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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Our Holy Scriptures: an invitation to share in a conversation about the nature of life

This evening I spoke on 'Our Holy Scriptures' at the East London Three Faiths Forum where I said the following:

In a context where we are attempting to dialogue about our different faiths and where the strapline is that “there can be no peace between the religions without religious dialogue,” I thought it may be appropriate to speak about the Christian scriptures as a site for dialogue.

Scriptural Reasoning,’ which is championed in the UK by the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme sees Jews, Christians and Muslims meeting to read passages from their respective Holy Scriptures together. Together they discuss the content of those texts, and the variety of ways in which their traditions have worked with them and continue to work with them, and the ways in which those texts shape their understanding of and engagement with a range of contemporary issues. The goal is not agreement but rather growth in understanding one another's traditions and deeper exploration of the texts and their possible interpretations. 

What I would like to explore is why, from a Christian perspective, it is possible to do this with our holy scriptures and to do that I need to begin by talking about the form or shape of the Christian scriptures.

When we think about the form and shape of the Christian scriptures we need to remember that we are not speaking of one book but a collection of books. Maggi Dawn has, for example, written that the Bible’s: "stories are not laid out chronologically, and it is the work of so many different authors, in different genres and from different times, that although it seems like a book it would be more apt to call it a small library." Similarly, James Barr has said that the Bible needs “to be thought of not so much as a book but as a cave or cupboard in which a miscellany of scrolls has been crammed."

Other images for this diversity of form and content which I have found helpful include Mike Riddell’s description of the Bible as "a collection of bits" assembled to form God’s home page or Mark Oakley’s more poetic image of the Bible as "the best example of a collage of God that we have.” Riddell and Oakley both develop their images of the Bible from the recognition that the whole Christian Bible contains, as Oakley says, “different views, experiences, beliefs and prayers” drawn “from disparate eras, cultures and authors” which are not systematic in their portrayal of God. As Riddell states:

“The bits don’t fit together very well – sometimes they even seem to be contradictory. Stories, poems, teachings, records, events and miracles rub up against each other. They come from all over the place, and span at least 4,000 years of history.”

This is not surprising when there are in the New Testament, for example, four Gospels not one, when there are at least two different accounts of St Paul’s conversion and ministry, and when the principal form of the New Testament – the letter – is the form of long-distance, written conversation where we don’t have all the letters which originally formed that conversation.

To ignore the disparate nature and form of the Christian scriptures is to run significant risks as Riddell warns us:

“ … let us be aware that the assembled parts of the Bible are collected in a somewhat haphazard fashion. To push them into chronological order requires a great deal of scholarship, and runs the danger of doing violence to the material.”

The Christian scriptures, then, do not move forward in the smooth linear style of, for example, a nineteenth century novel, an academic thesis, a sermon or a systematic theology. Reading the Bible in terms of linearity or chronology is a stop-start process involving multiple perspectives on the same key events or characters and extensive wastelands where little or nothing of significance happens or is recorded.

The literary critic Gabriel Josipovici describes well how this works when he writes of the Hebrew scriptures. He suggests that the scriptures work “by way of minimal units laid alongside each other, the narrative being built up by slotting these together where necessary”. This form then affects the content because “events are laid out alongside each other, without comment, and we are never allowed to know whether the pattern we see emerging at one point is the true pattern”:

“This is an extraordinarily simple and an extraordinarily flexible system, which can lead from what could almost be described as shorthand to rich elaboration … Each new element … helps to bring into focus prior elements which we would have overlooked had we not been alerted to them by what follows.”

Despite the Christian scriptures having this form there is also a clear story which is threaded through the disparate and fragmented books and genres of the Bible. Josipovici also writes:

“It’s a magnificent conception, spread over thousands of pages and encompassing the entire history of the universe. There is both perfect correspondence between Old and New Testaments and a continuous forward drive from Creation to the end of time: ‘It begins where time begins, with the creation of the world; it ends where time ends, with the Apocalypse, and it surveys human history in between, or the aspect of history it is interested in, under the symbolic names of Adam and Israel’.”

