Thursday, December 24, 2009

Seasons Greetings

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all readers!

This blog is going on holiday until the 3rd or 4th January.

I will post comments (as able) but not interact with them.

Best wishes

PS For another go at Christmas' hermeneutical challenges, try Clayboy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Maltby on reading the Bible

This blog is dedicated to the challenging question of how we read the Bible. It is premised on the observation that Christians often disagree about what the Bible means - disagreement that can occur between 'liberals' and 'conservatives', Protestants and Roman Catholics, AND between 'conservatives', Protestants, 'liberals' and Roman Catholics. These disagreements mean it is always a lively question when we ask, How might we either reach agreement on a matter of current disagreement, or agree to live with our disagreement.

In the background and foreground is, of course, the particular present matter of disagreement about what the Bible says about how we should live sexually. But there are plenty of interesting if not urgent disagreements among us about a range of other matters: Baptists and Presbyterians read the Bible differently on baptism ... conservatives read the Bible differently on women in ministry ... and on creationism/theistic evolutionism. The following post on the Guardian's Comment is Free offers a good reflection on various matters to do with how we read the Bible and why we read it differently:

It's introductory heading is:

"Not much to do with the Bible
The Bible can be read in many different ways. The church's confusion about sexuality has its roots elsewhere"

This comment piece is by Judith Maltby.

"The question: Is the Bible anti-gay? [Note: this is a topic for the week; others have written on it here, here, and here]

Is the Bible anti-gay? Well, yes: it is anti-gay in the same way it is in favour of beating children, capital punishment and slavery. The question does not get us very far but it does point to a far more important issue of how we read the Bible. Two points to make about that.

The first is the awkward truth is that we all read the Bible selectively. Everybody does: from the most liberal Liberal to the most fundamentalist Fundamentalist. We all make choices (not always very consciously) about which verses, passages and books of the Bible we regard as more authoritative than others. These choices are personal as well as communal. For me, the parables of Jesus are amongst the most challenging and engaging passages in the New Testament and the ones to which I return most often. But that's just me – I wouldn't suggest that everyone must think so. Most Christians would, I hope, privilege Jesus' teaching to "love your neighbour as yourself" over Paul's insistence that long hair on a man "is degrading to him". To read the Bible "proportionately" is to read it with the respect it deserves.

The second point concerning how we read the Bible is that we always read it contextually. We can no more step out of our historical setting, our time and place, our human condition, than Christians in the first or second centuries could. Nothing illustrates this better than the seismic shift that Christians made on slavery. Once seen as part of the God-given natural order – a view endorsed by a reading of the Bible – I hope I am right in saying that it is now universally condemned. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, Christians argued bitterly over the morality of slavery and the Bible resourced the spirituality of the slave owner and the abolitionist alike.

Some might say that the slavery example is too loaded. Here is a middle one. Can one be a Christian and serve in the armed forces or does obedience to the gospel demand the position of pacifism? Does Jesus' instruction to "turn the other cheek" trump Paul's view that the civil authority "does not bear the sword in vain"? Clearly, most Christians for most of the church's history have given the hand to Paul. The 39 Articles of the Church of England condemn pacifism and endorse capital punishment. I am an Anglican priest who values the presence of the pacifist tradition in my church while believing that the use of force can be morally justifiable. I utterly condemn capital punishment while I acknowledge that my position is in opposition to the traditional teaching of my church for the vast majority of its history and that the Bible can be used to defend either view.

The church that I love is able to hold together people who believe in the morality of the just war and the moral integrity of the pacifist. At the same time we appear to be incapable of holding together those who believe that a gay Christian in a loving and committed relationship is living a moral life and those who do not – in fact this is something more worthy of schism than disagreements over the taking of human life. One is left wondering how much the global Anglican psychodrama over sexuality is to do with the Bible at all."

My posting this does not mean I agree or disagree with the sentiment in Judith Maltby's final sentence. What I do agree with her on is that an historical perspective on how Christians have read the Bible might keep us appropriately humble and hesitant about asserting that our reading is the certainly true reading. I also agree that we would do well to think further and deeper about why we can live together with some disagreements and (seemingly) not with others.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas Hermeneutical Challenges

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are amazing: woven together, with John 1:1-14 added in, they narrate 'the Christmas story'. Compared side by side, examined for possible contradictions, either of each other, or of historical facts (was Quirinius the governor of Syria when Jesus was born?), the two narratives pose a variety of opportunities to apply hermeneutical skills (see post below and comments on it).

One aspect of the narratives are the details. Was there a moving star? If so, what in astronomical terms was it? Does presuming there was some astral phenomenon assist with more accurate dating?

Anglican Curmudgeon offers the first of a series of interesting posts on the date of Jesus' birth. I won't alert you to each of the posts. If you like this first one I am sure you will return to the rest.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Christmas has its own hermeneutical challenges, especially ...

... the challenge of not reading more into the narratives than are there, and the challenge of thinking twice before harmonizing Matthew and Luke's narratives. Technically harmonization is possible, but, as Doug Chaplin at Clayboy observes, the cost may be that we become less 'biblical' rather than more 'biblical' by doing so.

Here is an excerpt from his thoughtful post, Ox and ass and we three kings: Christmas harmonies and evangelical humbug:

"Historically speaking, the main problem with Matthew’s story is Luke’s story, and vice versa. They can be harmonised only by careful suppression of each’s specificity. In Matthew the holy family home is always in Bethlehem. In Luke, they travel directly home to Nazareth after the forty days of Mary’s purification are up. One could go on, but the problem of historical believability is not just an issue for modern sceptics rejecting God’s work – it’s a problem of two contradictory and different narratives.

This historical use of the text is one thing. Preaching is another, and here there are at least two ways of preaching the Christmas story. The first is the one that pays attention to the text, that doesn’t harmonise the accounts, or fit the shepherds and the magi together. In this version it’s appropriate (in Year C – when Luke is the gospel?) to be sceptical about an inn and explore the idea of a guest room. It’s appropriate (in year A – when we read Matthew?) to consider Herod’s bloodthirsty reputation and the irony of astrology guiding pagans to worship, while those who have the prophecies of Scripture use them only to kill. That is a perfectly appropriate and legitimate use of Scripture in preaching, and one where my head and heart unite. I guess on that people of many views can agree."

With respect to separating Matthew and Luke, I would add the small point missed by many Anglicans of my acquaintance: the wise men should only be introduced to the preaching calendar at Epiphany (6 January)!