Friday, October 30, 2009

Which Bible do the Bible Believers Believe? Future of Faith #11

Transforming Theology Project
Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009

Chapter 11: Meet Rocky, Maggie, and Barry:
Which Bible Do the Bible Believers Believe?

Conservative Christians are clear on one thing. They believe in the Bible. Cox doesn’t mention it, but just a few decades ago Harold Lindsell made much ado about a supposed battle for the Bible. Among his targets was my alma mater, Fuller Seminary, a school Lindsell helped found. They weren’t strict enough, having traded inerrancy for a more flexible infalliblist stance. The battle continues to rage to this day. The question that Harvey Cox raises in this chapter is a good one – which Bible are we talking about? After all, a church in North Carolina is burning bibles, except the divinely authorized KJV. And a Right Wing activist is going to publish a conservative Bible, which corrects the text so it fits conservative Republican ideology.

So, when we say that we follow the Bible, which Bible is it? Is it the Catholic version or the Protestant one or maybe the Hebrew Bible. Does it include the so-called Apocrypha (deutero-canonicals) or not? Should we wonder with Luther whether James might best be left out of the canon (or as some modern critics ask – Revelation?)

If you were to travel back into time and spend time with second century Christians, you would quickly discover that their Bible consisted of an Old Testament, but not a New Testament, and the version of the OT they would have been using would have been the Septuagint. As for the emerging New Testament, decisions on what was sacred and what was not had yet to be made. Christians were just as likely to consult 1 Clement or the Shepherd of Hermas as they would Paul’s letters or one of our canonical gospels. And if we were to travel back to the fifteenth century we would find the church using books that the Reformers would be rejecting in the sixteenth century.

Of course, canonical issues are one thing, and translation issues are another. Which one is the right one? Consider for a moment that furor caused by the translators of the Revised Standard Version in the 1950s, when they followed the logic of the Hebrew text and rendered Isaiah 7:14 with a young woman rather than a virgin bearing the promised child. Although there was much angst, the issues aren’t new. Origen wrestled with translation issues back in the 3rd century, wondering which translation was the right one.

Of course, sophisticated Fundamentalists (as opposed to the KJV only crowd) know that no translation is perfect. Thus, they generally fall back on the original Greek and Hebrew. But alas, no such original documents are currently known to exist. Thus, they must take it by faith – but faith based on something without evidence. At best we must rely on copies of copies, some of which lack sections of texts that have long appeared in our Bibles.

Cox does have some fun with the issue by pointing out trends in translation and editions, including one called Good as News, a version I’d never heard of before, which goes so far as to change names into modern nick names – Rocky for Peter, Maggie for Mary Magdalene, and Barry for Barnabas. Then there’s Revolve, a magazine style Bible aimed at teenage girls, a version including dating, beauty, and dieting tips. What is interesting is that while seemingly up on the latest trends, including a translation I’d never heard of, he speaks of Good News for Modern Man as if it’s the latest thing on the market – despite the fact that it’s been out since the 1960s. And now, one that Cox doesn’t mention, one that should likely be kept for adults only, Robert Crumb’s version of Genesis. And, we shouldn't forget Thomas Jefferson’s cut and paste edition.

But even this isn’t enough, for there’s not just the standard translations and texts, but all manner of non-canonical texts to consider, many of which were discovered in the last century. Documents like the Gospel of Thomas, remind us that there were other Christians, unconventional ones who once existed alongside the “orthodox” groups that we know today. Cox writes of the importance of these additional texts for the contemporary world.

The antiquity and “authenticity” (whatever that term means) of each of them is constantly disputed. But they serve the positive purpose of demonstrating that a wide variety of different versions of Christianity, not just one, flourished during those early centuries. The enormous interest in them today suggests that they offer an alternative spirituality that is attractive to man twenty-first century people (p. 165).

Now, I may not be as excited about these extra texts as Cox is, but their existence and their popularity suggests that people are looking for more options, and that our traditional understandings of faith are coming into question.

But, if all of this – from translation issues to the breadth of the canon isn’t enough, we must also deal with the writings of other religions, writings that are taken just as seriously by the adherents of those religions as the Bible is by Christians. Indeed, Cox asks an important question that is worth considering: Does it bother Fundamentalists that conservative groups within other religious traditions share the same view as to the authority and inspiration of their sacred texts as do these Christians? Indeed, he writes:
I sometimes wonder if those who would like to get prayer and scripture reading back into public-school classrooms (which might, under certain conditions, be a good idea) would allow the scripture to be read from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita or the prayer to be the Muslim Shahada in classes in which there are students from those traditions, as there are in many American cities (p. 167).

When we talk about the Bible in America, we need to recognize the diversity of options available, including those that lie beyond the Christian or even the Jewish Bibles.

So, how did we get into this predicament? What were the turning points in history that lead to our modern debates? Cox makes an interesting suggestion that includes four primary turning points. The first is the creation of the printing press in the 15th century, which allowed for an increase in literacy and the wide distribution of the biblical text – essentially democratizing access to the Bible. This was followed several centuries later by the birth of the historical critical method, which ironically attempted to remove the Bible from the hands of the people and return it to the elite – this time not to priests, but to scholars. This 19th century move was followed in quick succession by the birth of fundamentalism, which tried to take the bible back from the historical critics and give it to the people. The fourth movement occurred in the 20th century, as the Bible was liberated from both critics and fundamentalists – largely by Christians living in the global south who had different needs and issues. Cox sees hope for the future in this fourth movement, for in this we move beyond both critics and fundamentalists. It might seem a bit odd to read a Harvard Divinity School faculty member tell readers to take the historical critics and their skepticism with a grain of salt, but he does (p. 168).

It’s not that Cox wants us to return to literalism, but rather he would have us treat scripture more like we would Shakespeare. Rather than getting caught in textual minutiae, we should attend to the broader, and quite powerful, narrative. We should read with imagination, rather than either trying to sanctify it or pick apart its accuracy. The Bible is, he writes, too important to be left to either the critics or the Bible thumpers. Yes, we need to know from whence it came, and why, but at the same time we need to let it speak on its own. But if we’re going to let it speak it will take hard work on our part to hear what it might have to say to us.

To let it speak, we will have to recognize that the text of scripture includes materials that are less than savory, that differ from our modern sensibilities, but there is something that it can say, if we let it speak to us.


Anonymous said...

In The Great Emergence, Tickle raises the question of the source for authority in this new time. While the bible will still hold a key place at the center of faith, the interpretation of a community led by the Spirit will move to a more central place of authority. So, WHICH Bible will not be the question but which community of interpretation are you a part of will.

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?