a library.

1 Feb

we need a new, more responsible and mature approach to the sacred scriptures.

as we follow up on an earlier post, we begin with a quote from brian mclaren:

So, whatever the Bible is, it simply is not a constitution.  I would like to propose that it is something far more interesting and important: it’s the library of a culture and community — the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Think, for example, of a public library today.  People sort through all the possible books that could be included and select some hundreds or thousands to make available to the local public.  A medical library selects books of special interest to people who belong to the medical profession; a Shakespeare library selects books of interest to members of the literary guild; a presidential library, to historians of a particular president. The biblical library, similarly, is a carefully selected group of ancient documents of paramount importance for people who want to understand and belong to the community of people who seek God and, in particular, the God of Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Jesus.

when one enters a library with the intent of researching a subject — say, butterflies — they are not looking for the one, single, authoritative book on the subject.  they are searching to answer questions, to gain knowledge and a deeper understanding of a particular subject.

in our example of butterflies, there are multiple facets of interest.  in order to gain a proper knowledge of butterflies, students could potentially start researching scientific books.  in those, they would find that the butterfly is a mainly day-flying insect of the lepidoptera order; and that like other holometabolous insects, the butterfly’s life cycle consists of four parts: the egg, larva, pupa, and adult.  they could view pictures that would show butterflies have large, often brightly colored wings and perhaps even videos that show they have a conspicuous, fluttering flight.

further study would show that butterflies exhibit polymorphism, mimicry, and aposematism; and that some butterflies, like the Monarch, will migrate over long distances.  the students would learn that some butterflies have evolved symbiotic and parasitic relationships with social insects such as ants.  they would learn that some species are considered pests because in their larval stages they can damage domestic crops or trees; however, some species are agents of pollination of certain plants, and caterpillars of a few butterflies actually eat harmful insects.

finally, even further research would yield that butterflies are a popular motif in the visual and literary arts.  the curious soul could even search the history of arts, finding that butterflies have been used in many cultures, including ancient egyptian hieroglyphs some 3,500 years ago.  one who appreciated the arts or history could spend countless hours researching the use of butterflies in various objects of art and jewelry, even movies and cinema.  this, of course, would naturally bleed into the symbolism of butterflies, opening up a cross cultural study of the Japanese, Ancient Greeks, Chinese, et cetera.

after hours upon hours of study, consulting with multiple authors of a plethora of books each seeking to increase their reader’s understanding on the subject of butterflies, one might find themselves able to answer an increasing number of questions about them.  he or she would, depending on which (and potentially, how many) books they consulted, respond to any number of questions regarding the science and history of butterflies, or their place in the visual and literary arts.

but if the student simply approached the library itself as a constitution and the sole authority on butterflies and found a single book on the subject (or worse yet, a portion of a single book) and placed it as the de facto manifesto for all things ‘butterfly’– or even a series of books composed by many different authors as a legal constitution for ‘butterfly knowledge’ — he or she would find themselves missing out on a great deal of information and understanding regarding
the subject.

says mclaren:

Here’s the problem: the expectations we bring to a constitution and a library couldn’t be more different.  For starters, a constitution is neat, and we assume it has internal consistency.  But a culture is messy and full of internal tension, and those characteristics would be reflected in a good library.  In fact, some have defined a culture as a group of people who argue about the same things over many generations.  That may sound like a depressingly contentious definition, but in fact, though, a culture’s arguments signal a deeper unity: a culture thinks certain questions are so important that it keeps struggling with them over many generations.

using the book of Job as an example, mclaren points out: 

Revelation occurs not in the words and statements of individuals but in the conversation among individuals and God …it happens in conversations and arguments that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions across generations.  Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay
between statements.

i, along with mclaren, would suggest that we have for far too long approached the scriptures with a constitutional lens, tainting our vision as to what the bible really is and for what it is to be used.  we have depended on specific words and statements as revelatory to our detriment.  as stated in my earlier post we have viewed the bible as a black and white, authoritative text on who God is, what he has done, and what he wants from us.  we have viewed it as a divine doctor’s prescription for how we are to live, what we are to do in specific situations, our rules for ethics and morality, our booklet for political involvement or affiliation, our guide to understanding the sciences, and so on.  and when we do so, we are damned to repeat the same mistakes we’ve historically made — with increasingly
damning consequences.

