Thursday, 10 July 2014

Bible Blogs

Online newspaper blogging is here to stay, though how we describe the practice is open to dispute, like blogging itself. Is it just some kind of unedited (except for the moderator’s removals) letters to the editor? Is it a way for most of us to let off steam? Or is it, at least for some, more sinister, as they set up their computer for an hour or two of trolling? Is it art form or political barney? Most would agree that it reveals that humans like to express their reactions. Blogging is especially reactive. Before the computer, letter writing was a favourite pastime of mine, with several written per week. This hasn’t changed, just the way the letters are sent, via email and blog.   

Newspaper and online journal blogs are a hazardous mixture of the knowledgeable and the ignorant, of measured responses and kneejerk foot-in-mouth, of youthful rave-ups and adult assurances. My approach is to write my response in a document before transferring the final words to the blog box online. Thus, it is curious to stumble across these diary entries (circa 2010-2014) in the computer and follow the trains of thought. I find, for example, that I have quite a lot to say about the Bible, when I read things online that (usually) go against the grain of my thinking. Here are some of them, put out there (where you are reading this, in fact) minus any surrounding context. Context becomes fairly obvious once the entries are studied. Some of the blogs respond to article content, others to words of other bloggers. Only some names have been changed to protect their good owners. None of these opinions are the official statements of the Carmelite Order, though I imagine many Carmelites agree with what I say in these Bible blogs.

1.      Anthony says “One doesn't have to be a biblical fundamentalist to reject Mr Harvey's poem reductionism,” which might be true, but that doesn’t the change the possibility that Mr Harvey’s view is probably true. Personally, it’s hard to see what is reductive about Genesis 1-3 being a poem. Scripture is full of poetry, its purpose being to expand rather than reduce awareness.
2.      Like in many translations, the humour gets lost. When we read commentaries on the Hebrew Bible we soon discover that the language is packed out with puns, many of them utterly outrageous and funny. Little of this crosses over into another language because puns only rarely find a match in the new language. Add to this the overall purpose of something like Scripture to instil Wisdom, and we find that English translators will prioritise that over the jokes. A good way to read the Bible is through its paraphrasers and interpreters in English, people like Geoff Page in fact, who have at their disposal the full range of English tricks. It is there that the humour of the Bible comes alive. As for the New Testament, personally, I find it impossible to take seriously people who have read it for years and cannot see its innate humour. Jesus is one of the great mordant ironists of all time. Who knows what he was saying by the end of the party, that doesn’t get reported back. Half the things he says and does turn the whole social world upsidedown and are like one continuous comedy festival. I find the longer I read the Gospels, in particular, the more I see everything in terms of its opposite and that any one fixed position is being tested by his sayings in ways that are LOL amazing. It is true, Paul can labour the point sometimes, but we have to remember that he himself said the main message was ‘foolishness to the Greeks’, which I sometimes read as Paul admitting the Greeks think ‘It’s a joke, right?’ It was a joke the Greeks finished up taking very seriously indeed.
3.      It is extraordinary that at the centre of the teaching are two remarkable examples of how to behave and how to be aware, neither of which get much airing in this debate, let alone a proper revelatory explanation. The first is the teaching that unless you become like this child, who has been placed at the centre of the community gathering, unless you become like this child you cannot be part of what I am talking about, in fact you are not even with me. The second is the blatant instruction to let the children come to the source of love and nurture and protection that is God in Christ. Every priest should be asked to meditate on these teachings in retreat, to work out the many meanings inherent in the teachings, to preach about them from their heart at least once a year. That would be a start. These and other gospel words contain the way to wisdom in all of this mess. They are a serious confrontation to authority, power and the whole ridiculous attitude of “leave it to the adults, they know best.” Christ seems to be saying, amongst many things said in these teachings, actually it’s the child who already knows best. The saying about casting the destroyer of children’s lives into the ocean with a millstone round their neck, is a more colourful counterintuitive way of saying the same thing. Do you know the average weight of a millstone?
4.      Heinrich Heine would say that in the dark ages people are best guided by religion. He was a child of the Enlightenment, hence the stuff about daylight. It is a very B&W way of looking at anything and appeals to those who like to see religion, science, politics, or any other area of human expression and endeavour as foolish. Enlightenment people used the Dark Ages (early medieval period) as a proof that religion belonged there, not now. We now see that period of European history very differently, indeed understand that it was religion in the form of Christianity that was the force of civilization and enlightenment through the Dark Ages. It was everything else going on at the time that we call dark. The really interesting question is why Christianity survived the Dark Ages when so much else did not. Heine is indulging in the fallacy of progress. But when I want to see Enlightenment, one of the first places I go is not Heine or Voltaire or whoever, but the Book of Kells.
