Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Reading the Bible again

Nick Clegg, according to the Daily Mail, is a devious politician who has thrown away his principles in favour of power and personal aggrandisement. Is this true? Thousands of Daily Mail readers no doubt view this as as indisputable fact, but surely there must be more to this than meets the eye? As someone who, for better or for worse, chose to take his party into a coalition with previous political enemies, there must be deeper issues here; Clegg is no doubt having to walk a very difficult tightrope, balancing principles against the fact that he is the leader of a minority within this fragile coalition. I prefer to give him the benefit of the doubt — that deep down he has the interests of the nation at heart. This simple example shows us how we are so easily swayed by words that are in print — accepting them as truth simply because someone has decided they are worth printing. Even though we know that media barons print stories simply to sell papers, and journalists are not the most truthful of people, still we are deeply affected by what we see in print.
So what is truth? This simple question has had philosophers puzzled for centuries. Take the simple statement ‘water is wet’. No-one would dispute the truth of this statement, until perhaps we note that ‘wetness’ is defined as ‘soaked, covered or dampened with water’. The circularity of the statement reduces it to triviality. Linguistics and semantics play with truth like light on water — shimmering and reflecting. Yes, we can see the flow of the river, but defining the surface is always hard.
There are clearly different levels of truth. There is mere verifiable fact, but there is also allegorical truth and myth, both the latter revealing truth using facts that are demonstrably false. If I said ‘I am dying of thirst’, you would probably buy me a drink, not rush me to hospital. We intuitively make these semantic judgements without thinking about them — in fact I would argue that our perception of reality is predominantly based on intuiting unverifiable truth. A sweeping statement, I know, but when we think of how much we consider as ‘true’ simply because someone else has told us it is true (second-hand truth) or because the facts seem to point in that direction, the foundation of truth is perhaps more flimsy that we realise. It is not merely religious people who live by faith.
I heard a phrase recently which, in my view, has a lot of truth in it — it concerns the nature of myth: ‘Myth never speaks of how things were; it speaks of how things will always be.’ Fairy stories are a prime example: I’m pretty sure there never was a girl called Cinderella who went to a ball, but I am sure that princesses invariably fall in love with princes. And when you watch a film like The Lord of the Rings, you know that it is not true, but it certainly reveals truth: selfish avarice does lead to self-destruction; when people set aside their tribal differences and fight together for justice, they will win, and so on.
It bothers me, therefore, when I hear people say that the Bible is ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’, or that it is ‘the Word of God’ (normally with capital letters). The implication being that it is ‘the truth’ in a very literal sense. Without going into detail here, this is a position accepted by many — a received second-hand truth — which has very shaky foundations. The book itself has many contradictions (there are two conflicting creation accounts in Genesis, for example), and we have to face the fact that we are reading in translation a text that is based on often conflicting or composite sources, written by people who (more often than not) wanted to make particular political points. The Nick Cleggs of antiquity. In fact the issue of biblical inerrancy didn’t really become an issue until the 1600’s when rationalism began to assert itself, and the phrase ‘the inerrant Word of God’ was not common currency until the 19th century — a reaction (as was the concept of papal infallibility, 1870) to the undermining influences of rationalism.
Does this diminish the authenticity or position of the Bible? This is a question that has been troubling me recently: how should I approach this strange library of books? I would like to give just two viewpoints here — things to think about rather than an exhaustive answer. The first concerns poetry.
As a poet myself — a lyricist and author — I am a wordsmith. I use words creatively to evoke feelings, to speak of ineffable things (things that cannot be expressed in words) — a concept which is itself an oxymoron. This is something that has been understood for years, and was particularly articulated by Augustine who suggested all our words about God are at best allegorical. Words can only point towards truth, towards perceived reality, rather that express it directly. Let me give one example. I am in the middle of writing an historical novel, and the arch villain is Herod the Great. In one particular, purely fictive, scene, Herod drowns one of his nephews, a potential political rival, by staging a swimming pool ‘accident’. Some months after writing this scene I was doing further research, and discovered that Herod had a particular liking for water which included the construction of bathing pools. Add to this the fact that he murdered nine of his close relatives, and my fictitious scene appeared much closer to reality that I had realised. It is not factually true, but speaks of truth. It seems to me that much of the Bible is written in a similar vein. Forcing the Bible to be ‘inerrant’ in the sense of conformity to factual truth is to diminish its power to speak to us.
The point of this article is to give you a few things to think about — a few pointers which might lead to further reading and by no means an exhaustive review — but let’s consider some issues being discussed by biblical critics. How might these affect our appreciation of, or our approach to, the book? Most scholars agree that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible; that many of the historical books are compilations based on previous sources, edited by people hundreds of years after the events described, people with political bias; that some historical accounts are contradictory (compare, for example, 1 Kings 15 with 2 Chron.13); that many of the words of Jesus are  retrospectively woven into the narrative to make a particular point; that the book of Daniel was written after the events it claims to predict; that Isaiah was written by two authors; that the ‘suffering servant’ passage in second Isaiah (Is.53) does not refer to Jesus but to a contemporary of the author, and possibly refers to the nation of Israel; that Jesus was born on or before 10BC (the year that Herod the Great died); that authorial bias and prejudice regularly surfaces (consider for example Paul’s writing about women); that cultural issues can completely mask underlying truth (for example Jesus’ reference to seeing Philip under the fig tree), and so on.
These are serious issues for anyone who respects and values the Bible, so how do we approach it? For me, three issues stand out. The first is that despite its chequered history and flawed authors, and its cavalier approach to history, it is remarkably coherent. It is extraordinary that a library of sixty-six books, written by culturally diverse authors over a period of thousands of years, can cross-reference with so much detailed accuracy. How else could we explain the crucifixion Psalm (22), than by understanding it to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit? Or indeed the ‘suffering servant’ passage? There seems to be much more than mere poetic expression going on here.
Secondly, although the Bible is full of factual error (for example the size of Israel’s armies is routinely exaggerated), it is remarkably true to life — to the human condition — speaking with ruthless candour about sex, money and power with an authoritative voice that makes us sit up and take notice, even here in the 21st century. If it speaks so accurately about the human condition, should we not take seriously its assertions about spiritual reality?
Finally, with the understanding that the creation story, and many others, are myths, I find myself free to discern the truth that the author — in my view undoubtably inspired by God — wanted me to know. The truth that this little green planet is not a one-in-a-million chance of fortune, but an environment willed into being by God. That we live our lives in exile, East of Eden, longing for home. That even as the world began, plans were in place to deal with the root of human depravity, that as sure as the sun rises, one day a redeemer would come to lead us back home.
To conclude: I am no expert in biblical criticism, but nevertheless these issues touch me. Anyone with even half a brain must realise that there are questions to be asked concerning the Bible, and issues to be faced. Pat answers, or simply asserting biblical inerrancy, will not make the problems go away. Furthermore, if we who believe that the Bible is special are naive in the way we approach it, and are fearful of facing up to perfectly legitimate questions, we will inadvertently repel those who are seeking truth and life in Christianity. Perhaps its time to begin reading the Bible again?

1 comment:

  1. Hello John, nice and long article. Thank you for it.

    I have started with bold plan to read the entire Bible in 180 days few weeks ago. I am thrilled how fresh the stuff is for me there. Just got over 3 books of Moses :-)

    How are you anyway...

    no more tweets?? ;-)