and travelled through the writing of Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg. I discovered that I still loved the Bible after all that time and those authors gave me a glimpse of other possibilities, other ways to read that revealed the God that I never stopped seeking. They set me on the path back to church and on to seminary where my views on the Bible have coalesced. Today, I view the Bible as a valuable dialog partner with whom I engage in mutual self-revelation to be transformed toward the presence of God.
In order to get to an understanding of the Bible as a dialog partner, we must first understand the Bible as symbolic. I do not mean “merely” symbolic, but a very specific and rich definition of symbol drawn from Ricoeur and masterfully articulated by Sandra M. Schneiders. She defines a symbol as “a sensible reality which renders present to and involves a person subjectively in a transforming experience of transcendent mystery.” According to this view, a symbol mediates between sensible, embodied reality and the transcendent. It does so by rendering that mystery present, but only as an instantiation of a relationship between subjects. Thus, the Bible, when engaged subjectively, can be the very presence of God as a subject.
The Bible as subject opens itself, reveals itself, bares itself. It is the precise opposite of the Bible as an object of study. Objects are necessarily bounded. They can be examined, measured, explained, and quantified, but they never speak. They provide information, but not revelation. This information can be useful, but it does not matter in an ultimate sense. One’s being is not at risk when experiencing an object. But a subject opens onto the vast mystery of the Other. One risks destruction in the presence of the Divine, but finds truth. The possible points of connection between two subjects are almost limitless. As Schneiders points out, a symbol does not merely point to a single reality in a one-to-one correspondence, but to a multiplicity of interpretive possibilities. She goes further, saying that this plethora of possibilities necessarily keeps the encounter open-ended. The Bible does not provide information, a narrow meaning to be grasped and held. It is an ongoing encounter of revelation. It can never be closed down. If it can be entirely accounted for, it bears no relation to the Divine. The Divine does not simply deliver answers to waiting, receptive minds.
No, an encounter with the Divine is a dialog. God confronts a person, calls out, and awaits a response. Similarly, we call out constantly for God and await a response. Intrinsic to true dialog is openness to the other. The Bible, as encounter with the Divine, speaks to me and I speak to the Bible. We may view each other skeptically because there is something at risk. We must take care of each other in this vulnerable space. Someone could get hurt. But if we give ourselves to the encounter, we are both revealed. We both become who we truly are.
Thus, reading the Bible is an ongoing process of mutual self-revelation. A great deal of the dialog is discovering the difference between the embodied and the transcendent. This is not to break down the symbol into some hypothetical “essential” reality. Nor is it to reject that which is temporal and finite. No, it is to understand it as a whole, to be open to all that it is, in all its truth and beauty and brokenness. I want to know the collective fears and hopes that produced the text. I want to live in them because I already do. The Bible asks me right back: What do you hope for? What do you fear? Who do you love? Who do you turn away from? Who do you destroy? As an object, an artifact of centuries of human effort, we can study these things, learn these things, but as a subject we can encounter the Divine, we can know our fears, our sin, and be transformed. This, for me, is the ethical authority of the Bible.
This authority cannot be regarded so trivially as an object. It must be interrogated, viewed critically, asked to understand itself. When the Bible understands God to destroy every living thing in a worldwide flood, what anguish and despair and frustration is revealed? What is hoped for? Most importantly, are these things mine? When the Bible speaks of the gendering of humanity, whose interests are furthered? Probably mine. Who is harmed? Probably someone I care about. Probably someone who calls out in anguish and despair and frustration. When I encounter that person, my ethical obligation is to make present the God who rebukes evil to bring forth life.