however well intentioned, there are layers upon layers of problems with this approach to the sacred text.  for one, the bible was not created to be read as a constitution; instead, it is a collection of writings, stories, poetry, letters, history, questions, visions, dreams, and narratives.  this collection of writings stem from the people of God wrestling with the same questions over thousands and thousands of years — who God is and who he calls them to be — as a people, as a nation, as a community of faith, and as individuals within that community.  read as a collection of different writings — as a library — that seek(s) to better understand God and how we fit into his story, we find a much different approach to texts that seemingly contradict one another, without the need for theological and mental gymnastics …and have a much healthier view of who God is, what he has done and is doing (and has yet to do) for us, and who we are in him.

Does the Bible alone provide enough clarity to resolve all questions, as a good constitution should?  No.  We have no reason to believe it was ever meant to do that, as much as we’ve tried to force it to do so.  From all sides it becomes clear that the Bible, if it is truly inspired by God, wasn’t meant to end conversation and give the final word on controversies.  If this were its purpose, it has failed miserably (this fact must be faced).  But if, instead, it was inspired and intended to stimulate conversation, to keep people thinking and talking and arguing and seeking, across continents and centuries, it has succeeded and is succeeding in a truly remarkable way.

seen as a library rather than a constitution, we see a graduated understanding of God’s people in their knowledge of who he is, what he has done and is doing (and has yet to do) for us, and who we are in him.

this graduated understanding of who God is can be seen throughout the narrative of the bible.  our next post at the WayWard follower will discuss further what we mean by this, and outline at least some of the dominant steps seen
in the scriptures.


3 Responses to “a library.”

  1. anonymous February 1, 2011 at 3:35 PM #


    ‘âmar- to say

    In Genesis 1:3 the Western Leningrad texts of the Hebrew state that God SAID “Let there be light.” And then there was light.

    I agree with all of what you said, but I would like to add something. In Egypt, there is a man named Ahmed. Ahmed, who used to be a muslim spends his time doing the normal things that muslims in Egypt do. He sneaks around about every 2 months gathering up food to bring to a group of Muslim-Christian converts. These former “muslim brotherhood” members (a total of 42 of them) spend their days doing three things: “Eating the Word, hiding from persecution, and sleep on cardboard mats in a small shack together in the woods.”

    Ahmed says that when he shows up with food, all 42 of them have so many questions that he cannot answer them. But nevertheless, they READ the Word of God and sing praises to The Lord in a chant like the following: “Lord Jesus, come be our King!”.

    Well, after a year or so of Ahmed doing this, Egypt’s police caught up with him. They caught him and proceeded to dangle him upside down completely naked, soak him with cold water and then beat his private area. They then stuck an air-gun tool into his intestines and blew air into him until he was in a coma. They then cut his naked, beaten, and shamed body down onto the wet concrete. He then had to have surgery on his area after he woke up from his coma.

    After all of this happened Ahmed went right back to what he was doing before, explaining that “He needed to pick up his cross and follow Christ.”

    Now John 1:3 explains to us that through the Word all things were made: this is mirrored by the ancient Hebrew texts of the Genesis creation account. The Word is alive, therefore it has the power to speak to anyone, HOWEVER it wants.

    Just ask Ahmed and those 42 converts. They have NO teachers, NO “correct ways to read the Word”, and they are part of the very few people who truly understand the concept of what “picking up our crosses” mean. I would trust my life, as well as my interpretation of The Word in those mens hands more than anyone here in America. Look at their fruits: while we are here in our comfy houses and warmed up churches driving our Lexus’ and BMW’s, hey are getting persecuted, beaten and martyred. They have nothing except persecution and threat of death and PRAISE JESUS, while if someone’s parking lot is too small here in the U.S. he curses God for not blessing his ministry.

    I wonder why? Maybe it is because THOSE MEN know who God is, while we only know a piece.

    I am not disagreeing with this post; rather I am saying that we need to be careful with our words. Those men are willing to DIE and BE BEATEN for the gospel, while we are sitting back saying that THEY are not reading it right.

    I say, THEY KNOW MORE THAN ALL OF US COMBINED, and we all could learn ALOT from them.

