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Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Bible: Fairy Tale or Divine Dictation?

Epiphany B 1/8/12

John 1: 1-5, 14

Ah, the good old days! Remember them, when life seemed to be so sure and simple, when right was right and truth was truth and up was up? You know – the good old days – about five hundred years ago. You don’t remember? Well, it has been a while.

Today we begin a look at the relationship between Christian faith and modern science: can I be a faithful believer in Jesus Christ and still be an intellectually curious, thinking, educated person? Today I want to set the stage for the next four weeks. For the last five hundred years there has been an argument, by both scientists and believers, that we must choose between modern science and faith. Let’s look, over the next four Sundays, where that idea comes from, and whether it’s true or not.

Today, I want us to think about authority. When we want to know what’s true, what to do, how to live, what to believe, where are the authorities to which we turn? Five hundred years ago, the authorities for life in the Western Christian world were pretty clear:

  • Kings and queens were ordained by God to rule over lesser people, and life was defined by a class system that determined your relationship to the world and to other people. There’s security in that. 
  • The natural world, from the very beginning, looked pretty much the way it does now, and it always will. That’s reassuring, too. 
  • All life was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Human sickness, including sickness of the mind and soul, was caused by an imbalance of those elements. Pretty simple. 
If you want to know what to believe about God, ask the church. And since most of us are too sinful to relate to God directly, the church will do that for us. That’s reassuring.
The Bible is a book written by God for our instruction. Of course, not many of us have a copy in 1500, but that’s OK: the church will tell us what it says and means. That’s convenient.

But around the year 1500, these authorities for life, which seemed so convenient and secure, began to fall apart. Political authority, invested in royalty, yielded to the infinitely more complicated and messy theory of democracy. Now nations had to decide how to govern themselves. And that produces tremendous anxiety.

For many years, people had been digging up the bones and fossils of strange animals that no longer existed. Human skulls had been unearthed that looked very different from modern human skulls. And then in 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, which explained the theory of natural selection: plants and animals had adapted to changes in the environment over long periods of time. We’ll talk more about this next week, but for the moment, suffice it to say that Darwin rocked the notion that life had always been the same.

The notion that all life was composed of four elements was eroded by anatomical studies and by the discipline of chemistry. But Sigmund Freud’s work in the late 19th century on the complexity of the mind defied simple explanations of human behavior. One more authority for life had been knocked over.

When Martin Luther wrote The Freedom of the Christian in 1520, he set forth the notion that every Christian was a priest, able to stand before God because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. With the distribution of this treatise the Roman insistence that only church leaders could properly interpret faith and stand before God began to erode. Now, your relationship with God was between you and God. Another authority collapsed.

Finally, scholars began to discover multiple and varying copies of ancient Biblical texts. It became increasingly clear that as monks copied Biblical texts by hand over a thousand years, they made copying mistakes and inserted notes written in the margins. Older copies of scripture sometimes gave clearer understandings of difficult texts. Higher Criticism began to show that instead of one manuscript, the Bible was a many-layered book written over a thousand years by multiple authors, yet all inspired by God.

When what we’ve believed to be true for ages begins to crumble, when all we once thought sure and certain proves to be fragile and flawed, people tend to react in two ways. Remember 9/11/01, or Hurricane Katrina? Or even when you learned your parents were flawed and human? One response is to decide there is no authority, no truth, no security whatsoever, and we are free to do or believe whatever we wish.

The other reaction to the breakdown of traditional authorities is to plant the flag, dig a moat, build the walls higher, and declare that no matter what anyone else says, here are the absolute, unshakeable fundamental truths on which life is based. There’s a little fundamentalist in all of us: every parent who has ever, in exasperation, told their child to do something “because I said so!” is a fundamentalist. And, I believe, there are some unshakeable truths in life. But we must be very careful in defining what those are.

