A few weeks ago Edna, a member of my congregation, gave me a leaflet which talked about Bible Sunday thinking it might be of interest. Well as today is Bible Sunday I thought it might be an idea to look at the Bible.
John Waddey asks: “What price could we put on the Bible? Just how could we measure its value? David wrote in the Psalms that God's word was "more precious than fine gold". In communist nations disciples are willing to pay a month's wages for a Bible and risk government harassment in so doing. This may seem strange to those who have never taken time to read one of the numerous Bibles in their home. “
Franz Kafka once said: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us ... We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”
This quotation is used as a chapter heading in a book entitled – ‘Wolf in the Sheepfold’ which was one of the required books for my studies into the Bible when I was training. It always struck me as rather a strange concept for ‘The Bible’, to be considered as something dangerous and a book to be wary of. Of course it was only through studying the Bible that I came to understand that this was so and that there was certainly more to it than I had previously thought. It was not just a book that was oft quoted by people who had a rather fundamental approach to religion and Christianity, but it was something that needed close study and a great deal of understanding.
Northrop Frye said: “The Bible is clearly a major element in our own imaginative tradition, whatever we may think we believe about it. It insistently raises the question: Why does this huge, sprawling, tactless book sit there inscrutably in the middle of our cultural heritage like the ‘great Boyg’ or sphinx in Peer Gynt, frustrating all our efforts to walk around it?”
Of course as Unitarians the Bible may not be as central to our tradition as it once was, but this is precisely why we need to look at it and understand it, or at least try to understand it. Many of today’s Unitarians are unsure about using the Bible at all, and many are afraid to because they do not really know it or understand it. It is precisely because of this attitude and ignorance of the Bible that makes books like ‘Understanding The Bible, An Introduction for sceptics, seekers, and religious liberals,’ by John Buehrens. And those by the great liberal Christian thinker John Shelby Spong such as, ‘Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism’, ‘Liberating the Gospels’ and ‘The Sins of Scripture’ to name just a few, such interesting and even essential reads. Books such as these would not need to be written if the bible were not a dangerous and difficult (and misunderstood) book.
If the Bible is indeed important to us as part of our religious life, then we do need to think about where The Bible comes from, how it was written and about the authority of what is written there.
John Buehrens asks, “Where do religious traditions come from?” and one of his answers to this question is that these traditions come from the stories that have been passed down the centuries about our human condition. And of course one of the main sources for discovering these stories is from The Bible because as Buehrens said of The Bible:
“it is not so much a single book as an entire library, (and) would suggest that our forebears understood that human life can only be meaningfully understood when we see it as a complex story made up of multiple instances of creation, generation, liberation, exultation, frustration, redemption, expectation, inspiration, proclamation, passion, resurrection, incarnation, salvation and revelation – among other things.” John Buehrens
This is of course one of the most important things for us to recognise, that the Bible is not one book, and in fact even the collection of books that we call the Bible is not definitive, in fact there is no book, ‘The Bible’. As Robert Carroll says in Wolf in the Sheepfold, “There is no copyright on the Bible. Various translations and editions of the Bible are the property of different publishing houses, but no one person, community, institution or nation can be said to ‘own’ the Bible. It is a freelance book, loose in human culture though subject to the canons of time-conditioned cultural production and the necessities of interpretation. Its authors and producers are generally unknown, and the processes whereby it came to have the forms in which we know it, are shrouded in legends of the past.”
We often think of the Bible as a European book because we know it in translated forms and in these forms it reflects Western values. “It is not, of course, a European book at all, but a collection of books from a past not our own and from cultures very different from ours.” The idea that it is a single book, and that it is our book is one that is very difficult to dislodge from Western consciousness. So many of us are unaware that there is a different Bible used in different Christian traditions other than the differences of translations, for example the Catholic Bible contains many more books than the Bible that is found in Protestant Churches, and they are often in a different order as well. The missing books are known as the Apocrypha and they contain some of the most wonderful writings there are in the Old Testament, which of course is the Jewish Bible, in that the Jewish religion does not accept the writings of the New Testament at all.
There is of course then the question of translations. There are just so many translations of the Bible available today and many pieces can be almost unrecognisable if read from a variety of these translations.
One book called Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures, is very, very different. It is radical because it changes the names of some of the characters, Nichodemus becomes Nick and Simon-Peter becomes Rocky, and John the Baptist is known as John the Dipper. Not only does it change names but it also includes translations of texts that are not found in any of our known Bibles. These texts are known as the ‘Nag Hammadi’ collection, and are those writings that were found in some caves in the Dead Sea region in 1945.
Another very different version is this one by Rob Lacey:
the Word on the Street and is written more like a series of articles in a tabloid newspaper and is designed to be understood by a more modern audience. Then there are the people who have rewritten the bible or portions of the Bible so that it will fit in with their personal beliefs and understanding such as Thomas Jefferson the American president who did a cut and paste version (before computers I may say) producing what is known as the Jefferson Bible. And Charles Dickens wrote a version of the Gospels for his children.
I hope this gives you some idea about the complexity of the Bible and also some idea about the difficulty there is in studying this complex collection of writings. But I hope it won’t prevent you from picking a copy up, reading and even enjoying it.
There is a Sufi story about that wise fool Nasrudin, The Lost Jewel,
Nasrudin was on his hands and knees, obviously looking for something, when his friend came up to him and said, ‘What are you doing?'
'I'm looking for a diamond that fell out of my ring.' He said.
'Let me help you,' said his friend, and he got down on his hands and knees and started looking too.
A neighbour was walking by and saw the two men with their heads close to the ground, searching intently. ‘What are you looking for?' he asked.
'Nasrudin lost a diamond from his ring and we're trying to find it,' said Nasrudin’s friend. 'Won't you help us?'
'Certainly,' replied the neighbour, and he began searching too. Soon others came and joined in. But they had no luck. Someone even brought a magnifying glass so that he could examine the ground more carefully, but to no avail: nobody was able to find the diamond.
Then one of the searchers said, 'Tell us, Nasrudin, and exactly where were you when the diamond fell out of your ring?'
'I was in the kitchen of my house,' said Nasrudin. 'Then why on earth are we searching out here?'
'Because there's more light out here,' replied Nasrudin.
In this story, Nasrudin, searches for his lost diamond in the street where the light is good rather than in the darkness of his kitchen where he lost it. Isn’t this true of most people’s search for God; don’t we often look in writings that are considered by the majority to hold the truth, such as The Bible, The Koran or other sacred writings. Isn’t it the case that most people do not realise there is a whole collection of writings that are not as acceptable and yet it is often the case that these writings will contain as much truth and wisdom as in the more accepted writings.
In the final pages of the novel The Thirteenth Apostle, by Michel Benoit are these words: “Truth did not lie in (the words of) the fourth gospel. It was not contained in any text, however sacred it may be. It lay beyond the words printed on paper, words uttered by human mouths. It lay in the heart of silence, ...” (p353)
After all, isn’t this what truth, understanding and religious belief is all about. Isn’t it ‘that which we feel in our hearts’ when we engage with our faith and belief, not that which we read, that counts. And isn’t it important that in our quest to inform our inner selves, and as we engage with texts and writings, that we spread our net wide and not just look where the light is greatest. Isn’t it important that we accept that there is wisdom to be found by reading all writings regardless of how they are accepted by the majority of the world religions with the confines they impose upon the writings by virtue of what was acceptable in the past. And above all, in Franz Kafka’s words, shouldn’t we let what we read, “be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” So may it be.