…So: I’m one of the last people to interact with this today, I’m sure. But Frank Viola, recently a blogger, has started a podcast of sorts. Today he asks an interesting (if basic) question here regarding the sheer variety of readings of Scripture, and its consequences. Though he doesn’t always enable comments, they are open today.
Since Friday is almost over as of this posting, I’m going to paraphrase Frank’s question (it’s still worth listening to the 10-minute podcast) and my response.
Q: There are over 33,000 denominations today. Why would God allow the Bible be written in such a way that the most intelligent scholars and theologians (not to mention devout, heart-felt followers of Jesus) could honestly interpret the Bible in so many ways?
R: This used to bother me as a young Christian. Then when I actually started to read the Bible, including the disturbing stuff, it bothered me even more! So many authors, so many different takes on even the same events and people. And – perhaps most jarring – so many different takes on God. By the time I was in college, my life suddenly felt like a canvas on which the modernist-fundamentalist debate took place!
But then I realized that ‘inspiration’ need not mean ‘uniformity.’ Let’s face it – Scripture is ragged; it speaks with pluriform voices. It’s a symphony, and it’s in color – it’s not a black-and-white monotone speaking. It is literature, and within the raggedness we hear God speaking.
Why is this? For all the reasons people are mentioning above. Because we live by faith; because we receive more light as we live (and read) on; because revelation is unfolding; because culture, age, gender, and social standing contribute to our reading – and, perhaps most importantly, because God refuses to be enshrined in conceptual idols. This is why Meister Eckhart prayed “God, rid me of ‘God’.”
Even the site of divine self-disclosure in Jesus Christ reveals God as unknown, dwelling in inaccessible light.
During eras of certain interpretive grids – certain absolutist ways of reading – pluriform reading of Holy Writ was invariably a bad and divisive thing, something to be overcome. But the Jewish people have always had a wonderful tradition, Midrash, which acknowledged that because Scripture is alive, we always have something to contribute to its meaning. Just like Einstein and others discovered that the very act of scientific measurement affected what’s being measured, so our act of reading Scripture impacts its meaning. This isn’t something to be avoided; it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit to the interpretive community, the church. This is (some would say) part of what Jesus means when he gives us the holy responsibility to ‘bind and loose,’ earth’s readings impacting heaven.
I think we’re entering a fertile period of Christian spirituality; one where we recognize that we’re all at different stages of growth, and Jesus himself is the ultimate Truth – not a finite proposition. Some recommended reading on this: God Without Being by Jean-Luc Marion; What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by Jack Caputo; Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith by Merold Westphal; Texts Under Negotiation by Walter Brueggemann; The Fidelity of Betrayal by Pete Rollins; and The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle.
Hey, I read your comment over at Viola’s blog, and followed it here… Since we can’t really respond to other people’s comments there, I guess I can here!
I’m just curious about a few things you said…
You wrote: “Even the site of divine self-disclosure in Jesus Christ reveals God as unknown, dwelling in inaccessible light.”
Isn’t the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, becoming a man, and living among us, to show that he is no longer inaccessible? Isn’t that the significance of the curtain in the temple being torn in two?
You wrote: “the Jewish people have always had a wonderful tradition, Midrash, which acknowledged that because Scripture is alive, we always have something to contribute to its meaning…”
Aren’t those Jewish scholars who developed such a tradition the same ones who denied Jesus as the Messiah?… How do we justify borrowing such a practice from those who by their rejection of Christ, have rejected the entire point and purpose of the scriptures?
You wrote: “…So many authors, so many different takes on even the same events and people. And – perhaps most jarring – so many different takes on God.”
I find myself wondering where you find these differing takes on God within scripture. Sure, there are lots of different people with different perspectives, but to me the Bible itself does the work of showing which ideas about God are valid, and which are false….
And finally, you wrote: “During eras of certain interpretive grids – certain absolutist ways of reading – pluriform reading of Holy Writ was invariably a bad and divisive thing, something to be overcome.”
