Sunday, 28 August 2011

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (4)

Not long before he left LICC to take up a post at A Rocha, Nigel Hopper (Lecturer in Contemporary Culture and Communications Manager at LICC) asked me some questions about the Bible’s impact on culture and the implications for Christians and churches today. A trimmed version of our ‘electronic’ interview will appear in September 2011’s edition of EG, LICC’s quarterly magazine, but I will also post the transcript of the whole conversation over a series of entries here.

Earlier entries:

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (1)

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (2)

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (3)

Nigel: You mention ‘story’ in your response there, but the Bible is, of course, a collection of books and, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘speaks with many different voices’. This being so, he says: ‘Even if you were the most devout fundamentalist, you wouldn’t make a coherent picture out of the Bible. Fundamentalists pick and choose. It’s much more useful to see it as a witness to ancient conversations about things that still matter to people.’ Do you have any sympathy with this view of Scripture?

Antony: Well, I’d certainly want to agree with MacCulloch that the Bible is ‘a collection of books’, and even that it ‘speaks with many different voices’. But I’d want to talk further about the entailment that we’re unable, because of those factors, to make ‘a coherent picture out of the Bible’.

So yes, of course it’s a collection of books, a library; and of course it’s made up of different literary types. But, the vast majority of Christian believers have always wanted to say that the Bible has a coherence and a unity to it, which means we can and must read the ‘parts’ in the light of the ‘whole’.

I suppose it partly depends on what sort of unity we’re expecting. It’s not a uniformity, where everything says exactly the same thing. And the unity of the Bible is not the sort of tight, logical unity we might expect from a philosophical system or a system of morals. As I’ve already indicated in responses to earlier questions, it’s much more helpful, I think, to see the Bible as unfolding the story of what God has said and done in Christ and through the Spirit – and begin to see its coherence in that.

And in fact, this story underpins everything else – all the ‘different voices’ that MacCulloch talks about. So, the law material in Exodus and Leviticus really only makes sense in the larger account of God delivering his people from slavery and establishing a covenant with them. The Psalms can’t be separated from the covenant God makes with king David which – from the perspective of the whole Bible – comes to its ultimate fulfilment in Jesus, David’s descendant. The wisdom material in Proverbs and elsewhere looks back to the God of creation and looks forward to Christ who is described in the New Testament as the wisdom of God. The prophetic books everywhere assume God as creator, deliverer of his people, upholder of the covenant promises, judge of the nations, and provider of hope for future restoration. Even the epistles in the New Testament presuppose the larger story of God working through Israel and Christ to bring about his purposes for the world.

So, even in books where the biblical story is not being explicitly told, there is what some have called a ‘narrative substructure’ – which helps us make sense of where we are in the unfolding plot and how to understand the significance of the different voices throughout Scripture.

So MacCulloch is right, I think, when he says that we ‘pick and choose’ to some extent. Just to start reading the Bible in a particular place is to make a choice about where to start. But, so far as is possible, we set our ‘picking’ and ‘choosing’ in the light of the story of the Bible as a whole. And Christian readers of Scripture, I would want to say, should in principle be ready to have our ‘picking’ and ‘choosing’ open to further light and correction as we read more of the Bible and become more attuned to its great themes which move through from beginning to end.

I’ve heard it said recently that our understanding of God and Christ and humanity and salvation that we get from the Bible is more like a sweater than a salad cart. We don’t walk up to the Bible buffet and load up on the teachings we like but skip the ones we don’t like. Instead, it’s much more like the intertwined strands of yarn in a cable-knit sweater. When we tug on one, the others tend to come loose too.

That’s partly why I’m not a fan of the idea that the Bible is ‘a witness to ancient conversations about things that still matter to people’, as MacCulloch says. It is that, to some extent, but it can’t be reduced to that. The Bible is not like Wikipedia – with several contributors, regularly updated, an incomplete project which now requires our input. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t require our engagement: you only have to read the extended reflection about God’s word in Psalm 119 to see that the appropriate responses are submission and obedience, confidence and delight – and all in the context of relationship with God through his word.

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