A year of struggling biblically

January 15, 2014 | God at work in the Church
By Will Braun | Senior Writer

My fellow Canadian Mennonite writer, Aaron Epp, has launched his Year of Reading Biblically, offering public reflections on his private cover-to-cover reading of the Good Book.

I say, “Good on ya. I'm eager to read your comments.”

His project triggered a few of my own thoughts about the Bible:

1. For many people, the Bible is the straightforward word, or Word from above. For others, like me, it is complicated. It's not that we have it in for the Bible, we just can't deny the questions and struggles that arise along our honest quest for meaning. 

It can be tough wringing evermore meaning out of stories so oft repeated and from such foreign contexts. The blood can be a bit much. The inherent male bias does not warm my soul. And the way that warmongers, xenophobes and prosperity pedlars latch on to the same Bible can cloud one's view.

I think this is important to acknowledge.

2. I studied theology long enough to realize that smart people can make the Bible say whatever they want.

In a 2009 article entitled “The case of the customized Christ”, I critiqued respected theologian and social justice advocate Ched Myers for a big book in which he makes Jesus out to be a social-justice advocate. I like Myers and I have devoted much of my life to social justice, but I don't accept his argument. It's an unjustifiably selective reading of the Bible.

The temptation is always to use the Bible to support our pre-existing beliefs and inclinations: to create God in our own image.

The Bible is more helpful when it takes us out of our comfortable ruts, rather than deepens them.

For instance, I'd rather do faith-based social-justice work than share the message of God's love in an overt way. Yet if I take the Bible seriously, I see that open discussion about the essence of the spiritual life—not quite the same as pre-packaged witnessing—is vital.

There are also biblical passages in which Jesus uncritically embraces the same sort of wealthy folks I am apt to judge.  

3. Which left-brain, Cartesian wet blanket put all those numbers in the Bible? Why does it have to be surgically dissected into chapters and verses?
Our interaction with the Bible would change significantly without the numbers. I think that would be a good experiment. Theology and Bible "study" would look different, which I would welcome.

4. My approach to the Bible has been shaped by Northrop Frye, the immensely gifted Canadian literary critic who died in 1991. Frye wrote, “The Bible should be read as literally as any fundamentalist could desire, but the real literal meaning is an imaginative and poetic one.”

To expand on a point made previously in these pages, the Bible obviously contains a great deal of poetry, story and metaphor, and we should embrace the power of that. The modern mindset tends to equate truth with hard fact, and has therefore come to see poetic and imaginative forms of communication as inferior. Frye says this unfortunate twist of modernity has confused and distorted our reading of the Bible.

Frye makes the case that “imaginative” forms of communication—as opposed to the simple relaying of facts—can carry the message of love, redemption, hope and peace much more deeply and powerfully into a community of readers. The words can become one with the listeners, not just information to glean.

He compares it to colour versus black and white, something more fluid and penetrating than the simple assertion of a set of beliefs.

A parable is a simple example of an imaginative form of communication that is not “true” in the sense of conveying what actually happened, but still conveys much truth. Frye says people who get wrapped up in questions like whether the virgin birth actually happened are not heretical, but “illiterate,” unable to tune into the intended mode of communication. 

He says the structure of the Bible and its historical inconsistencies indicate that it was clearly intended as something other than a coherent account of historical facts.
I don't think Frye's approach is the only useful one, nor that everyone should adopt it. I'm just saying I find it freeing. It gets around some of the biblical complications without  reducing the Bible to just another fanciful work of literature. Frye's reason for writing about the Bible is precisely that it is far more than just another “good book.”

So to Aaron (or anyone else), if incongruities, questions of factuality or the sheer outlandishness of Revelation trip you up, you're welcome to my copies of Frye's The Great Code or his Words with Power.

--Posted Jan. 15, 2014

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