So, what we have in the Christian scriptures is a both/and. A linear narrative thrust is combined with fragments of writings or story that are laid side by side so that each fragment adds to and challenges the others.

The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, similarly, suggests that the Bible has both “a central direction and a rich diversity” which means “that not all parts will cohere or agree” although it has a “central agenda.”  The Bible is, therefore, structured like a good conversation with a central thread but many topics and diversions. On this basis, Brueggemann emphasises that “the Bible is not an “object” for us to study but a partner with whom we may dialogue.” In the image of God, he says, “we are meant for the kind of dialogue in which we are each time nurtured and called into question by the dialogue partner.” It is the task of Christian maturing, he argues, “to become more fully dialogical, to be more fully available to and responsive to the dialogue partner”:

“… the Bible is not a closed object but a dialogue partner whom we must address but who also takes us seriously. We may analyze, but we must also listen and expect to be addressed. We listen to have our identity given to us, our present way called into question, and our future promised to us.”

It is not only the form of the Bible, however, which makes it a site for dialogue but its content as well. Again writings about the Hebrew scriptures can help open our Christian eyes to aspects of the scriptures we may have overlooked. For example, Jonathan Sacks commenting on Midrash Raba in his fascinating series of Faith Lectures, states that:

“Abraham says: God, why did you abandon the world? God says to Abraham: Why did you abandon Me? And there then begins that dialogue between Heaven and Earth which has not ceased in 4,000 years. That dialogue in which God and Man find one another.”

“Only thus,” Sacks says, “can we understand the great dialogues between God and Abraham and Moses and Jeremiah and Job”

Similarly Mike Riddell has noted that for Christians “Jesus represents the essence of God’s desire to communicate with humanity.” Jesus is “the self-communication of God.” This is why he is ‘the Word of God’ and this is why Erasmus, in his 1516 translation of the New Testament, translated ‘logos’ as ‘Conversation’ not ‘Word’. A contemporary paraphrase of the Prologue to John’s Gospel based on Erasmus’ translation reads as follows:

“It all arose out of a conversation, conversation within God, in fact the conversation was God. So God started the discussion, and everything came out of this, and nothing happened without consultation.

This was the life, life that was the light of men, shining in the darkness, a darkness which neither understood nor quenched its creativity.

John, a man sent by God, came to remind people about the nature of the light so that they would observe. He was not the subject under discussion, but the bearer of an invitation to join in.

The subject of the conversation, the original light, came into the world, the world that had arisen out of his willingness to converse. He fleshed out the words but the world did not understand. He came to those who knew the language, but they did not respond. Those who did became a new creation (his children). They read the signs and responded.

These children were born out of sharing in the creative activity of God. They heard the conversation still going on, here, now, and took part, discovering a new way of being people.

To be invited to share in a conversation about the nature of life was for them, a glorious opportunity not to be missed.” (John 1: 1-14 revisited)

Rowan Williams makes a similar point in his book ‘Christ on Trial’ where he writes:

“All human identity is constructed through conversations, in one way or another. The gospel adds the news that, in order to find the pivot of our identity as human beings, there is one inescapable encounter, one all-important conversation into which we must be drawn. This is not just the encounter with God, in a general sense, but the encounter with God made vulnerable, God confronting the systems and exclusions of the human world within that world – so that, among other things, we can connect the encounter with God to those human encounters where we are challenged to listen to the outsider and the victim.”

So, for Christians, to be able to enter into the conversation initiated by God by encountering the subject of the conversation – God made vulnerable – is what forms our identity. This puts dialogue at the centre of our faith and our holy scriptures which can then mean that the kind of dialogue between scriptures which occurs in processes like Scriptural Reasoning can be seen as a significant expression of something which is at the very heart of Christian faith.  


Sufjan Stevens - All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands.

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