5.      The common good is milky tea? I would have said it was a very good wine shared by everyone, made preferably from best Cabernet or Pedro Ximenez grapes. The common good is what is missing in our national debates about almost every issue you care to name. Our society operates these days according to me, me me, not us, us, us, let alone us and them. The irony is writ large at election time that we live in a Commonwealth. Do we really?
6.      Thanks Beatrice for Marie-Jose Mondzain, that’s good. Economy is certainly about ‘household’. As Rowan Williams has written recently, if the economists and politicians and business people treated the world as ‘household’ with good housekeeping, we would be in a better place than we are. Mondzain’s theories are worth studying, though we need to differentiate between the Image of the World and the Image of the Divine as represented in the holy works known as icons. Byzantium was a unique imperial construct; also, Byzantium was not the early church but what happened to the East and the Church after Constantine. Christianity has always been bigger than Byzantium, or the Vatican. They are certainly powerful expressions of what happens when religion and state join forces, but casting either of them as irredeemably corrupt and unaccountable is a mistake, really. It’s okay to say religion is still about political power, especially if you hold the view that everything is politics. The question is, what kind of politics? There are some seriously more dangerous and destructive forms of politics in the world today that have little or nothing to do with religion. One of the errors here is the naïve belief that religion should be above politics. Anyone who reads the New Testament knows that politics is going on the whole damn time. Point is, what do we render to God, what do we render to Caesar? We are being asked this question every day. I personally don’t wait around for Pope Francis to give me the answer, though I am open to what the fellow has to say.
7.      It is a matter of great fascination to me that Rationalists, as they like to be called, argue that they are simply using rational thought, unlike the people they criticise, like Christians and others. This, as we know, is symptomatic of Enlightenment views about the supremacy and in fact finality of human reason to explain everything. As those with an understanding of history know however, reason itself is just one of the gifts that we have and which we are expected to use in an imaginative and responsible way. People in the Middle Ages talked about reason as one of the means to greater understanding of faith itself. Rationalists are terribly keen about evidence, they all the time want closure and definition. Even when gazing upon the universe, they want it in their pocket. It has to be written down definitively in their latest publication. Whereas when people (even Rationalists, thank God) are confronted with God, absolute closure is in fact beyond the question. The words of the Creed are fairly dogmatic, until you ask what each of the clauses is really saying: they are more than the sum of their words. The words of the parables are a serious affront to the idea of evidence and closure. A person who turns the other cheek, a person who walks the extra mile, a person who ponders the results of the mustard seed – this is all too much for mere Rationalism. Yet we are being asked to consider these words as the way to go. We all share the planet, but is it all just evidence, or is it in fact sacred?
8.      I agree with much of Dennis’s statements above and I’m not about to forget the tradition of biblical response over centuries before and after the Epiphany. However, Dennis has leapt to the extraordinary conclusion that the people who wrote these books are “my magisterial authors” and that I think them the only honest ones, and incredibly that others are unthinking. It’s hard to figure out how he arrived at this assumption (actually) on the basis of my words. I would be last person to “repudiate tradition”, in fact I see these two books as part of tradition. As for the complete doctrine of Christ, isn’t it a splendid thing, the Complete Doctrine of Christ?
9.      ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’ was one important contribution amongst several to the scholarly and humane review of the small handful of verses in Scripture used to condemn homosexuality. Despite what Evadne says, this is welcome and overdue analysis; it is certainly radical to people who don’t believe it or have never thought about it. But any serious, sincere reader of Scripture knows that it’s only one part of our appreciation of what Scripture says on this subject. There are stories, poems and all manner of other literary expressions in Scripture that speak positively and affirmatively about homosexuality, that acknowledge its reality, and that do not judge. Hence, this new set of essays is a logical sequel to ‘Five Uneasy Pieces’. The Bible is many texts with many implications for our appreciation of same-sex relations. It is available for all, we can all read Scripture and draw conclusions, without depending for our thinking on some magisterium to tell us what it means. The conversation remains open and these writings are part of that conversation. Scripture is an open book; in iconography the only time the book is shut is when God comes to judgement. It’s not up to magisteriums, fundamentalists, or anyone else to shut the book.
