People of the Book

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January 17, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

Attending an ecumenical theological school has taught me a lot about how different Christian denominations view the Bible, since Christians, along with Muslims and Jews, are known as “people of the Book.” There are those who see the Bible as a hopelessly outdated ancient text, written by patriarchal and prejudiced elites in order to brainwash everyone else. There are those who see it as a literally true record of historical events, an utterly infallible sacred book. There are those for whom church tradition and doctrines are more important than the biblical stories on which they are based. And then there are us Mennonite students, who are generally quite familiar with the Bible, and hold to some combination of these views, perhaps in a way which doesn’t quite fit any of these categories.

Maybe an example would help get at what I mean. The account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) can be understood in any of these ways. I’ve heard it dismissed because it’s just an ancient myth, written by people in a primitive, pre-scientific society. There’s no way it can be historical fact. Plus, it solidifies the supposed superiority of men over women in that Eve is fooled by the serpent to take the apple, so she ruins everything for Adam. And God, well, God is just a cruel tyrant who throws Adam and Eve out of the garden just for one act of disobedience! On these grounds, the story is declared meaningless and irrelevant for modern people like us, who have, after all, made so much progress since biblical times.

Though I agree that the story is not necessarily a play-by-play record of objective history, I don’t think that makes it meaningless. Since when are fictional stories (think novels, or movies) meaningless? Beyond their entertainment value, they can actually teach us profound truths about the human condition, about love, about doing the right thing, about failure, about challenges, and, in many cases, about God. And, unlike straight facts, which can only mean one thing, stories overflow with multiple meanings, layers of symbolism, and emotional resonance. This is why Jesus, for instance, used (fictional!) parables to teach the crowds; stories catch our attention and provoke reflection and action. So to fixate on whether or not biblical narratives actually occurred exactly the way they’re written is really beside the point. That’s not why these stories were written and that’s not what makes them compelling today. They’re much more complex than that, somehow involving history and yet not in the objective, fact-driven sense we tend to be comfortable with.

Returning to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, what would happen if we would give it another, fresh reading, one that goes beyond what we all think we know about this familiar story? We’re told that it’s the story of the origins of human sinfulness, but the story itself doesn’t actually spell out what that was. One of my profs last year suggested that maybe the primary sin wasn’t that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and took the fruit, but that they betrayed and blamed each other when God asked them what had happened; this was the breaking of the first human relationship, as well as the relationship with creation (represented by the serpent), and the relationship with God – and Adam and Eve were equally guilty. As for God’s response, the punishment for eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was supposed to be death on that very day. But God doesn’t kill them; instead, God makes clothes for Adam and Eve before sending them out of the garden so they won’t get into the Tree of Life. That’s not exactly a tyrannical response, is it? And there’s more. Since the knowledge of good and evil is a Hebrew synonym for wisdom, and Jesus is later referred to as the Wisdom of God and the Tree of Life, the source of eternal life, it’s possible that eating of the two trees was not meant to be forbidden to humanity forever, but was rather meant to unfold in God’s time. Adam and Eve just didn’t wait long enough, and decided to sneak a bite of the fruit behind God’s back instead! These kinds of details get missed when biblical accounts like this one are picked apart as dead ancient texts, read as straight-up history, or reduced to abstract doctrines. In the Jewish tradition, commentaries on the Bible (called Midrash) take the form of discussions, which don’t end with neat conclusions, but stay open-ended; they’re ongoing, because new insights arise with each reading of the Bible, across generations. I think there’s a lot to be learned from this way of interacting with Scripture.

So how do we as Mennonites read the Bible – if we read it at all? Historically, the Bible has been the very heart of Mennonite faith and ethics; it’s been the central guide for life. As such, its wisdom was understood to emerge over time, as the community of faith read and re-read its stories, to the point of knowing them by heart. But, as Mennonite scholar Tom Yoder Neufeld argues, “To insist on the Bible as foundation is important, since its place can no longer be taken for granted, even in Anabaptist circles. Its location in contemporary thinking and decision-making is often more formal than real” (see this book, p. 28). It seems that even in our highly biblical tradition, we’ve lost touch with the Bible for various reasons – and part of it I’m sure is because of the distracting debate over whether it’s historical fact or not. I wish, though, that we’d get over that particular issue and allow ourselves to read the Bible more respectfully, not picking it apart as an ancient curiosity, or refusing to recognize that it was written by human beings, but seeing it as a living text that tells the story of our faith and the character of our God in history, poetry, stories, and symbols that have been meaningful for generations of people of the Book. It’s in this way that it can speak to us, challenge us, and inspire us – and in that sense really be the Word of God.

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