This one really confused me, because in my experience, it’s always been the proponents of this “pluriform” approach to scripture who’ve accused those in the “absolutist” camp of being devisive… Seems like invariably when I encounter someone who holds that the Bible has a multitude of meanings and interpretations, eventually it becomes apparent that they are coming from a background that has made them disdane anything that sounds “dogmatic”. These people always seem to equate the idea of absolute truth with being close-minded, arrogant, judgemental, and more or less a “bible-thumper”. Now I’ve met many of those types myself, and I understand how those stereotypes get formed. But to embrace this idea that the bible is open to multiple interpretations and that division shouldn’t be a natural result of it’s truth, is to make the bible really mean anything we want it to mean, and really, mean nothing… The bible itself says that the word of God divides, so we shouldn’t be surprised when it does.
Okay, enough already! I’m done…
In Christ, Daniel
“Just like Einstein and others discovered that the very act of scientific measurement affected what’s being measured, so our act of reading Scripture impacts its meaning. This isn’t something to be avoided; it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit to the interpretive community, the church.”
Or…it’s simply reader-response criticism. I would argue that varied application (as opposed to meaning) would be more appropriately contextualized within the varied covenant communities.
I think that a healthy distinction between application and interpretation works only toward the good.
Oh yes, I just noticed that zoecarnate was top of the list under Burnside Writer’s Collective Christian section. Tally-ho.
Maybe a slightly different angle:
God’s design is to grow us up in Him, as expressions of His image and ambassadors of His Kingdom in the earth.
The essential element in this, that which is being matured, is our love for one another. It is possible to disagree radically and still love–possible, but very difficult apart from grace, and very rare. But it is what God is determined to have.
So he lets us play our little games of interpreting and applying what He has said, to see whether at the end of the day we will still be loving one another, or whether in what Paul and James call childish behavior, we will be dropping bombs on one another, whether literal bombs or literary bombs.
And our response to this challenge proves openly what we are made of.
A response on the lighter side, different views of God (sadly, I’ve heard many of these views from the pulpit, albeit in less cynical tones):
1. THE ANGRY ACCOUNTANT ABOVE
HE SAYS: Remember, I’m keeping score! You really should be reading your Bible more. And when was the last time you memorized any scripture? Not one soul led to Me in all these years? And you call yourself a Christian?!
2. THE DIVINE DRILL SERGEANT
HE SAYS: Sure it’s tough now. But Job didn’t whine like you until things got REALLY bad! Just try to remember: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And, hey, I’m doing this for your own good. Go read Hebrews 12 again! And, smile when you suffer!
3. THE REALLY NICE GUY IN THE SKY
HE SAYS: Do you feel bad because you sinned again? It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. It happens. Now go play.
4. THE MASTER MORAL MONITOR
HE SAYS: Your repeated sinning absolutely disgusts me! I’ve just about had it with you!!! Your seventy-times-seven was up a LONG time ago!
5. THE ULTIMATE SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHER
HE SAYS: Remember, right doctrine equals right relationship! Ok, tell me again . . . where do you stand on abortion, homosexuality and the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture (KJV, of course)?
6. SOME MOODY DUDE IN THE CLOUDS (envision a long beard, white robe, and furrowed brow)
HE SAYS: I shall destroy them all in my wrath! (envision dramatic thunder and lightning here) er . . . ah, wait. Hey! Maybe I’ll forgive them today! What do I feel like doing today? Destroy or bless? Bless or destroy? Genocide or generosity? Decisions, decisions.
7. THE ABSENTEE DEITY
HE SAYS: nothing. just silence.
8. THE ORIGINAL MISOGYNIST
HE SAYS: Please, please, just keep the women in the back, you know . . . AWAY from the Holy part of the temple! And can you please get them to shut-up in church too? And remind them about the subservience thing too!
9. THE ETERNAL ERRAND BOY
HE SAYS: I want to bless you. Just ask. I specialize in gas gauges that are on “empty” and providing parking spots close to the entrance of the mall, and helping pro sports teams win (just don’t ask me how I decide which prayers to answer).
