The Bible in a Disenchanted Age | R. W. L. Moberly

The Bible in a Disenchanted Age

The following is an excerpt from The Bible in a Disenchanted Age by R. W. L. Moberly. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

In this book I offer a fresh (I hope) account of the nature of the Bible and of appropriate attitudes towards it and ways of reading it. I consider something of what is involved in regarding the Bible as a vehicle for faith in God today in a disenchanted world—that is, a world in which faith and God seem ever less comprehensible or meaningful to an increasing proportion of the population, whose deepest intuitions and hopes (at least insofar as they are consciously articulated) are oriented elsewhere. I also consider some aspects of what kind of scholarly study is best suited to do justice to the Bible, should one’s interest in it be primarily that of regarding it as a vehicle for faith in God today.

On most reckonings, there is a close link between the content of the Bible and the content of Christian faith, at least in general terms—hence the importance of discussing approaches to the Bible in relation to questions about faith. Consider a summary account of biblical content such as: “God has made and sustains this world, and in it He calls a people, Israel and the church, to know and serve Him, to resist sin and evil, and to implement His priorities for life in its fullness. Through God’s grace and through faith in Jesus Christ, we come to know God and to be part of His people, and thereby know ourselves to be beloved, accountable, and invited to eternal joy.” Whatever the merits of this as a summary of biblical content—and any summary account will be debatable in terms of what is and is not included, and how it is put—it depicts a “big picture” whose acceptance or rejection is in certain ways equivalent to acceptance or rejection of Christian faith and identity. For the Bible offers a vision of the world in which right and wrong matter profoundly (far more than success and failure), alongside a divine grace that defies moral calculations. It offers a vision of the world in which, whatever the disappointments and sufferings and tragedies, there can be hope of an ultimate goodness and wonder beyond human imagining. However much discussions about the Bible tend to focus on more mundane and specific concerns (not least hot-button contemporary issues of gender and sexuality), the importance of the big picture needs to be kept in mind to appreciate what is really at stake.

I have no concern to try to offer apparently irresistible arguments for “believing the Bible.” There are indeed good reasons for having faith in God and for trusting the Bible, and I will try to indicate some of them, but the skeptic who wants to remain skeptical will also not lack good arguments.1 I am, however, interested in giving an account of the processes that are regularly at work if and when people do come to have faith and to trust what they read in the Bible. In other words, I am concerned not only with the why but also with the how in relation to faith and the Bible.“I am writing as a Christian (Anglican) and a professional scholar, in a way that I hope will make sense to a wide range of Christians of differing traditions and also be accessible and meaningful to those without faith. I do not suppose that all readers will like what I say. Some will no doubt critique my account of the Bible and faith as too thin. Others will no doubt critique me for claiming too much, and maybe even regard it as outrageous that an account of faith in God through the Bible should still be offered at all by a scholar who is employed by a secular British university in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, in the hope of managing and directing readers’ expectations, I would like at the outset to say a few words about what I am, and am not, trying to do.

Two Caveats

First, it is perilous to generalize about the Bible, either in terms of its content or in terms of attitudes towards it both within and outside the churches. Its content is so diverse in form and expression, and attitudes towards it are so variegated and complex, that any generalization will necessarily have to pass over numerous exceptions and qualifications that might be made. Nonetheless, I propose to put forward a particular thesis about the Bible as a whole, though I will discuss less than 1 percent of its content; and this approach will no doubt fail to address difficult issues that some readers might hope to find addressed here. I ask that allowance be made from the outset for the restrictions of my particular focus. I hope, however, that the approach will be justified by its practical fruitfulness in enabling at least some specific issues to be seen more clearly.

Second, throughout the book, unless I specify otherwise, I discuss the Christian Bible, comprising the Old and New Testaments. I do so with awareness of, and without prejudice towards, the distinct Jewish understanding of Bible as Tanakh: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Although I hope that aspects of what I say might have some applicability in a Jewish frame of reference—and I shall sometimes refer to the importance of Jewish as well as Christian attitudes towards their Scriptures—the distinctive dynamics of a Jewish frame of reference require a different discussion.

