Monday 29 August 2011

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (5)

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)

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (4)

Nigel: Picking up on some of the themes you mention there, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently said this when asked about the place of the Bible in our society:

‘When writers use phrases and images from the King James Bible, it’s a way of saying: “This story, this poem, is part of a sort of conversation that is going on; it’s part of the family history and you ought to be able to recognise what it’s talking about.” But it isn’t just about the treasures of musical and memorable language, or even a common culture. The stories told in the Bible mattered because they were seen and read as speaking honestly about human experiences, and about something more. They were – and are – about hope: the hope our failures are understood and forgiven, the hope there is a power beyond ourselves that can give us new beginnings, the hope there is a reality around us so overwhelming, exciting and unmanageable that we could never find words good enough for it, not even the words of the old Bible.’

Do you think he succeeds here in striking the right balance between recognising the Bible’s cultural impact as a classic of literature whilst also acknowledging it to be so much more than that?

Antony: Yes... I’d want to affirm all that’s said about family history and the significance of human experience and about hope and forgiveness. But I’m also glad to hear the key words ‘and about something more’...

As I said at the start of this conversation, the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible means that even mainstream atheists seem to have been falling over themselves to praise it. As Christians we might be intrigued by that, but I don’t think we should be flattered by it. What’s being commented on is the Bible as a cultural icon, if you like, which has been significant for its impact on art and literature and language and politics. But, of course, the Bible is more than a cultural artifact.

Even talking about the Bible as a ‘classic’ can be misleading. A classic is a text which expresses a truth which is so fundamental that it can be read and understood in totally different contexts by different readers. So, when some describe the Bible as a ‘classic’ what they mean is the Bible – like other great classic works of art or literature – has a lasting power which somehow draws us in and discloses compelling truths about our lives as human beings.

On this understanding, as we were saying when we reflecting on retellings of the story of Jesus, Christianity becomes a particular expression of a universal truth – like the significance of love or liberty or justice. We don’t need to deny the significance of those things, but they are truths that could have been got from other great classic works – like Shakespeare and Milton – not just the Bible.

And that’s why I think the Archbishop’s ‘something more’ is significant. Because most Christians want to say that the Scriptures are not simply a great work of literature, one classic among many, nor even a primary classic. They provide a way of seeing which is even more trustworthy and profound than even the greatest classics – because the Scriptures are God’s word through which God speaks, which tell the story of the salvation he brings to humanity centred on his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. And as such they’re essential for the identity of the Christian community – for how we think about ourselves and for how we live in the world.

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