Because this is not an objective process, it is not easy. Growing up, I was told that the Bible had all the answers. Now, I think it has a lot of really great questions. Maybe it has a few really big, really important answers that help us work on the rest. But, ultimately, the essence of ethics is making decisions as a real, embodied being. No one has ever been precisely where I am right now. No one has ever had the collection of experiences I have. But if I open myself up to the address of the other, we can render God present. We can find that space between that is both and neither and so much more. That is the space in which we can be transformed into people equipped for every good work. Rather than considering our options, weighing the costs and benefits, appealing to an abstract principle of the good, we can simply spend time with one another in God and act with love, justice, and compassion. That is the Scripture that is written out in our lives. That is the authority. That is God’s presence.
The Bible then, is one of the ways we might render God present, to engage in an encounter of ongoing, mutual self-revelation and transformation toward the Good. I no longer see it as a guidebook, filled with answers about how to live my life today. Instead, I understand it as a symbol that I must approach as a subject. We give ourselves to each other and see who we truly are. We share our fears and our hopes and meet God. In so doing, we are transformed.
And finally we get to try out our new toys. We’ve spent the past few weeks talking about the classic understanding of the four senses of Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical. We have explored the promise and the peril of each and looked at some new reading strategies that might open up the text, find the life that beckons from within. This week, we will try out those reading strategies.
We’re going to focus on the book of Jonah. I’m choosing this for a few reasons. First, it is familiar enough that people know it, but maybe so familiar that we have smoothed over some details. So there may be some surprises. Second, it is short. We will read the whole thing on Sunday. Third, it was a very important text for early Christians. I think we now regard it as a children’s story, though we simplify it, similar to the way we treat the story of Noah’s Ark. It will be good to rediscover it. And, finally, it is ripe for the reading in all four senses as well as many of the alternative reading strategies we have discussed. There are questions of literal truth, moral guidance, and allegories abound to tell us about God, about ourselves, and what we might hope for.
I don’t often give you advance notice what we’ll be looking at, so I hope you’ll take this rare opportunity to read ahead. Also, please bring your Bibles. Lots of versions would be great. (Fair warning: we will be reading the NRSV rather than the Inclusive precisely because it does not try to smooth out problems.) If you have commentaries or Bible dictionaries, consult them. Bring them. Whatever you think might help our reading. But most of all bring yourself – completely.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center as we read an ancient story with post-modern eyes. Come early for snacks and coffee.
Grace and Peace,
b. Process theology
c. Speaking prophetically
Finally, we come to the anagogical sense, which interprets the things related in Holy Scripture “as they signify what relates to eternal glory.” This meaning is not restricted to the state of glory in Heaven, but also pertains to the contemplative participation in the heavenly realities here and now. (Brother Andre Marie)
c. Lectio Divina
Read slowly, multiple times, shifting focus each time
If a particular word or phrase stood out, focus on that word, repeated over and over to enter into the word
Talk to God
Silently listen for God
d. Ignatian Method
1. Center yourself
2. Read the passage twice
3. Reconstruct the scene
4. Place yourself in the scene
5. Converse with God
I had to look that word up. Being in seminary, words like “hermeneutics,” “exegetical,” and “soteriology” creep into your vocabulary to the point that friends and relatives are certain you are making stuff up, but I have never heard “anagogical.” It is the final of the four senses of Scripture in the classical model. It indicates a layer of meaning in the text that points to the End Times.
The End has always fascinated humankind, but it seems especially amped up today. The Mayan calendar, the Left Behind series, the predictions of Harold Camping – people want to know when it’s going to happen and how it’s going to go down. Early Christians, including Paul, were certain that Jesus would return in their lifetimes and finally set things right, finish the job he started. We’ve been waiting ever since. The one thing every prediction has in common is that it is ultimately wrong.
So you might think me skeptical of this layer of meaning. I’m not. I think it is the most important thing about the Bible, the “best” way to read it. When people speak of the End, they are always talking about who we are now and who we hope to be. It is our deepest longing made tangible. When we dare to hope for it with courage and tenacity, we become a little more like that end, we become the sort of people that can make it real.
