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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Strange but true: the irrelevance of Scripture for the church today

A living language never stands still, and translators and rewriters of the Bible are always running to keep up with the latest shifts and mutations in the vernacular. We are highly conscious of the gulf that exists between these ancient religious texts and contemporary western culture, and instinctively we feel the need to reduce that gulf by repeatedly updating the Word of God so that it speaks more clearly to people today. Rob Lacey’s much acclaimed hip, edgy Street Bible is a recent example (see also this article at telegraph.co.uk):

Day three: God says, ‘Too much water! We need something to walk on, a huge lump of it – call it “land”. Let the “sea” lick its edges.’ God smiles, says, ‘Now we’ve got us some definition. But it’s too plain! It needs colour! Vegetation! Loads of it. A million shades. Now!’ And the earth goes wild with trees, bushes, plants, flowers and fungi. ‘Now give it a growth permit.’ Seeds appear in every one. ‘Yesss!’ says God. (Gen.1:9-13)

It is obviously necessary to update our English translations: if we are going to read the Bible, we should be able to read it in a language that is transparent to us, not opaque like the grimy stained glass of the King James Version. But I suspect that what drives the production of these paraphrases is not so much the need to communicate clearly but the desire to be relevant. It is here that we may discern a peculiarly ‘modern’ failing: the extreme intolerance of ambiguity, contradiction, and irrelevance.

i) I would question the assumption that Scripture ought to be immediately accessible, easily intelligible, to the modern reader. The problem is that the Bible is not a modern text: it is an ancient text, written to address ancient circumstances, constructed out of the peculiar thought-forms of an ancient worldview, and it should seem strange and irrelevant to us. Although we may want to construe it theologically as the Word of God for his people today, always pertinent, always meaningful, this understanding of Scripture is unavoidably at odds with its intrinsic literary nature. In my view this contradiction between real identity and perceived identity accounts for much of the misinterpretation of Scripture – and indeed the bad theology – that has sustained modern evangelicalism.

ii) The modernizing approach reinforces the belief that form can be separated from content. It works on the dualistic premise that the Bible is made up of an abstract body of timeless truth, on the one hand, and a package of culturally determined words and images, on the other. On that basis relevance is achieved essentially by repackaging the timeless content.

This dissociation of form and content has serious consequences.

i) It discourages any reassessment of the content of Scripture. We assume that we know what the Bible teaches, we simply need to find a more effective way of enticing people into reading it: it becomes an exercise in marketing rather than understanding. In that respect, it is a form of denial, a way of not facing up to the problem of Scripture. The real need, I would argue, is to determine exactly what is this ‘story that we find ourselves in’. A jazzy respray and go-faster stripes are not the answer.

ii) The separation of form and content also underpins the modernist confidence in an overarching meta-narrative. The modernist instinct is to possess and control truth, to sequestrate meaning for ourselves. This is much easier to do if we can, so to speak, disconnect truth from the historical matrix in which it was birthed and assimilate it into our own unquestioned worldview.

It is also made easier by isolating the Bible from other contexts of reading: historical-critical, scientific, sociological, religious, etc. An awareness of the interaction between these various reading contexts may help us to resolve the basic problem of maintaining a proper tension between a more or less ‘authoritative’ reading of Scripture and a postmodern hermeneutic that insists on a plurality of readings.

It may be more consistent with a postmodern ethos, therefore, at least as a matter of principle, to reverse the persistent modernizing agenda and instead to de-modernize the Bible, to relocate it in its ancient context so that it surprises us with its strangeness. Primarily this is an act of the critical imagination – it has to do with how we recreate the world of the texts as we read; but there are some de-modernizing tricks that we might deploy in order to catalyze the emergence of such a method of reading.

Just as there are other contexts of interpretation that may call into question the prevailing modernist-evangelical reading, there are other means by which we may make Scripture appear unfamiliar. By adopting alternative contemporary points of view – feminist, Marxist, Islamic, for example – we will find that we see the Bible in a rather different light. But these positions are all extrinsic to the Biblical tradition. There is always the problem that we only have indirect access to a first-century worldview, but it is difficult to see how the struggle to recover an ancient reading can be denied some sort of hermeneutical priority over other readings.

