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Peter on Reading the Bible

I am reading a book called "Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally," by Marcus J. Borg.

I’ve just finished chapter 1, and my pulse rate is up. If I were somebody who took blood pressure medication, my doctor would be telling me this book was bad for me. I am agreeing with Borg. His religious feelings are in sympathy with my own, and his outlook on history and on the nature of truth seem not only dead-on accurate but obvious.

Yet Borg is presenting one side of a debate in our culture, and it seems to me to be the losing side.

Conflict about the Bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today. And because of the importance of Christianity in the culture of the United States, conflict about the Bible is also central to what have been called ‘the culture wars.’ … The conflict is between ... a “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible and a “historical-metaphorical” way of reading it.

Maybe the fundamentalist side really is winning. Our president can get away with torture and treason and can send thousands of Americans to die in a pointless and ill-conceived war, and he’s still there because fundamentalists (most of whom are decent, moral, and loving people) keep voting for him because he supports Christian “values.”

Maybe it just seems like they’re winning because of my own history with them. I stopped calling myself Christian about 25 years ago after a summer program at a Christian community where the “literal-factual” way of reading the Bible was presented quite strongly. They convinced me that fundamentalists were correct in their interpretation of Christianity, but they also showed themselves pigheadedly ignorant about almost everything else. Most Christians, faced with such a realization, would leave the Church and start calling themselves atheist. I left the Church and called myself damned. I never stopped believing in G*d, but it was ten years before I found a door to the Divine that wasn’t barred and a communion that hadn’t been poisoned for me. And when I did, it sure as Hell wasn’t Christian.

So maybe I just feel like the Christians with a “historical-metaphorical” approach to the Bible are on the losing side because they already lost—I already lost—when the battleground was me.

OK. Deep breath. Let’s read on:

From [the fundamentalists’] point of view, allowing nonliteral interpretation opens the door to evading the Bible’s authority and making it say what we want it to say.

But, quoting from another author, L. William Countryman, "Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny?" :

These Christians imagine that the nature of biblical authority is perfectly clear; they often speak of Scripture as inerrant. In fact, however, they have tacitly abandoned the authority of Scripture in favor of a conservative Protestant theology shaped largely in the nineteenth century. This fundamentalist theology they buttress with strings of quotations to give it a biblical flavor, but it predetermines their reading of Scripture so thoroughly that one cannot speak of the Bible as having any independent voice in their churches.

I’m nodding here. In fact, I’m almost jumping up and down and shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! What he said!”

I’m a Quaker now, and as a Quaker I’m worshiping alongside Christians and I’m encountering the Bible as part of the milieu of spiritual writings that we read and discuss, and there’s some good stuff in it. But the Bible is a body of writings with life and breath, with seasons and moods, with hope and despair and poetry and mysticism, and when “Bible-based” Christians insist on the literal truth of every word, they kill it. And there’s just no way to tell them that.

There are some truths that language cannot contain. Words collapse under the weight of some meanings. I’ve known that for a long time, and the strategy I’ve developed for coping is: Stay centered, stay grounded, be real. Or as a Quaker might put it, Let your life speak. Borg identifies this as “postmodern”:

Postmodernity is marked by a turn to experience. In a time when traditional religious teachings have become suspect, we tend to trust that which can be known in our own experience. This turn to experience is seen in the remarkable resurgence of interest in spirituality within mainline churches and beyond. Spirituality is the experiential dimension of religion. … An obvious point that has often been forgotten during the period of modernity: metaphors and metaphorical narratives can be profoundly true even if they are not literally or factually true.

That’s me in a nutshell—my personal faith and practice in five simple sentences—and the first bit could just as well have been a quote from George Fox with the language updated and the thee’s and thou’s taken out. But trying to talk about spirituality to a fundamentalist is like walking into a crowded, lively room and discovering I’m a ghost. Scream, shout, wave my arms in front of people’s faces or walk right through them and they just won’t see me.

Last summer, at NEYM Sessions, I had the chance to dialog with hundreds of Quakers from all over the theological and political map, and it really seemed like a lot of the Christian-identified Quakers believe that if you’re not Christ-centered, you don’t have a center. Once in a while something like that gets stated explicitly. Jeanne over at Social Class & Quakers published a guest post by Bill Samuel in which he said:

I have a theory that the class homogeneity among liberal Friends is related to their lack of a clear spiritual center. It has been my experience among Christ-centered Friends and other Christ-centered churches that class is less of an issue, because the uniting factor is Jesus Christ. Without a clear, explicit uniting factor other than something like class, a group tends to gravitate towards becoming a club more united by socioeconomic and cultural factors.

And I want to say, “Lack of a clear spiritual center??? Excuse me??? Hello-oh!!! Sitting right here! In a meeting covered by an ocean of Light! In case anybody was wondering. Or paying attention. Or cared.”