At one point in history, a world without slavery was unthinkable. But as slaves learned the story of liberation and deliverance found in Exodus, they saw themselves. They repeated that story over and over. It found its way into their speeches and their prayers. In their most difficult hours, they were given courage and comfort by those words. They stood up to their oppressors and claimed their essential dignity, their right to freedom. And slavery is no more. This is what “anagogical” means: reading to become the End we wish to see.
Join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about what ends we hope for and how we might read Scripture to make them real.
Grace and Peace,
I haven’t had a chance to see this yet – I have my tickets for Saturday! – but our own Paul Semrad is in the Undermain Theatre’s current production of An Iliad, a poetic and musical meditation on war. It’s getting some excellent reviews, so get your tickets while they last!
a. Do good, get good
b. Do good, suffer, get good later
a. Bible as guidebook
b. Problems with literal truth
c. Problems with allegorical truth
d. Both create problems with moral truth
a. The Bible speaks authoritatively on everything about which it speaks
b. The Bible speaks authoritatively on everything
a. Does the Bible guide you?
b. If so, how? If not, why not?
a. Ethical interpretation
Everyone comes to Scripture with existing ethical commitments and Scripture is interpreted in terms of those commitments. For example, the Bible never speaks of abortion, but verses like Psalm 139:13-15 and Jeremiah 1:4-5 are regularly used to support a pro-life position. These are interpretive moves. Post-modern commentators simply acknowledge their moral commitments that guide their interpretation. For example, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah is frequently thought to be homosexuality, but their faults are never really explained. A queer commentator comes to the text with an ethical commitment that would lead to an alternative explanation.
“Thus Augustine, for example, teaches that any interpretation of scripture that does not promote the love of God and neighbor cannot be a correct meaning of scripture even if it is thought to coincide with the intentions of the human author.” – Dale Martin
VI. Morality of the meal
Jesus frequently dined with all kinds of sinners, including the much-maligned Pharisees. There’s something about sharing a meal with someone, regardless of difference, that dissipates anger, fear, and malice. Hand to hand and face to face, we break down the boundaries that divide us against one another, the barriers that hide the image of God.
As a teenager there were a lot of decisions to make. Who should I date? What should I do with them? What should I drink? What movies should I go see? What words should I use? What should I wear? What music should I listen to and what should I do while listening to it?** So many choices. It was a good thing for me that I had the Bible. It answered all those tricky questions and so many more. Of course, it was best at helping me make the ultimate choice, the choice between heaven and hell – seems like an easy choice, right? – but once that one was made one must figure out what to do with oneself. Bible for the win!
While for me this was the primary reason for reading the Bible, it was only one of four senses of Scripture for classical minds. So far in this series, we have talked about the literal and the allegorical and now we add the moral. The Bible will tell you what you should do. However, in the classical model, the moral rests on top of the literal and the allegorical. They are all simultaneously true senses of Scripture and in later thought, say Thomas Aquinas, they are all necessary. That is, it is literally true, allegorically true, and morally true. The Bible cannot be taken seriously as a guide for our choices unless it is also true in fact and true in pointing us to Christ.
Given what we’ve talked about the last couple of weeks, I hope you see the problem here. Problems of transmission, translation, and intercultural communication become very acute when they are rendered in the moral arena. The moral is where the rubber meets the road: actual behavior of actual human beings. And given the way morality plays out in groups in a democratic society, it is critical that we attempt to be aware of the ways in which we read such a prominent moral guide, the world we construct in reading the text a particular way. Perhaps a correct interpretation is less important than an ethical interpretation.
Please join us Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center as we discuss how to read the Bible in such a way that it brings God’s dreams into reality.