10.   One wonders how the ABC went about the selection process for this program. The idea of using Jesus as a standover threat toward others is offensive to most Anglicans, as it should be to any Christians, yet here we have national TV presenting this as the sort of thing Anglicans promote, as though it were typical. Conservative Evangelicals of this kind are not interested in inter-religious dialogue and it was a poor choice by the ABC. All this sort of program does is reinforce the prejudices of those in our society who think Christians are narrow-minded and blind to the Syrophoenicians, Samaritans, Canaanites and other non-persons who don’t prescribe to their view of hell on earth. The ABC needs to lift its game. I would like to think that there is hope for Tasmanian Anglican Evangelicals too. If your opening gambit in a dialogue is to threaten the other person with damnation, there is not going to be much of a dialogue. One would have thought the Compass people knew that already.
11.  From where I am sitting, Felix, it is the Pope himself who is making it an issue. Your interpretation of his actions is right, but it’s not the only meaning to his actions. The action of the footwashing has meanings for the heart and the head. The action itself is about breaking down social exclusion into poor and privileged, it is a message for everyone. Jesus himself makes footwashing an issue, in fact it’s up front and personal. He commands that his feet be washed.
12.  Like poor Grahame, poor Harriet knows a symbolic action when she sees one. She calls the Holy Thursday service “empty footwashing gestures” perhaps not altogether aware that indeed emptying is what the washing of the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper is all about. You have to start somewhere when confronted with corruption and violence: in Christian tradition the Last Supper is where you start. One also has to agree with Harriet that the Easter story is a myth. Of course it’s a myth, it’s a myth because it’s the truth glorified in the world. That is what real, living myths are all about. But on one point it is impossible to agree. Christmas was certainly not stolen from previous religious traditions, and for one very simple reason: it is the showing forth of the Incarnation. It’s a myth as well, of course, the central living myth of faith. If it was anything less than a myth it would not have the impact that it has.
13.  To Iris: If A. C. Grayling seriously puts forward the proposition that 'Judeo-Christian' ethics are, in fact, a product of the Ancient Greeks, incorporated into Christianity during the Enlightenment, then his grasp of Western ethics is much poorer than would be expected of such an eminent scholar. No one is in any doubt that Hellenistic Christianity of the early Common Era was a creative formation of the Gospel messages, Jewish ethics and the Platonic ideals circulating in the Roman Empire. It was the synthesis of these three major Mediterranean movements that gives us Christianity and the ethical teachings that go with it. A. C. Grayling appears to have a superstitious belief in the manifold benefits of the Enlightenment, such that it blinds him to some simple facts of history. We also have to remember that it is thanks to the Christians and the Muslims that we know so much about the Ancient Greeks, as they were the scholars who transmitted the Greek and Latin texts. A. C. Grayling should be grateful for small mercies. He could also read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity, with its sub-title ‘the first three thousand years’.  The first thousand years refers to the millennium before Christ. The author is good on that other movement late in time, the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
14.  Jonathan. Who said anything about my approach to the Bible being representative of  “modern Catholic interpretation”?  I’m not saying that. My understanding of modern Catholic interpretation is that it is certainly much more flexible than it was one hundred years ago, but hardly 'anything goes'. It’s not even clear to me how you arrived at the idea that my blog was a call to ‘anything goes’; it isn’t. The Cardinal’s remarks about the Jews in history have caused a stir in recent days. What upsets me is that he reveals how very limited his understanding is of the centrality of the People of Israel to the grand narrative of Scripture. I wouldn’t subscribe to anything he said on that subject, at all. To refer to the “little Jewish people” and say that Jews were not the intellectual equals of the Persians and Egyptians is not only crass and insulting, it shows that he has lost sight of the fact that the House of Israel is pivotal to our understanding of most of Scripture. I have no idea, Jonathan, who will go to heaven and who will not, it’s not my position to say. Somedays though I am drawn to the positive side of Origenism, I confess, but maybe that’s just my nature. Christianity is very different from Postmodernism, indeed if you read someone like Zizek he thinks that Christianity is virtually the only thing left that can still stand up to rampant postmodern relativism. Zizek is worth watching. My main caution, Jonathan, is that it would be unwise for you to return to Christianity as a fundamentalist. Not a good move, and it has to be observed how many of the Atheists in this debate were taught well by their Christian evangelical mentors not to listen to anyone else and just carry on with the same old message. You’re different, you listen. Thanks for listening, Jonathan.
15.  Karl thought in a younger incarnation that one had to take Genesis literally, and it seemed to Karl the Christian had no alternative but to do so. Where does this assumption come from? The imagination is a gift and learning how to use it is a lifetime’s business. We don’t take the parables of Jesus to be literal: from an early age we grasp that parables are a means to saying something more important about existence and ourselves in the world. So how come we cannot treat large parts of Genesis in the same way? No intelligent person today believes that Adam and Eve was a once-off event, but that doesn’t make it irrelevant. One can take a lifetime pondering Adam and Eve. What is the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? We know that human evolution started out in the world and that gardens came later, but in this story we find ourselves in a garden and are then expelled into the world. John Milton was not the first or last person to see that we are talking about paradise. For all us, paradise is of supreme value, and we don’t want to lose it. But we do lose it, and when we do we ask, why? How do we recover paradise? One answer is found in the parable storyline of the Passion. Human beings have analogical imaginations, but it’s not me who first said that.