In the midst of the conflict over NEYM’s relationship with FUM during Sessions last summer, Chris McCandless, the clerk of NEYM, said something along the lines of “Unity does not mean we are in agreement; unity means we are girded about by the bonds of love as we labor together.”

But how do you labor together with someone who is deaf and blind on all the wavelengths you use to communicate?

*sigh* I'm not actually as discouraged as this post makes it sound. The way you labor together is you worship together in gathered meeting, and when someone speaks, you listen not so much for the words as for the place the words come from. There's a reason I'm Quaker.

Wow. All this just from reading chapter 1.


Ali said…
This was a really fascinating post to read. (Have I mentioned recently how much I appreciate being able to read another thoughtful blog from a "Christian"-Pagan perspective? :)

I find myself struggling with similar issues in trying to reconcile conflicting needs in my spiritual life (and feeling as though sometimes I can't get straight answers from people who might not really understand what I'm asking). I just wrote a post about that myself, actually, in which I talk about both the intellectual qualms and experiential roadblocks I sometimes come across when trying to explore and embrace a "more Pagan" approach to Druidry. For me, I have so many examples of the postmodern "historical-metaphorical" Christian-types in my life that the fundamentalist approach has always just seemed sadly misguided, never really "winning," except in the realm of superficial political schemes (as influential as those may be on a world-wide scale :-/). I sometimes find it more frustrating to ask my fellow postmodernists to talk about, say, their relationship with deity, only to hear again and again about how subjective and personal it is, as if this alone should give me enough insight to satisfy my curiosity. Needless to say, I'm aware of the personal, subjective nature of what I'm asking--that doesn't mean I don't still want a more detailed answer (if only because I love stories, metaphors and poetry, which seems to be how spiritual experiences of deity are so often expressed).

But enough of my own ranting. ;) Just wanted to drop by and say that book you're reading sounds fascinating. Thanks for writing about it. :)
Linda said…
Borg has been really helpful to me, both in Reading the Bible Again and in one he wrote earlier, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.
Too often, to my mind, Quakers and others on the political left cede the Bible and Jesus to the religious right. We thus cut ourselves off from the real power available there.
Thanks for posting this.
Yewtree said…
Great post, Peter!

There was an excellent article in The Inquirer (UK Unitarian magazine) recently pointing out that much of the Bible is about violence - the slaughter of other tribes, or Lot handing over his daughters to be raped by a mob for instance. There is also much that is beautiful and reflective and worthwhile. Anyone who tries to found their spiritual identity entirely on one book is likely to end up schizoid.

When one has escaped from a fundamentalist worldview, the only thing to do is to walk away from the Bible for 20 or 30 years, and then come back to it for a fresh look if you're feeling up to it and need to clean out the muck from the bottom of your psyche. Armed to the teeth with Joseph Campbell, Robertson Davies, and the Scholars' Version, of course.

Not to mention the hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of people who have gone mad believing they committed the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, and ruined their precious divinely-given unique lives in fear of eternal torment.

This business of reading the creation story as if it were literally true is a relatively recent phenomenon, though - the Orthodox Church has known for centuries that it's a metaphor. But then they don't have a doctrine of sola scriptura.

Regarding your point about spirituality, just try explaining to a religious person about individual experience and reason as the chief source of authority...

Oh yes, and I do wish fundamentalists wouldn't quote bits of the Bible out of context, which they frequently, and annoyingly, do. For example, that line from John 14 about Yeshua being the only way to the "Father".
Anonymous said…
A someone who was raised in (and later escaped) a fundamentalist church, I jump up and down and shout:

“Yeah! Yeah! What you said!”

Seriously, issues like this have made even everyday conversation with my family members (who still interpret the Bible literally) difficult, if even possible--and it bleeds into other parts of life as well -- which I guess is where the culture wars come into play.

Literal, binary interpretations of any truth can be stifling. When there is only one possible right answer, disagreements of every type must be sorted into all the wrong answers and the one right way of doing and speaking and living, breathing, thinking, believing. Suddenly, it's not just about the Bible. If I don't have a Christmas tree, I am wrong. If I choose to live in the city rather than the country, I am wrong. If I am vegetarian, color my hair, wait to have children until after 30, I am wrong, wrong, wrong.

What a limited, compassion-less way to live--

I understand that the culture wars go both ways, but at least, in theory (if not always in practice), postmodernists, liberal Quakers, and other progressive types believe that there is more than one good way to be and live.
Liberata said…
I love Marcus Borg! Haven't read Reading the Bible Again... but have read Meeting Jesus Again..., The Heart of Christianity, and his latest biography of Jesus.

Borg definitely made it possible for me to claim to be a Christian again.

I can understand your feeling that the fundamentalists are winning...but then that's really nothing new. Jesus was on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the outcast...when is the domination system ever on their side? (Ever read anything by Walter Wink? Better take your blood pressure medicine first :-)))

I find strength in working with those who concentrate on feeding the hungry, freeing the unjustly imprisoned, and working for more understanding between peoples. Once you really dig into that sort of work, you'll find that the way others interpret the Bible bothers you less.
Will T said…
To my mind, Quakerism has always been an attempt to rescue Christianity from the Christians. The preaching in the steeplehouses and market places and refusing to pay tithes or to swear oaths were all an attempt to grab the Christians and say "Don't you get it? God is known inwardly. Forget the outward show and listen to what God has to say to you."