  2. kathleen February 7, 2011 at 10:57 AM #

    Jesus explained in Matheew 24:35 “Heaven and earth will pass away but My words shall not pass away.” and in Mathew 5:18 “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.”

    The beloved disciple, resting on Jesus’s breast at the last supper, writes “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life – and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us – what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ.” I John 1:1-3

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”

    If as Christians we misunderstand or misinterpret the Word of God, this is only a result of our own darkness and lack of the understanding that comes from God alone. We cannot have spiritual understanding apart from The Holy Spirit. Therefore, when we err we reflect our own error, our sinful humanity as opposed to the scripture itself being in error. In other words, it is a fault of our darkened minds not a fault of inerrant scripture. ” All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” 2Timothy 3:16 “And so we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” 2 Peter 1:19-21.

    If we cease to revere the Word of God as such we also cease to stand upon a sure foundation. Nothing awaits us but the shifting sands of trendy and superficial religiosity as opposed to the Truth.

  3. Alastair Newman February 14, 2011 at 9:03 AM #

    Very interesting post (in a series of interesting posts)! I’ve just discovered this blog via the Red Letter Christian blog. Much resonates for me, since I’ve been a fan of Brian Mclaren’s work for years.

    I just wanted to pick up on a few points that you had to make kathleen (and apologies for the length of this…):

    – I think on the Matthew 24:35 verse, you misinterpret what people like Michael Kimpan and Brian Mclaren are trying to do. They’re not advocating that we throw the Bible away, nor are they advocating that we treat as canonical all works of Christian scholarship, whoever wrote them. I think what they are encouraging people to do is to let the Bible be ITSELF (the most important library of texts for the follower of Jesus), and not something it was never intended to be (a constitution, manual, or rule book about how to be a Christian). In fact, many in the emergent church conversation, including Mclaren, advocate giving Christ’s words even GREATER importance than evangelicals have traditionally done. They argue quite firmly against a “flat” reading of scripture where the words of Deureronomy, I Kings, Mark’s gospel and Romans etc are all given equal authority. We are Christians, not “Biblians”.

    – Matthew 5:18, no comments just questions. Should we then observe the whole Law of the Torah – dietary Laws, keeping Shabbat? Why does Paul take a different view to the Law? What does Jesus mean by “all is accomplished”? Should we as Christians not believe that all was accomplished by Christ’s dying for us and rising again?

    – I think it’s widely accepted that the “Word” passages you’ve quoted refer to Christ, and not the Bible. I’m not aware of any Christians who believe that the Bible had any part to play in the creation of the universe…

    – I agree totally that our misinterpretations and misuse of the biblical text is down to us alone (and not God). But the idea of inerrancy just doesn’t tally with what I find in the biblical account. I think to make the claim that the Bible is inerrant is to make a claim that the Bible does not make of itself. The 2 Timothy passage says that all scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable/authoritative. What it does not do is to claim that the Bible (and certainly not as we now have it) is inerrant! I think there is a world of difference between the word “inspired” (meaning both that God’s will acting through Christ and the Holy Spirit is evident throughout the text, and also that the text catalogues the REAL ENCOUNTERS of an ancient people with the living God) and the word “inerrant” (which means without flaw, no mistakes, no ambiguities, no inconsistencies, every single bit is as true as the statement “2+2=4”).

    – The other thing to consider in the 2 Timothy pasages, is what does Paul (if it was Paul writing the pastoral epistles) mean by “all scripture”? The canon of the new testament was by no means fixed when this particular epistle was written, and wasn’t firmly agreed on until a much later church council – even then with some disagreement over apocryphal texts. Indeed, the gospel accounts may not have been written until after a number of the pauline epistles. So does this mean only what had been written before this letter is “inerrant”? Or just the old testament? Or what?

    I have a solid rock on which to build my faith, and that rock is Jesus Christ. It is this Rock which the builders rejected which has become the cornerstone of our faith. The scriptures (both old and new testaments) all point to Jesus Christ, but it is Jesus Christ Himself who is the ultimate revelation and the sole authority in all matters of faith and practice. To base your life and faith on any rock other than Jesus Christ, even on the Bible which reveals Him, is to miss the “Truth”.

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