In the 1880s, a movement among Protestant Christians to counter the breakdown of traditional authorities coalesced in a series of Bible Conferences at Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario. These conferences defined five points of what has come to be known as Christian Fundamentalism:
  1. the word for word, inerrant, inspiration of the Bible 
  2. the virgin birth of Jesus 
  3. the deity of Jesus 
  4. that we are saved by the sacrificial death of Christ 
  5. that Christ will literally, physically, return to judge the world. 
Most Christians agree with the virgin birth, deity of Jesus, and the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Today we’re going to look at the Bible, and in three weeks look at Christ’s return. But first, there’s something incredibly important to say. What I’ve just laid out for you is the history which underlies most of the arguments between different factions of Christianity in this country today. And one of the characteristics of people who are reacting in crisis is their insistence that their way is the only way. If you disagree with them, it’s not that you simply differ in opinion: you are wrong. This is a characteristic of fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims, and any other religion; it is a characteristic of political and moral fundamentalists both left and right. Furthermore, fundamentalists usually try to portray themselves as the true majority, speaking for the voiceless multitude. Osama bin Laden made this claim, as does Keith Olberman.

So, in this modern day and age, what authority does the Bible have for us? Our United Methodist Articles of Religion say that the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we ever need to know in life, but it does tell us everything we need to know to have a faithful relationship with God.

But how do we read and understand this enormous, layered, amazing book? To use a famous example, a liberal interpretation of the Book of Jonah might say that the story is a metaphor about obedience to God, of God’s never-ending claim on us, and on God’s love for the stranger. A fundamentalist, on the other hand, would insist that every word is literally true and to be taken at face value, and each sentence in the Bible contains a truth that stands on its own, regardless of context.

Where do the words in the Bible come from? A liberal interpretation would argue that the human writers of the Bible were relying upon their understanding of life, their intuition about truth, and reason, to tell stories and set forth standards of behavior. Of course, as the world changes, so Biblical commandments have to be reinterpreted for the present. What’s more important than the words are the ideas behind them. All of us who eat sausage, ham, or shrimp, or who wear wool and linen together (all prohibited in the Bible) are interpreting the scriptures liberally. Fundamentalists, on the other hand, insist that the words of the text are sacred, and are precisely what God intended to say to us. The Lord has risen and appeared to Simon is neither rational nor intuitive – it is the word of and from God.

United Methodists believe in a third, middle way of understanding the scriptures. It takes the best of both ends of the spectrum, and tries to avoid the pitfalls. The Bible is chocked full of metaphors. It’s also chocked full of bold declarations to be taken at face value. Some parts of the Bible are law – the ten commandments – and to be understood as such. Some parts are history: Samuel, Chronicles, Acts. Other parts are poetry, loaded with metaphor and allusion: he makes me lie down in green pastures is not the same as thou shalt not commit adultery. And, all of the Bible is the rich story of God’s love for the world, our rejection of that love, and God’s never-ending work to redeem us. Like any story, some parts are literally true – The Lord has risen – and others are metaphors – if your right hand offends you, cut it off. I’ve never seen a one-handed fundamentalist.

In the same way, the Bible faithfully witnesses to the Word of God. In the lesson from John 1 this morning, it’s clear that the Word of God is God’s creative self-expression, through whom the entire universe is created, and which finds its fullest expression in Jesus of Nazareth. Think of the words of the Bible as a window through which we see God. You don’t look at the window, you look through the window. The window – the Bible – is the means to know God, not the end of our knowing. The words point us to the Word – to God. That’s why the Bible never, ever, claims for itself what the fundamentalists claim – that every word is infallible and that every sentence stands on its own. That’s why Jesus always defeats the Biblical arguments of his opponents – including Satan in the desert – by putting their biblical quotes in the context of the whole book.

And that’s the key to reading and understanding what God is saying to us through the Scriptures – we put each part within the context of the whole. So beware of people who cut a verse from here and paste it with a verse from there in order to prove their ideas. What is miraculous about this book of 66 books written over a thousand years is its remarkably consistent theme of a God who is besotted with the world, of our rejection of that love, and of God’s sacrificial love to redeem us. But unless we look at the big picture, we can’t understand the pieces.

So, to answer the question at the beginning: is the Bible a fairy tale or something dropped intact from heaven? No. It’s something far more wonderful – it’s history, law, poetry, story, and biography, written by many people testifying to their encounter with a God who shines in, under, around, and through these words. Join us in getting to know this amazing book – and, more importantly, the amazing God who speaks to us through it.

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