16.  I met Adam and Eve just this morning. They were arguing on the tram. Sometimes I see Adam when I look in the mirror. It’s not nice. Laurence, the tale of Adam and Eve is not fictitious in the sense of something unbelievable, it’s a fiction. By which I mean, it’s a story told to reveal the truth. When I go to watch The Lorax I know it’s a fiction, but the film is telling me something about the truth of human greed and ignorance, and that someone (me and you) has to do something about it. I don’t have to explain this to my daughter after the film because I know what she will say: yeah Dad, I know, why are you telling me that? Where does original sin come from? If you believe there is original sin then you will make a story to help explain it, a fiction like Adam and Eve. Or The Lorax.
17.  The Genesis account of creation and fall is 'mythological', according to George Pell, which is nothing very new in theological terms, though Genesis itself is a scintillating explanation of newness. The Seven Days of Creation is a first warning in Scripture that we are not just reading a straightforward text the whole time. Fundamentalists and Atheists and Oh So Many Other ists have to get over their instinctive compulsion to require truth to be literal. Not only is The Seven Days of Creation a poem, it is meant to be read as a poem. It is a poem singing up the reality it is thrillingly wanting to express. Like all great poems, there is the surface of the words, and then there is what is under and around and exploding out of the words: everything we can possibly imagine. Poems are restricted by form and structure, when what they want to say is tantamount to the whole kit and caboodle. The opening of Genesis is stuck on the structural number seven, which is a very fine indivisible prime number. It is also saying that even poets like God have to rest on the Sabbath. Some religious and scientific people remain fixated on the world being made in seven days when what they need to be doing is reading more poetry. I have a similar poetic understanding of that seemingly dry piece of dogma, the Creed. It’s not the words, but everything that the words imply that is so amazing and truly beautiful beyond words.
18.  A fragment of a Gnostic Gospel from the 2nd century containing the words ‘Christ’ and ‘wife’ are hardly proof of the marital status of Jesus of Nazareth. Like so much of Scripture itself, the necessary approach is not the literal one but the purposive one. The question is not so much ‘What does this mean?’ as ‘Why was it written?’ 
19.  Whether anyone is still reading this days later who knows, but in response to Michaela in my view there is nothing simply ‘so yesterday’ about a debate over Scripture. We will be in constant conversation with Scripture and that conversation itself is part of contemporary inspiration. It always has been that way. The written history of Christianity is sometimes referred to as the third testament. In my experience this is the sum of all our todays. The third testament acknowledges the sanctity of contemporary inspirations and is of them. It has always been born from our evolving relationship with God and embraces the expanding truths and understandings of creation. Personally, I think Alain de Botton is beside the point. He can have his own thoughtful philosophy but one shouldn’t mistake that for what I mean by the third testament. But meanwhile we have, if we are talking Christianity, Scripture. There are intelligent and unintelligent ways of engaging with Scripture, but once you’re in there you are looking at things from inside, which is where a lot of these blogs are situated.
20.  Thank you Norman for further contributions from Dr Rumble, someone who was never at a loss for words. A few minutes of Dr Rumble always leaves me personally with the discombobulated feeling I have after stepping from a merry-go-round. All of this circular talk reminds me of the disciples who argued over who was number one, who would be first in the kingdom, or would sit at the best seat in the house, when the whole time the true wonder and glory of Christ was there right in front of them. All of their big words were so much piffle when faced with the truth. All they cared about was their own status and their own argument, they still didn’t get the message, they still had to have it explained to them. They would try the patience of a saint.