How Should the Credibility of the Bible Be Construed?

One of the main things I am hoping to do is to provide an understanding of the Bible and faith that will serve as an alternative to one particular account that is commonly encountered. I have in mind the long history in modernity of attacks on, and defenses of, the Bible and its credibility that have been couched in the categories of historical reliability or unreliability—though this is something that I can depict here only with the broadest of brushstrokes. I need at least briefly to clarify at the outset why my own account of faith and the Bible will not take this route.

It is undoubtedly the case that many people consider the Bible to be more trustworthy if it can be shown to be based on accurate historical facts. This is attested by a mass of literature, both scholarly and popular. The underlying logic often apparently revolves around some form of the question, how could the historically unreliable be the religiously reliable? Put positively: if the Bible can be shown to be accurate where it can be tested in matters of historical fact, then it becomes more reasonable to take it on faith—that is, to believe it—when it says things that are not amenable to historical verification. There is an obvious logic to this, which is presumably why it has wide appeal. That logic is related to the distinctive Christian contention that at a particular time and place, God became human in Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. How can this particularity be maintained, if not by its historical veracity?

“Nonetheless, there are at least two basic difficulties with such an approach. First, it is unclear why accurate historical evidence should produce faith in the living God. It is perfectly possible for someone to grant that there is much reliable historical material in the Bible and yet be disinclined to believe in the God of the Bible. Other factors must also come into play, and these other factors are likely to be decisive. Even in the case of the resurrection of Jesus, accepting that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was raised to life does not necessarily lead to Christian faith. One might suppose, for example, that Jesus, like Lazarus, died again in due course. A conviction that Jesus was raised would lead to Christian faith only if one also accepts the particular construal of the resurrection that Paul presents, that “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9), and that this creates a new reality into which others too can enter. Of course, it can still be argued that historical reliability plays a necessary critical role—if the event did not happen, its supposed meaning is empty—but this leads into the second difficulty.

The modern categories of “history” and “historical reliability” are more problematic to apply to the biblical text than is often realized. Although the writers of the great Old Testament narratives and of the Gospels were undoubtedly concerned with things that happened in the past, their approach to their material is not that of modern historiography or the modern analytical historian. In many ways it is closer to the approach of the historical novelist or dramatist, with a concern to speak to the present through creative use of the past (perhaps often akin to the notion of “cultural memory”). We can create an insoluble problem if we appraise the Bible in relation to our own preferred categories without sufficiently trying to discover what its own preferred categories and conventions are.

There is a sense in which the biblical writers anticipated some of the conventions of the modern movie. For example, when the pharaoh’s daughter adopted Moses, “she named him Moses [Hebrew mōsheh], ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out [māshāh] of the water’” (Exod. 2:10). Modern scholars have often pointed to a note of historical authenticity here, in that the name Moses looks to be a genuinely Egyptian name, akin to Tutmose or Rameses. Well and good. However, the story straightforwardly attributes the name to the pharaoh’s daughter, an Egyptian, making a pun in Hebrew, the language of Israel. Although some ancient rabbis ingeniously suggested that perhaps she was so sympathetic to the Hebrew people that she took lessons in learning their language, such rationalizing is extraneous to the story’s own frame of reference and misreads its genre and literary conventions. Rather, the narrator is using the common dramatic convention whereby all characters operate in the language of the target audience.

In addition, the narrator, like a movie camera, enables the reader/viewer to be where they need to be, when they need to be there. So, for example, when David and Goliath speak on the battlefield, we know exactly what they say (1 Sam. 17:43–47). We are not positioned somewhere in the ranks of the Israelite army, struggling to hear what is being said somewhere ahead of us; we are up close, seeing and hearing. And we are similarly up close for a conversation between Israel’s king and his chief of staff, as Saul speaks with Abner about David at the very time that David is going out on the battlefield (17:55–56). We, like the narrator, are free of mundane constraints, so that we are privy to the story, just as in movies.

