Monday, 21 November 2011

The Once and Future Bible

Courtesy of my friend Kay I've been reading a book by Gregory Jenks called The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives.  Jenks is Academic Dean of St Francis Theological College, the Anglican seminary here in Brisbane.  He is also strongly connected with the "progressive" Christian movement in the USA as a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar and a friend of the radical former Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong, to whom he refers as a kind of mentor.

Despite his association with Spong, Jenks is very much his own person.  Spong's comparable book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, is combative and quixotic, leaping unpredictably between mainstream scholarship like the source theory of the Gospels, and fringe ideas like the notion of the Apostle Paul as a repressed gay man.  By contrast, Jenks is calm and sober, providing a concise lay person's summary of what he sees as the current state of Biblical scholarship.  Yet he identifies very closely with what Spong calls "believers in exile" - those people (in the church or outside it) who retain a Christian faith but no longer feel at home in the church and within the framework of traditional belief.  These people are his intended audience.

A lot of what he says is not particularly contentious.  His book follows the basic outlines of the Old and New Testaments, summarising what bible scholars see as their likely dating and process of composition, and its relationship to history.  Certainly, he is "progressive".  This means that when he has an alternative between a traditional interpretation and a more radical one, he generally chooses the more radical.  Where there is a choice between an earlier and later date of composition, he usually chooses the later.  However, he does so within a framework of scholarship, acknowledging alternative views and avoiding fringe or speculative theories.  Lots of people will disagree with his conclusions but you would have to be a little oversensitive to find them offensive or provocative.

The most interesting parts of the book are the third chapter and the final one.  In the third, after setting the scene by explaining why many people find the Bible problematic, he outlines a threefold framework for studying it.  The first is to understand the world behind the text - that is, the historical circumstances of its composition, the likely identity of its authors and their purpose, its place in the historical context that it describes and in which is was created.  This is largely the work of the various disciplines of biblical criticism and history - source criticism and archaeology, for example.

The second is to understand the world of the text - that is, what it is actually saying.  What is it saying about the nature of humans, God, history and so on?  This is the work of Biblical exegesis, and raises plenty of problems for him and other progressive Christians as well as more traditional believers.  How do you account, for instance, for the prevalence of what he calls "sacred violence" - the urgings to war and genocide found in so many places in the Old Testament, the idea of eternal condemnation of sinners found in parts of the New?  How do you account for the subjugation of women, and the toleration of slavery?  These are real problems which have driven many people from Bible, as you can see from a quick read of Sam Harris or Michel Onfray.

The final aspect of his approach is to understand the world before the Bible - that is, the world of the reader, the questions to which the reader is seeking answers.  What will a feminist, an environmentalist, or a person from a particular theological background, make of any particular text?  Because Jenks sees the Bible as a sacred text but not an infallible one, he is quite comfortable with the idea that someone might create a variant reading of a text, or offer a critique of it from a modern perspective, so that the Bible becomes part of a dialogue about how we should live now, rather than providing the final word.

Which brings us to his final chapter and what appears to me to be the crux of this whole book.  If we take his view of Scripture (and on the whole, it seems close enough to the mark) and see it is a faithful but fallible human witness to God, how should we use it, and what kind of faith will result?  His answer is tantalisingly brief, covering no more than a few pages.  I wish he had gone into more detail.  What he says is that we will read the bible with our eyes wide open.  We will be fully aware of its history and the way it was composed, rather than reading with the illusion of divine infallibility or complete harmony.  We will also bring to it our knowledge from other fields - our learnings from other spiritual traditions, from science and history, from our engagement with the issues of the day.  We will not so much be looking to the Bible to answer all our questionsas as making it part of them.

He sees the Bible as giving us four things - an openness to the sacred, a world-affirming attitude to life, a vision of inclusive community and a passion for justice and reconciliation.  There is no compulsion in his view of this, nothing to say you must read it.  Nonetheless, he and his fellow Christian progressives, and others of us too, come from a Christian background.  This background provides us with a rich history and tradition, the wisdom of ages from which we can draw to help us deal with the pressing issues of our day.  This won't be enough for some of my readers, I know.  For others it will be too much.  He walks the fine line between the fundamentalisms of Christianity and atheism, and tries to live in the tension between them.

1 comment:

Hermit said...

"... having a form of Godliness, but denying the power (authority) thereof"