Grace and Peace,
Sermon Outline (roughly followed)
I. Back up
a. Scripture as revelation
1. How does God intervene in writing Scripture?
2. How does God intervene in the world?
b. Review series
a) Plain reading
b) Modern rationalist, truth-seeking tendencies
II. What is allegory?
a. Lisa is a fox
b. Bernie Madoff is a fox
a. Allegory of Christ
1. Suffering servant
The suffering servant could be understood as a typical hero’s quest, suffering for those who rejected the hero.
b. Making meaning
V. Post-modern strategies
The reader completes the meaning of the text through interpretation. He or she does so from a particular social location. This entails certain connections making more sense than others, which means that allegorical readings can shift meaning quite a bit.
b. Hidden transcript
A hidden transcript is when a message is conveyed to those inside a particular community, but is hidden from those outside that community. For example, Revelation is filled with hidden transcripts; the author is talking about the Roman Empire through symbolism that is well-known to insiders, but obscure to outsiders. The problem with reading hidden transcripts is that we are rarely in the insider group.
Readers interpret a text in relation to other texts. Sometimes this is unconscious, such as reading the Bible through the lens of Paradise Lost. Sometimes is purposeful, such as Marcella Althaus-Reid connecting the writings of the Marquis de Sade to biblical and traditional understandings of God.
d. Allegory of Christ reconsidered
3. Israel or remnant
If you spend enough time on Internet message boards, you will see a lot of bad analogies. In the course of a discussion (pronounced “argument”) someone will try to make a point by referencing something that is presumably a point of common interest and common understanding between the two dialog partners (pronounced “combatants”), say, football. One might compare a political candidate to a quarterback, for example. Then, of course, the conversation turns to each person’s assessment of both the quarterback and the candidate. As an analogy, the whole thing fails because there is no common ground, no point of agreement from which to expand. This is the trouble with any kind speech that attempts to draw a comparison: everyone has to agree about the meaning of the things being compared and how they relate to one another.
This week, we continue our series on how to read the Bible by looking at the classical category of allegory. In the Four Senses of Scripture, which is the framework for our study, the ltieral meaning is maintained, but there is always a layer of allegory on top of that. That is, every bit of Scripture points toward something beyond its literal meaning. For these early scholars, that something was always Christ. For them, Jesus is the answer. Adam in Genesis points to the new Adam: Jesus. Moses the liberator points to Jesus the liberator from sin. As Noah was the one good person to save humanity, so is Jesus. David was the anointed one of God; Jesus is the Anointed One of God.
But even if we could agree that every bit of Scripture points to Jesus – 2 Kings 2:23-24 might be problematic – what exactly would that mean? In what way is Jesus the new Adam? It depends on what we think the story of Adam is about. And what we think the story of Jesus is about. Perhaps Christians are more united on that than on candidates and quarterbacks, but not much.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about how to read the Bible allegorically to speak into our own lives.
Grace and Peace,
We don’t normally do movie previews in the church email, but there is something special premiering tonight at Grapevine Mills: Hellbound. This documentary features interviews with scholars on the doctrine of hell, including my friend and teacher, our own Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles. On Saturday, after the 6:10pm showing of the film, there will be a Q&A at the Cozymel’s at Grapevine Mills with Jaime, the producers of the film, and Sharon Baker, the author of Razing Hell, who is also featured in the film. This is a terrific opportunity to pick the brains of some brilliant people on a longstanding, perhaps questionable, doctrine of the faith. Hope to see you there!
I AM A TEACHER
Last night I had the opportunity to preview the third installment of the I AM A TEACHER series of plays, written and performed by my friend and long-time CitCer, David Marquis. It made me sad that I have not seen the other two. The play traces a year in the life of a teacher, Ben James, at the end of his career. Mr. James is a fierce advocate for kids, who is determined to teach them in spite of all the obstacles in his way. It is inspiring and thought-provoking, highlighting the challenges we face in treating kids in our schools as human beings that matter instead of cogs in a machine. For anyone who is a teacher, knows a teacher, or just cares about the next generation and the future we are leaving them, this play is a must-see. It will be at Stage West in Fort Worth October 18-21.
b. Just the facts
“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.” – Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis