[This is the second part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]
The second question addressed by McLaren is the question of how the Bible should be understood.
To begin his analysis, McLaren outlines three problems that arise out of our approach to understanding the Bible: (1) it has repeatedly placed Christians on the wrong side of scientific discoveries, from Galileo to Darwin, (2) it hasn't yielded reliable solutions to important, emerging ethical issues, and (3) it has allowed us to use the Bible as a club to dominate and wound others.
The prime example that is offered for these problems is that of slavery. Over the course of several pages, McLaren demonstrates how the Bible was used not only to justify slavery in the South, but to advance it (Leviticus 25, some said, actually requires those who follow God to own slaves). Of course, such an interpretation is unthinkable to 99% of all Christians today (though I think I'd get a chuckle out of seeing a "Slave Owner's Bible" alongside all of the other specialty Bibles on a Lifeway shelf). But if we're still reading the Bible the same way, he argues, who is to say that it isn't being used today to justify something that will be discredited 100 years from now?
So there is the basic question – can we find a way of reading and understanding the Bible that won't result in abusive, self-justifying interpretations?
Chapter 8 continues the thought by assessing what has gone wrong with our way of looking at the Bible. Specifically, McLaren says that we've come to read and use the Bible as a legal constitution. In other words, we are approaching it like lawyers, looking for precedents in the way it is interpreted, distinguishing the spirit of the law from the letter of the law, and attempting to discover its original intent. This type of approach immediately presents some difficult problems. Do we love our enemies as Matthew suggests? Or dash their infants against the rocks, as a Psalm suggests? Or perhaps we should destroy them utterly in the best traditions of Deuteronomy?
Tensions and seeming contradictions abound in the Biblical text, so what ends up happening, he argues, is that we have to find some interpretive technique to resolve all of the problems. A lot of frameworks have been proposed, but none of them seem to work. Worse yet, the process of interpreting the text ends up empowering scholars and leaders, who hold a sort-of trump card over everyone else because they are supposedly more experienced and educated in the interpretive processes.
At the heart of the problem, of course, is the fact the Bible writers never thought they were writing a legal constitution that people would pour over for thousands of years. The situation reminds me of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, where – decades after the title characters become rock stars – a cult forms around them, transforming their chill, Southern California attitude into a religion. Many of the Bible writers, I think, would be surprised at how seriously we go about parsing every word that they wrote.
So – if not a legal constitution, then what? A better metaphor, McLaren argues, is a community library. Like a culture, which is defined by what issues it is willing to argue over, the Bible presents us with a set of issues about the nature of God and the manner in which we relate to God. It represents an ongoing conversation in which we are invited to participate. As such, it shouldn't be viewed as the final authority, but as a living dialog. It is the conversation itself into which God's breath of inspiration brings life.
The primary illustration of this point is the book of Job. In Job – almost an ancient-day opera – we have several different characters presenting different visions of God. Over the broken shell of a man that is Job, they bandy about their beliefs about why suffering exists, and what God has to do with it. In the end, even God himself appears as a character and speaks. There is no complete resolution to the issue at the end, only a breathtaking meditation on the power and mystery of God.
What is the book of Job doing? Its not really telling us a lot about God. But it is pointing us toward an important conversation – something that is worth further investigation and consideration.
McLaren concludes by indicating he doesn't want us to be under the authority of the text (as conservative Christians would advocate) nor over the text (as liberal deconstructors might think of themselves), but in the text. In the conversation.
A few comments:
First, I think McLaren does a good job, again, of putting his finger on the question: something has gone terribly wrong in the way we approach/think about scripture. What can be done about it?
However, I'm struggling with his attempt to characterize the approach as a legal constitution. A constitution is, essentially, a document that authorizes a state to act on behalf of the people, and that proscribes limitations and rules for how the state can operate. Perhaps this is what he has in mind – thinking of denominations or churches as being the equivalent of the "state" in such a metaphor. However, I think the phrase legal code, or even legal authority is an even better way to express his idea (this would allow narrative elements of scripture to function as an analog to case law and precedent).
Or, possibly, I need to remove my occupational lenses and go with the flow.
At any rate, I also have reservations about the legal metaphor as a whole. I am not sure that a large number of Christians think of the Bible as God's "law." In fact, I think that, if you ask even the most conservative of Christians if the Bible is God's "law," they would say "no." To the contrary, they would say that it contains a message about how we are (or can) no longer be subject to God's "law" by finding forgiveness and justification. It is, to them, about escape from and avoidance of the consequences of law – but not law itself.
For that reason, though I am in agreement with his basic criticisms, "legal constitution" (or code or precedent) doesn't work for me as a metaphor for describing the current approach to scripture. It is a system that involves methodologies of interpretation that are similar to what lawyers do, no doubt. But it is also similar to things that are done in the study of ancient literature, rhetoric, anthropology, even history. All of those systems, including the legal system, are the product of modernity, and they presume that objective truth can be found through strict, rational inquiry. What we need is a metaphor to describe that entire gestalt, and I will freely admit I don't have a better one right now.
In the end, however, McLaren makes a very good move when he talks about the need to think of scripture as a a library that contains an ongoing conversation. I don't think he resolves all of the conundrums that are involved in the issue, but he is certainly moving in a positive direction that resonates with me.
I wrote about this whole issue extensively on my former blog, about a year ago. In that series, I concluded that the key to encountering God in scripture is to plug into (and participate in) a larger conversation – a sort-of hive mind. At the heart of the conversation is Jesus himself, interpreted by the New Testament writers and in the context of the Old Testament. But others are also part of the conversation – church Fathers, friends, pastors, parents, spouses, commentators, translators. Keep the conversation open, even though it can get messy and confusing at times, and you are likely to experience something deeper and truer than you will by simply tuning into a narrow bandwidth of voices
McLaren develops that idea much better than I did, but I sense that he appreciates the challenge that follows his argument. Getting out of a strictly rational, reductionistic mentality when we read the Bible is very, very difficult, and I expect it will take decades for the current approach – whether you call it "constitutional" or something entirely different – to be overcome.