It is too easy to treat the bible as though God served up a huge dollop of something called “biblical truth.” All you need to do, to access this invaluable, pious, virtuous and tedious thing called truth, is to read your bible without falling prey to terminal boredom. And, hey presto, you can claim to have understood life, the universe and everything. This is, after all, God’s word –
Hence we celebrate the fact that we have had this bible in our native language, for four hundred years. But really, is understanding the bible simply a matter of grasping the language? As though, all you need to do is to take the time to read it? Last week, Professor Hooker mentioned that the Bible never describes itself as the Word of God, but rather as a Witness to God’s word.
To think that this book, is plain and simple, the Word of God – is a pretty lazy affair. As though God had deposited everything he wants to say to humanity, into a few hundred pages of text. So, if we want to learn about anything at all – all we need to do is read this book: it contains the objective truth of our history and our future.
But the authors throughout the books of Scripture, never saw it like that. For them, they have glimpsed something of who God is, and here they are – drawing our attention to it. Whether it is through their telling of world history, through the narrative of their own experience, or through poetry, or parable, or law – these writers are witnesses, drawing our attention to who this God is.
So the point of listening well to these authors, is not simply to register the words they write so we can then quote those words at ourselves and others. To listen well to these authors, is to locate ourselves as near as possible to where they are standing – so that we can see precisely what it is they are pointing us towards.
And if these witnesses point us towards God, then to read scripture well – is not to process the language correctly, but to be drawn into living encounter with the God to whom these Scriptures are pointing. And that is a disturbing business. Who wants God to come along and disrupt your handle on the world, who wants this God to come along and re-write the story of your life? Who wants to be confronted by a God who is likely to challenge our self-understanding, our place in the world, the way we live and act and behave? Who wants this God to disrupt our precious beliefs about God himself? Who wants to read this book in such a way as be drawn into a regular dynamic of disturbance, and disruption and growth?
No no – it is much easier to treat this thing called the Bible as the Word of God. That way, we can control it! Why else have we carved it up into bizarre little portions we call ‘chapter and verse’? Only in medieval times was the system of chapters and verses imposed upon Holy Scripture. It makes it much easier to navigate our way around the Bible. But it is also a means of us establishing control over this book.
The more Scripture comes under our control, the more it falls prey to our conquering mentality, the more we regard it as mystery to be unlocked, or a tool to be used, the less Holy it becomes. In a technological age, the living word of Holy Scripture is all-too-easily domesticated, tamed, brought under control.
The result is that it becomes a source for ‘proof texting’ our treasured views of the world. Scripture is infallible, so if we can find a verse to back up our assumptions, we too are infallible. Hurray! Christian conferences, bible studies and paperbacks are full of self-help strategies, management theory and pyramid selling techniques, all justified by the use of chapter and verse.
To be sure, Jesus himself was happy to quote Scripture. But he never did so as chapter and verse because chapters and verses had not been invented. This means that any biblical figure or author, when quoting Scripture, was unable to use it merely as proof text in the crude manner we often hear today. Any text that was quoted would, in the mind of both speaker and hearer, express the entire context from which it arose. There was no such thing as a disconnected verse – it always came to you with the entire context most definitely in tow! This is a million miles from contemporary books, sermons, debates and conversations in which Scriptural texts are randomly plucked from varying places merely to show that your own position is ‘biblical’.
So much for treating the Bible as though it were God’s Word, as though this text were an end in itself. The bible itself has a word that describes what happens when you take something intended to be a penultimate value, and turn it into an ultimate one – when we make something temporal, and end in itself. It is called idolatry – in the case of the bible, it is called Bibliotatry. Idolising the Bible as God’s Word, instead of being drawn into active engagement with the God whose Word it is!
Last week, Professor Hooker drew attention to psalm 137 – written by Boney M. But as the psalm reaches its close, neither Boney M nor the Christian song-writers tend to use the closing verses, where the psalmist celebrates the slaughter of the enemy’s babies. “Blessed is the one who takes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
What do you do with words like that? If the Bible is simply the word of God, then you are forced into a pretty nasty picture of who God is. This lazy view of Scripture is often taken by Evangelical Christians who perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to try and excuse the Word of God for being so ungodly. Equally lazy is the anti-Christian view that says – there, you see, violence is condoned and even encouraged by this God.
But – if, instead of treating the Bible as God’s word, we hear it as a witness to God’s Word – then another possibility presents itself. If this is a pointer to who God is, then it is our job to stand as close as possible to the person who penned these words, the author. This is someone who, like his contemporaries, has been through horrific trauma. He has seen his precious, Holy City, the embodiment of peace and security, of all that is good and right and true – he has seen Jerusalem sacked, he has seen the temple destroyed, he has seen his people slaughtered. And now, he has been taken prisoner to a distant land – where the people are mocking him.
Now, there are plenty of people in the world today who have experienced trauma. Who have been hurt, mocked, belittled, betrayed. Who have suffered injustice and continue to suffer injustice on a macro as well as a micro scale. And what is the most natural thing to do – when someone hurts you? To hurt them back. What is the most natural thing in the world, when someone steals life? It is to exact revenge. And Ancient Israel did not have a great track record when it came to violence towards others. But now, for whatever reason, whether virtuous or otherwise, the psalmist has not exacted revenge. It has been left to God. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay.
If you have been in a situation when you have had opportunity to take revenge, and not taken it – then, it becomes a liberating read. The author is pointing beyond the certainties of being in the right, beyond retributive justice, beyond an eye for an eye – to see something else at work. We see the human struggle of being treated unjustly, to the point of death – and we see the honest, gritty, natural reaction of a desire for revenge. But, that revenge is not taken.
Recognising the authority of this text, means recognising the author himself – who he is, what is experience is. Identifying with him, and allowing him to reach you.
Ultimately, that is what we see in Jesus, on the cross. The cost of being wrongly treated, and not reacting with violence. The psalm offers a way of unloading the pain of suffering injustice, without unloading by means of violence. Revenge, says one person, is the coward’s way of dealing with pain.
To grapple with Holy Scripture, is not to learn a set of correct facts. It is to engage with who the witnesses
The Old Testament reading makes a similar point. The parable that Nathan gives to David, is not simply a dry story intended to go nowhere. It pulls the rug from under David’s feet – he is forced to react – he is drawn into this dynamic engagement with the God who speaks.
Scripture is not so much a huge dollop of truth that just sits on your plate like a big, English suet pudding. These books of the bible are more of an invitation to encounter a strange new world, a set of lenses through which we might look, in order to make sense of the world. Maybe as we experience the world in a different way, as we begin to see the world in a different way – it may just be that we have a different kind of impact upon the world – one in which the way we live serve as a witness to who God is and what he is doing in the world.