How to make Scripture strange

i) It makes for an interesting thought experiment (see also ‘Can we teach an old dogmatism new tricks?’) to consider what would have happened if the early Jewish Christians had been driven from Jerusalem into the desert. What if, under threat of destruction from an invading Roman army, they had concealed their writings in caves and then, like the sectarians of Qumran, had disappeared off the screen of history? And suppose that nineteen hundred years later those writings were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy and fell into the hands of a culture that had never known the Christian church. What would that culture make of them? We can hardly subtract the influence of Christianity from modern Western culture, even from modern secular rationalism. But this is only a thought-experiment: how would people react to these writings and their claims about a Jewish teacher called Jesus without all the intellectual baggage of Christian tradition, without the preconception that this a definitive story about God, perhaps without much of an idea about God at all?

ii) The Bible might be published in a form more appropriate to an ancient text, without those physical and typographical features that mark it out as sacred Scripture: double columns, the numbering of chapter and verse (which reinforces the typical atomistic reading), cross-references, pious annotations, gold type, red type, the zipped leather jacket, and so on. What if the Bible had the physical appearance of a Penguin Classic? It will be interesting to see whether the use of Aramaic and Latin in Mel Gibson’s The Passion has this sort of distancing effect.

iii) We might break the books of the Bible apart – quite literally deconstructing the canonical form of Scripture, setting the documents on the same level as the writings of second temple Judaism (Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Josephus, etc.) and the early church, so that a distinctive and coherent narrative is allowed to reemerge, re-establish itself, from a complex and disordered body of historical documents. A strong case could be made for placing the synoptic Gospels at the end of the Old Testament; Paul’s letters and the Johannine writings might be published as separate collections.

iv) Here’s a really radical and irresponsible suggestion: why not take the Bible out of circulation for a while, forget about it? It seems to me that there is a lot of important ‘forgetting’ going on at the moment in the church.

The process of de-modernizing Scripture leads in two directions.

Deconstruction

In the first place, it offers an effective means of deconstructing the Bible as a modern cultural-religious phenomenon. The Bible has been so central both to Christian thought and spirituality and to Western culture generally that we are faced with a huge problem of over-familiarity. Paraphrases such as The Message and the Street Bible may have a temporary defamiliarizing effect: the reader accustomed to the elevated language of the King James Version or the blandness of the NIV is likely to be taken aback by the bold colloquialisms of these modernizations. But this impact is gained at the expense of further dissociating the reader – and the act of reading – from the texts and the narrative-historical context which generated them. The effect is somewhat iconoclastic and in certain contexts, such as corporate worship, may be highly appropriate; but it does not address the fundamental problem of how we develop a persuasive reading of the text in the face of a pervasive postmodern hermeneutic.

By recovering a sense of the antiquity of the text we subvert our easy notions of what the Bible is; we lose our sense of ownership; the process of understanding becomes much more difficult; we are forced to rethink what we believe and how we relate to the story out of which the church emerged. By loosening the grip of the meta-narrative on our hermeneutic, we bring back into view the multiplicity and diversity of the stories and arguments out of which Scripture is constructed; we see more clearly how biblical eschatology hugs the fractured landscape of distant history; we learn that this is someone else’s truth; we regain a sense of the incompleteness and open-endedness of Scripture; we find ourselves in a place where we need constantly to think and imagine and create because not all the answers have been given.

A critical-realist hermeneutic

Secondly, the de-modernization of Scripture opens the way for a consistent critical-realist hermeneutic, which I think will be crucial in the development of a theology that will sustain emerging church.

i) A critical-realist hermeneutic looks for a prospective rather than a retrospective reading of Scripture. It endeavours to read forward from within the world-view and time-frame of the texts; it does not read back into the texts from the position of the modern church. It looks, therefore, for an intrinsic rather than an extrinsic theology.

ii) A critical-realist hermeneutic would restore the priority of narrative and argumentation, on which the integrity of any reading of Scripture must hang. These are the structures of biblical discourse that principally connect the text with its ‘rhetorical context’ – that is, the conditions and circumstances directly addressed by the text. This stands in contrast to a hermeneutic that reduces Scripture to a compendium of propositions, promises and proofs.

An example of how a narrative hermeneutic can affect interpretation: we will often read the transfiguration story (Matt.17:1-8) according to an incarnational or trinitarian interpretative framework: the event is seen as a disclosure of Jesus’ true divinity. But it could also be read according to a narrative-eschatological framework as a visible representation of the promise that immediately precedes the transfiguration in all three synoptic gospels: ‘there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom’ (cf. Matt.16:28). The transfiguration would then reiterate in physical form the conviction that within a generation they would see what it means for the Son of man to come on the clouds of heaven to receive the kingdom from the Ancient of Days.

I put forward this de-modernizing approach to Scripture not because I think it will necessarily furnish us with a more objective and assured statement of the truth but because it minimizes the space between text and interpretation; it stops interpretation getting carried away with itself. There is less room to generate those grand modern ‘mythologies’ that seek to give a totalizing account of the world. We are less likely to mistake the metaphors and myths that we produce – the synthesizing meta-narratives that we construct out of Scripture – for objective truth. The text itself will always have the capacity to subvert our reductive, trivializing orthodoxies. We are forced to approach the question of God from a more fragile and human perspective.