HONORING THE BOOK
The Bible occupies a pre-eminent place in American life. James Bryce, whom I am fond of quoting, once observed in 1897 with routine perspicacity that "the Bible and Christian theology altogether do more in the way of forming the imaginative background to an average American view of the world of man and nature than they do in modern Protestant Europe." If anything, the spiritual distance between Europe and America has lengthened since Viscount Bryce penned these words. The role of the Bible in daily living may be what sets America decisively apart from not only Europe, but also other countries.
I become rankled when those from other parts of the world immigrate to America and insist not only upon bringing their own religions with them, but also upon our government and civil society changing their laws and mores to accommodate old world cultures. I read recently that some Muslims are furious that American public libraries do not provide the Koran a conspicuous place of honor alongside the Bible, instead of relegating the Koran at times to the bottom shelf in a "World Religions" section of the stacks.
The Koran should not be given the same kind of respect and attention in America today as the Bible enjoys. Why? Because the Bible is central to traditional American culture. The Koran, the Analects of Confucius, and the Gita are not. Those who scream otherwise do not understand who the American people are and always have been.
I note these truths for the benefit of those on the left. But are there not truths of equal magnitude to be underscored for the benefit of those on the right? Yes, there are.
Recently I was having lunch with a Christian gentleman who, while speaking with the utmost authority on the subject of religion in America, shared that he thought we should all "just adhere to the Bible as originally written." I usually comport myself gingerly during such lunches, but his faux pas was so serious and glaring that I could not bring myself to comment on his statement. It would have embarrassed even me to do so. Here are the unalterable facts: we do not have the Biblical autographs! What we do have are manuscripts written well after the events they record. And, oh, yes, no two of the manuscripts are alike. Multiple redactions are evident throughout them. Some manuscripts include stories that others do not. Because a line of manuscripts may not be reliable, certain stories that they alone attest are often omitted from the canon. A case in point is the story of the woman who was caught in the act of adultery and was brought to Jesus prior to the imposition of her death sentence. Jesus was reported to have asserted, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." This is one of the most often quoted verses in the Bible, but the earliest and best manuscripts leave out John 7:53-8:11 altogether. The monks who copied the manuscripts and changed them at will seemed to have had no idea that, in doing so, they were dealing with the "verbally inspired" Word of God.
"Well," you ask, "what about that verse in the third chapter of the Second Letter to Timothy, stating that "[a]ll scripture is inspired by God . . . ."? The New Testament had not been compiled when these words were written, nor do the words advance or defend a theory of "verbal" inspiration. Moreover, at least one famous Old Testament scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel, has translated the words as "[a]ll scripture that is inspired by God . . . ."
My intent is not to denigrate the Bible. I am convinced that I respect and honor it as much as anyone. Yet I refuse to do so by "worshiping" it or making it something it is not. It is not, for example, the fourth person of the Godhead. It is also not a collection of writings which interprets life from a single, uniform and systematic theological point of view. Pardon me, but those who utilize the Bible in this way actually pervert it. They tend to remind me of Mr. Dooley's definition of a fanatic: some one who "does what he thinks th' Lord would do if He only knew th' facts in the' case."
As a child growing up in a religiously fundamentalist home, I remember attending Bible study one Wednesday night. A minister, towering over me with a huge black Bible in his hand (the King James Version of course), pounded it against the table at which I was seated, and stated, "Son, the hand that wrote this book is divine! It is perfect down to the last particle of punctuation!" It later came as a surprise when I learned that extant New Testament manuscripts have no punctuation. So does it help to inflate our praise of Holy Scripture? No, not really.
The Bible is the normative witness of the Christian faith. By studying it we understand the contours of the faith and see how it developed. The book includes the only accounts we have of Jesus's life. That in itself is enough to humble me.
I cannot imagine the Bible not being the centerpiece of my church or culture. It does not, however, follow from this fact, that when we set out to appropriate its meaning today, we should "partialize" reality (to use Otto Rank's word) to the extent of excluding logic and reason, experience, philosophy, the history of Christian thought, tradition, and the other rich products of Western civilization. Understanding the world in which one lives, as a Christian, is an expansive undertaking, not one which came to an abrupt halt after the first century.
February 14, 2010