In Luke’s account of Jesus in Gethsemane, Jesus prays in such anguish that “his sweat [becomes] like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44).3 Here Luke’s narration serves as the equivalent of a zoom lens. It is the middle of the night (admittedly, with a full moon around Passover), and Jesus’ disciples are a short distance away, struggling unsuccessfully to stay awake. Yet we, the readers, are brought right up close, just a few feet away, so that we can see great drops of sweat on Jesus’ face and understand something of the depth of his anguished prayer. The narrator, like the camera, is free from mundane constraints and thus enables us to be where we could not be otherwise; no eyewitness was actually close enough to see sweat on Jesus. To recognize the conventions with which the narrator works—conventions sometimes summarily described by the literary category “omniscient narrator”—makes the text resistant to certain kinds of historical analysis. This is not because Jesus did not pray in Gethsemane, but because the narrative portrayal is cast in a dramatic and engaging mode.

My argument in this book is an alternative to an “evidentialist” approach to belief in relation to God and to the Bible. I do not at all wish to deny that there is substantive historical content in the Bible, or that Jesus was raised from the dead, or that questions of historical reliability can often play a significant role in people coming to, or maintaining, or losing, faith. Not least, this is because people are accustomed to issues of faith and the Bible being framed in this way. My thesis, however, is that to start here, and to frame issues accordingly, is not the best place to start, and indeed that it risks skewing important issues. I propose that it would be good for the high road of arguments over historical reliability to become a road rather less traveled. In its place I will propose the desirability of taking a journey of biblical exploration in the company of people both past and present whom one has good reason to trust.

Praise for The Bible in a Disenchanted Age

“This delightful little book addresses a very large question: How does reading the Bible differ from reading works that are comparable to it in important ways? Scrupulously fair and, in fact, generous to non-Christians (including contemporary skeptics), its author draws on his profound engagement with Christian sources and his immense humanistic learning to probe the challenges and subtleties—and also the rewards—of holding a commitment to a scriptural religion in our time. I highly recommend this thoughtful, sensitive, and stimulating volume. I profited from reading it and so will you!”
Jon D. Levenson, Harvard University

“In this gem of a book, Walter Moberly addresses the difficult question of what it might mean to trust the Bible in an era marked by distrust, particularly when any sort of religious claim is at stake. With his characteristic clarity, candor, breadth of learning, and intellectual generosity, Moberly proves a sure-footed guide through the thicket of challenges to trusting both the Bible and the God to whom it bears witness.”
Marianne Meye Thompson, Fuller Theological Seminary

“How is reading the Bible not like reading any other book? Moberly elegantly reflects on this question, deftly articulating a distinctive account of biblical interpretation. Challenging the ‘evidentialist’ approach typically adopted on the right and the left, he instead develops a participatory hermeneutic of trust, in which interpretation is pursued in continuity with religious community and the biblical text is engaged with ‘full imaginative seriousness.’ This hermeneutic remains hospitable to other approaches and seeks to learn from them. Yet Moberly also invites renewed conversation between academic biblical study and traditional Christian faith and practice.”
Stephen B. Chapman, Duke University

“This book is vintage Moberly: a sensitive reading of a variety of biblical texts that provides the modern reader—whatever his or her theological inclinations—with a compelling argument for taking the message of the Bible seriously. Refreshingly free of glib truisms, it plumbs the depths of biblical religion. Reading this book is a moving experience!”
Gary Anderson, University of Notre Dame

About the Author

R. W. L. MoberlyR. W. L. Moberly is Emeritus Professor at Durham University. The overall concern in his scholarly work is the responsible understanding and use of the Bible in the life, thought, and spirituality of Christian faith today. He has been involved in two projects at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, NJ, each of which has sought to articulate a renewed and robust understanding and use of the Bible for contemporary Christian life and thought.


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