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Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Vengeful Psalms

Someone wrote to me about difficulties in the Psalms, specifically places like Psalm 139:19-22, a good bit of Psalm 140, and of course the famous bit from the end of Psalm 137 which says, "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" Lovely bedtime reading.

The Psalms are, as you remember, the songbook of Israel. We have them as poetry, but originally they were personal songs, as songsand hymns used in liturgy. They are the lyrics to the songs of a nation. Since the nation of Israel at the time had no distinction between church and state, the national songs were also the religious songs. They were the poetic and heartfelt cries of a people, just as the songs of any culture remain today.

The reason I connect so strongly to the Psalms is that they are honest, in the way music often is. They set the human heart to music and rare is the mood that is not reflected somewhere in its pages. Psalm 137 tells us at the beginning of the Psalm that it was written as a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. That was not a pretty sight. Babylon's destruction of the capital city of Israel was a long, drawn-out siege. The Babylonians starved them out. The stories report that parents ate their own dead children. Then, when the city fell, the Babylonians rushed in, slaughtered men, women, and children alike and took into captivity all the brainpower, marching them off to a foreign land. They slaughtered all the kings sons before his eyes, and then poked out his eyes...letting the death of his children be his last visual memory.

The destruction of Jerusalem was not only horrible from a human standpoint, it was incomprehensible from a religious view. Jerusalem was the city of God. It was the place where God promised to dwell and that God promised to protect forever, and now it was a smoking ruin. It was a faith crisis as well as a humanitarian one. The laments reflected in Psalm 137 as well as in the book of Lamentations and parts of Jeremiah are the understandable expression of a brutalized people. There might come a time of hope and forgiveness, but it was not now. The pain was still to raw and the anger too recent. Other Psalms likewise reflect difficult and conflicted emotions around either that event or another, either in the personal life of the one writing the Psalm or in the life of Israel as a nation.

I don't look to the Psalms as instruction for what is righteous so much as I see them as honest portrayals of the emotions of God's people. The amazing part is that they do not give up on God. They call to God for justice. They express their rage and the all-too-human desire for revenge. They express deep sorrow and wonder why God seems to have abandoned them, but they never cut God out of the equation. As a result, there are also the Psalms that express restoration and joy and peace and the love of God. All of the cycles of human living and loving are there. It was to the Psalms that Jesus went as he hung on the cross, crying out from Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!"

What the hateful and wrathful sections of the Psalms offer to me is the connection of my emotions to God's people across time. I would bet that if the families of those lost on September 11 had written Psalms, they would have sounded a lot like these, even if they were people of faith. In fact, it was from this sort of Psalm that we at St. John's found connection in the week that followed September 11, gathering to hear words that expressed the rage and anguish of our hearts as preparation for finding a better way.

Again, I think the question boils down to how we look at the nature of the Scriptural witness. It was not written in a vacuum, and every line was not put down as an eternal truth. It is history and story, poetry and symbolism, law and letter, proverb and parable. Some places allow us to see into the heart of God and others let us peek into the human heart. Some passages contain truths that ring down through the ages and others just make us scratch our heads. But I see the Psalms as a look into the soul of Israel from about 1000 - 500 BC. We get to examine the lyrics of their songs...the ones that made the Billboard charts...for 500 years, to see what they sang when they got together for worship, as well as what they sang alone, in the dark watches of the night. At one time or another, I have been able to sing all of them.

Monday, October 11, 2004

The Bible is true?

When you boil down most of the disagreements in and between Christians these days, they tend to end up at the question of how we should be reading the Bible. What does it mean to say that the Bible is true?

I have no trouble saying "The Bible is true." What I mean by that, however, is vastly different than what my brothers and sisters on the Christian Right mean when they say it. Having been a staunch fundamentalist in my younger years, I know what that looks like. The fundamentalist believes the Bible is true in all ways that truth is possible. For them it contains no errors of scientific errors, no historical errors, no mathematical errors, no social errors, no chronological errors, and so forth. There is also little room here for literary difference. Everything is treated as if it were factual information. To suggest that there may be a fable or folktale included in its ranks is tantamount to heresy, and certainly there is no room for human additions in what is seen as the Word direct from the mouth of God.

I mean hardly any of that, when I say the Bible is true. I believe the Bible is true in that it conveys the truth about the nature of God, the nature of Creation, and the intended relationship between the two. It is a book of religious truth. There may be things on its pages that are historically accurate, but the facts of history are not guaranteed just because they are on the pages of Scripture. Hebrew religious literature, especially, has always felt free to adjust the facts so that the religious truth might become more obvious. That was never seen as falsifying anything. It was seen as making the account more true, because religious truth...the truth about God...was the truth it meant to teach. It is only since the 20th century that we have come to equate truth with all kinds of truth at once.

Think about it. Are Aesop's fables true? They are not historical accounts. In the fable that gave us the term "sour grapes," we were never meant to believe that there was an actual fox who tried to get some grapes, couldn't reach them, and thus determined they were sour. It is not historically true. And who knows whether a fox has such reasoning power and self-deceiving tendencies. But the fable is absolutely true in what it tells us about human nature...which is the purpose of a fable.

Jesus, himself, uses stories and folktales in the Gospels. We call them parables. Take the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus at the end of Luke 16. Those aren't historical events and they are not meant to be an accurate picture of the geography of heaven and hell. There is a whole rabbinic tradition of Lazarus stories...much as modern culture has a tradition of St. Peter at the Gates stories and jokes. Jesus pulls from his own Jewish, rabbinic tradition and tells a story to make a point.

So if Jesus does it, why can't his Hebrew forbears do so? The book of Job, in Hebrew, has all the literary marks of a folktale. So why is it heresy to suggest that its author might be trying to teach in the same way that Jesus tried to teach...through story? When I suggest that Job is a folktale, irate people come to me saying, " don't believe the Bible is true!" Nonsense. I just believe it is giving us something deeper than surface truth.

I think that when we try to force the Bible to be a textbook for all disciplines, we are doing an extreme injustice to both the Bible and those who have used their God-given gifts in the disciplines of science, history, and sociology. The Bible is a living collection of sacred writings, spanning thousands of years. I believe God inspired it and I believe God has preserved it for us. But I don't for the first minute believe that God intended for us to use it to teach science or history or to be used to justify our own social norms and preferences.