Tuesday 30 March 2010

Pete Phillips on ‘A chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents’ (Dawkins): Rebuilding Confidence in a Rubbished Text

Notes from a seminar at the London launch of Biblefresh (30 March 2010):

Pete stood in at the last moment for Gavin McGrath (who had to pull out due to illness) but addressed the assigned topic surrounding the Bible’s ‘texts of terror’.

He introduced his presentation with representative quotations from Richard Dawkins about the Bible’s texts of terror, noting as well that Dawkins has been speaking more about the Bible recently, arguing that one can’t appreciate English language and literature unless one is steeped in the English of the King James Version of the Bible; according to Dawkins: ‘Not to know the KJV is in some way to be barbarian.’ Others (Pete referred to Andrew Motion) are also noting the significance of the Bible as a cultural artifact and the need to understand the Bible to understand culture.

Even so, what are the problems when it comes to handling texts of terror?

1. Partial knowledge
Dawkins is able to select texts and use them the way he does because many people don’t know the wider context of those texts. We need to give people more knowledge of the Bible, rebuild partial knowledge into fuller knowledge, give people ownership of the Bible.

Pete mentioned a few helpful online resources, including Cross Reference, Bible Dex, You Version, the 2011 Trust, as well as the Glo Bible software (produced by Immersion Digital, and distributed in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton).

2. Lack of perspective
Focusing on a text of terror runs the risk of losing a certain sort of perspective, perhaps in forgetting the bigger pictre of the Bible. We need the sweep of the whole Bible, a deep familiarity with the Bible. And we need depictions of the biblical story in multiple media – visual, aural, plastic, dramatic – seeking to recover the splendour of art, music, and so on. As we move into a post-book culture, we should turn our churches into multi-media environments. Pete also referred here to the potential significance of mystery plays, rituals, festival rites, and the like.

3. Marcionite Disneyfication – or well-intentioned censorship
Here the issue is the mistaken notion that the Bible has to be pure and wonderful and lovely… and smell nice… and that it has to soothe us and stroke us… and anything that doesn’t do that, we’ll rip out. Except that in doing so, we end up with a cosy text. Do we go for the New Testament only, and (even then) only the inclusive bits we like? Do we prefer to read a Bible that doesn’t challenge us – a sugar-coated Bible, a saccharine Bible? But what good is such a text in Chile, Moscow, Jerusalem, or when you’ve been raped or tortured, or when God seems a million miles away?

So, we don’t live in simple denial. There are texts of terror in the Bible! Genocide did take place, and God did perpetrate it. There is abuse of woman and minority groups in the Bible. And when we own up to the texts of terror, we see the Bible can speak into situations like Rwanda and Nigeria, enabling some ‘grown-up’ discussions.

4. The problem of literalism
I’m not sure this was the exact heading, but the point was raising questions of interpretation, particularly of biblical narrative and the reading and performance of it. Pete showed a clip from a video of a musical, ‘Terror Texts’, dramatising six texts of terror from the Bible which warn about reality, act as cautionary tales, showing the deep fundamentals of what a religious worldview is all about.

5. Lack of awe, humility and imagination
We look for answers rather than something which engages with us. The Bible is ‘mythic’ and ‘mysterious’. Let’s be prepared to say we don’t always understand the difficult texts. After all, we don’t want a buddy Jesus who says nothing to us in the face of the reality of evil.

In short… how to handle a text of terror? We need:

• Knowledge – of what the Bible says
• Perspective – know the whole picture
• Realism – about what these texts are
• Creative interpretation with theological depth
• Opening ourselves up to the mystery of the text


blefler said...

The Glo Bible Software is produced by Immersion Digital, not Hodder & Stoughton.

Antony said...

Thanks William – now corrected.