10. THE ULTIMATE REPUBLICAN
HE SAYS: If my people, which are called by my name, shall humbly pray, and seek my ways, and turn the heathen liberals from their wicked ways (be it by protest, ballot, blackmail, or bribe), then will I hear from heaven, and bless their land once again.
11. THE GOD OF CHRISTIAN MAGIC
HE SAYS: Wait, wait, no, you didn’t quite get the formula right! Will you puhleeeeze remember to end your prayers with “in Jesus’ Name”? How can I bless you if you can’t get it right? And, can’t you quote the Book, Chapter, and Verse when you’re claiming my promises? Come on people! Is that so much to ask if you’re going to name it and claim it? I went to a lot of work to come up with these rules for blessing you.
12. THE ONE WHO MUST BE IMPRESSED
HE SAYS: Hmmm, I don’t know if I want to answer that prayer yet. Add another prayer chain or two, and we’ll see how I feel then. Maybe if you can get over 367 people praying. Maybe then.
13. THE SLIGHTLY DENSE DEITY
HE SAYS: No, wait. Can you go over that again? When everyone in the Bible Study was telling their prayer requests, I sort of zoned out or something. Oh, you’re going to repeat everything for me in a formal prayer? Cool. Thanks!
14. THE LOVING, MYSTERIOUSLY MERCIFUL GOD
HE SAYS: I Passionately Desire Fellowship with You. In fact, I’m dying to have it with you.
15. THE GOD OF THE ELECT
HE SAYS: Where in the world did you get the idea that I love EVERYONE? I created billions of people for the express purpose of sending them to Hell, and yes, you’re probably one of them. What’s your position on the 15 points again?
16. THE RATIONAL GOD
HE SAYS: You want to “experience” my presence? Quit chasing after that mamby-pamby woowoo stuff. Feelings are irrelevant! The Christian walk is not about some mystical, contemplative trip. There are passages just waiting for you to exegete! How are you going to get to know ME if you don’t get your nose back in scripture, preferably in the original languages.
17. THE GOOD EVANGELICAL GOD
HE SAYS: Put down your candles and Brian McClaren books. Trust the fact that I gave the RIGHT answers to only one segment of the Church. I went to a lot of effort to evolve the Church to the point where that one portion of the Body developed a tidy, reliable systematic theology. Just think how frightening life would be without it. You should really pity those poor “emerging” people who lack your glorious certainty.
Sorry but what is so hard about FOLLOWING and obeying Jesus? To me, it would seem all denominations have come about because of man , whether it be for power, disagreement of interpretation of theology or even just for something different. Many of their names reflect a man and NOT Jesus.
I believe we are so entrenched in our little kingdoms (denominations)- even those that claim they are non-denominational are a denomination of sorts – that if we were to shed the baggage of man-made religion and focus on Jesus and following his example then the world woiuld be different.
We are too busy making Christians and not Disciples.
Well since Jesus recently arranged for me to drive up to France in a nice new Porsche, I must agree with Neal here.
“What is so hard about following…. Jesus?”
On a more serious note, and I’m more than troubled by this fact, I don’t believe that I have ever met a Christian in my 36 year American life.
If I have, I obviously didn’t recognize him (or her) for who they were.
How does one recognize a christian?
I’m really not sure.
My best guess is that they would resemble the Christ of the scriptures in thought, word and deed.
I fantasize about it, and I sometimes (though I try not to) refer to myself as being one, and I know tons of other people who are just like me in that respect, but it’s mostly a bunch of talk.
I’m not saying that I don’t know ‘good’, ‘kind’ or ‘sincere’ people.
I do, and I love them.
But where are those who have forsaken all for His names sake, for His kingdoms sake rather than to be part of a religion?
‘I’m really not sure.’
That’s honest. At any rate, you’ve probably seen plenty of Christians, just not the ideal Christian. We’re pretty much strung along a continuum of growing in our ‘Christianess’.
I did an interview with Frank a few weeks back. Very interesting stuff. Didn’t really know much about him, except nominally. Really enjoyed talking with him. You can read it here: http://www.neueministry.com/2008/08/qa-with-frank-viola-does-the-church-care-about-the-poor/