21.  Oliver in his own way reveals some of the real faultlines that exist in this very healthy debate. For example, he claims that “the major faiths base their teachings on one book apiece.” If only it were as simple as that. The Bible, that most remarkable collection of stories, history, parables, poetry, reports, myths &c., collected over thousands of years, is not a uniform block of finality and no intelligent reader of the Bible, Christian, Jew, or other, would want to be locked into such a position. Scripture is the foundation of tradition, however you wish to read tradition. Which is in fact one of the issues, as there is no single Christian position, Jewish position, Islamic position, atheistic position, &c. Engagement, not evasion, is at the heart of any genuine reading of Scripture. Oliver wants to equate metaphor with fantasy, whereas at the very heart of Scripture is analogical imagination. God, creation, humanity and the world in its entirety is explained in Scripture in countless ways, but they are mainly analogical. This is not a difficult thing to understand, even if we don’t like words like ‘analogical’ or ‘imagination’.  Everyday when we read something like the Guardian, even, we are using analogy: we believe that what is being said there has some semblance to the truth that we as humans are wanting to know. Literature or literal truth? Well, it’s all literature at some level, but what has ‘literal’ got to do with the ‘truth’? In this respect many so-called new atheists are no better than their real enemies the religious fundamentalists, a point made in this article. Pilate, for example, asks Christ what is truth. For a Christian this is a profound irony, as they would say Christ embodies truth. The real challenge today though starts once anyone asks, what do Christians really mean when they say Christ is the truth?
22.   Pondering and predicting the event has usually been a job for the world's great religions: all of them have some idea about how humans will meet their maker. Indeed, "the end" (or judgement day) is usually a deity's way of cleansing our planet, to allow a fresh race of people who are morally purer to repopulate the resulting clean slate. Usually, there is too much sin or debauchery and the time has come to start again. This author is talking total poppycock, based probably on his prejudices rather than acquired knowledge. The biblical narratives about the end of the world say nothing of the sort. It is these sort of slovenly irresponsible and in fact plain wrong claims about religion that engender prejudice against religion when in fact the Bible says nothing of the kind. Your author should take some basic lessons in what Christianity actually says about the end of the world. This kind of writing is pathetic really. My reading of the New Testament is that, even in end times, we are asked to do what we can in the here and now “for the least of these”, and not to be afraid.
23.  The story of Creation at the beginning of Genesis is a poem. It is quite clearly and literally a song with its own verse structure, and a chorus that is behold very good indeed. The poem was written by people with a keen sense that the human body needs a rest after six days of work, in order to be able to continue. They clearly had a thing about seven days, but that’s another story, not the Creation story. Seven days is certainly a wonderful trope in which to sing a song about the universe and everything in it. Seven is a great poetic number for making verses. This seems to be what we have got in Genesis. And after all, if God takes a rest on the seventh day then it is only right that we do. Let’s face it, there are a lot of weeks in our lives. Genesis is a startling collection of origin stories, all stuck together. We have the origin of Creation (a poem), human cohabitation (a myth), various accounts of babbling towers and the like (legends), and stories about foundations of a nation (narratives). Time frames in such literary genres were not meant to be taken literally by the people who wrote them, and we do them a disservice if we try to do so. Especially odd is the idea that the human race originated in a garden, especially as the first people to build gardens were the Mesopotamians and Persians. It is not a coincidence that the writers of Genesis set Eden in a garden, because they’d seen one with their own eyes. It certainly was a handy image for their theology.
24.  As someone who has read the Bible through a lifetime and had it read to me, there are several statements in this article that confound me. The first is this: why does being an atheist mean you cannot read the Bible? Why does one view logically follow from the other? The multiplicity of writings that make up the Bible are available to everyone and we are all in a position to make what we will of these writings, through a lifetime. Then there is the business of ‘exposure’ to the Bible, as though one would come down with cancer if you had too much of it. I too have read Aesop at every stage of my life, still do and will, but I don’t dream of saying that I have had “a lot of exposure” to Aesop, as though this were some dangerous activity that has to be handled with the utmost care. Why wasn’t I warned about how dangerous Aesop is when I was a child? Probably because I was treated as a person with a mind of his own who could only benefit from reading Aesop. In my view, this is precisely how I was taught to read the Bible too. Denying people the incredible mind-blowing meanings in Scripture just because you want to protect these people from the Bible is an inherent conundrum that the article does not want to address, but which is the core issue of the article. I find that the way to read the Bible is with an open mind and to take from it what is good for you now. Forget all the evangelists and headbangers and naysayers and freethinkers who want you to believe (or not believe) this or that in the Bible. Don’t get fussed about the bits that immediately offend you for some reason or other, as though that were the end of the story and shut that thing down Now! Really? These are words, ancient and beautiful and amazing, saved against the wreckage of time because someone cared. The words were written down for people in order to use their intelligence and gain wisdom in their own lives. If the author believes that we treasure our own cultural and moral inheritance beyond all others (I wonder) then she has already answered her own deepest reservation: the Bible is to be read by everyone and there has to be an open conversation about its contents. I think that some deeper issue is at stake in this article, which is not being stated by the author. It may have to do with belief in God, or with religious upbringing, or something, but oddly it’s not about the Bible. Put another way, the Bible contains contradiction as part of its wisdom; one thing no one can say about Scripture is that it’s superficial.

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