Come to think of it, that was what Jesus was trying to do with the Scribes and Pharisees of his day to. (and probably the Saducees and Essenes as well.)

Will T
This came in today via email--apologies for those encountering issues with Blogger and comments, and thanks for taking the trouble to email us, Francis...

Good morning Peter,

I’ve been trying — with three different browsers — in vain — to post the comment below (Blogspot is simply giving me terminal s@*t today), so here:

I’ve been mostly lurking awhile and am fascinated by your (pl.) ongoing work at integrating the practices you bring with you with those of Quaker worship (which both of you appear to “get” in a very deep way) without simply jettisoning the former.

Like you I don’t identify as Christian. As I see it today the New Testament, and too much of Christianity generally, is compromised by 1. the tendency of so many to read it as you say literally-factually (Borg’s “earlier paradigm”); 2. inaccurate, outdated translations from Koine to vernacular (I’ve just begun exploring “The Source” New Testament which is translated — into modern, even somewhat slangy, American English — by a linguist not a NT or Biblical scholar, and it’s refreshing to read these thrice-familiar texts stripped of the thick varnish of religiosity for a change, and the new translations are occasionally startling); and 3. the many textual “redactions” by countless scribes who had motive and opportunity to alter or amend the text to conform to doctrine rather than the other way round. My understanding is that the “classic” Quakerism of Fox, Barclay et al treats scripture as valuable but not the last word; the Inner-Guide, -Teacher or -Christ provides that, the opposite of Protestant “sola scriptura.”

“To my mind, Quakerism has always been an attempt to rescue Christianity from the Christians.” Well said, Friend Will. :o)

btw, I too like Borg a lot. If more Christian faith and practice were more like that which he writes about what a fine old world this would be…

Go and stay well.

Francis Drake
A little learning is a dangerous thing. I am living proof.

p.s. From an “unbeliever” so fwiw: An insight I’ve been picking up on lately is that unprogrammed Quakerism and Eastern Orthodoxy are arguably the most mystical sects in contemporary Christianity (I speak of the wider communities not individual mystics / saints which of course can and do occur in all branches of Christendom) and so (appearances notwithstanding) are perhaps the most akin. In keeping, one of the most fascinating recent discoveries on my path are the available English translations of the French Orthodox priest Jean-Yves Leloup, specifically, his translations of and commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, and his Sacred Embrace of Jesus and Mary. I’ve been reading these for about two weeks and I doubt I’ll ever be quite the same again. The man is I think an inspired synthesist: for the first time in my explorations the canonic and the apocryphal “Christian Gnostic” texts come together and make love not war, the “forbidden” scriptures providing a vital esoteric counterbalance to the more generally exoteric NT. Though Friends nowadays may speak more often of the (exoteric) “historical Jesus” than the (esoteric) “cosmic Christ” the latter is (my understanding) what is really at the heart of Paul / Fox / Barclay. Cheers.
Anonymous said…
This is commenting on Francis' post but goes back to Peter's.

Elaine Pagels wrote a really interesting book called "Beyond Belief, The Secret Gospel of Thomas." It highlights a lot of the diversity of Christian faith before the various Councils standardized creeds. Pagans and Friends would recognize much of what was crushed. While Pagels points out that this began as a survival exercise, the end result removed the Divine Light Within from standard Christianity.
Another result of this standardization was the freezing of new prophecies. Fundamentalists and actually most flavors of standard Christians say that revelation is closed and that all necessary information has been imparted. So Peter, even if you were Jesus, these folks wouldn't hear you. They'd be checking the Book to make sure that He was deviating:-)
Anonymous said…
This may be a mean thing to say, but I don't think anything in the world is more frustrating than discussing religion with a fundamentalist- they refuse to think. Also, I found it extremely strange that I couldn't convince a fundamentalist to be a pacifist, since Jesus clearly prohibits violence, and they supposedly believe scripture literally word-for-word! Where does it say "Thou shall make war, squander the poor, worship the flag, etc"? (I know this is stereotyping as not all fundamentalists think these things, but it is the type I think Borg was referring to in the quote above that says many fundamentalists don't really take the bible literally.)
Morgan said…
Dear Peter, sympathy and empathy.

I heard Borg at Summer Gathering this year... he was certainly interesting, and I was glad of the opportunity.

His use of the word "postmodern" for a return to the emphasis on the experiential intrigues me. I think it reinforces that he's speaking of a place of dominant culture. In other religions, experience has always had primacy in terms of one's religious experience. It's even true in certain forms of Judaism, which is definitely older than Christianity. And it's definitely true of early Christianity. Hmmm.

Thank you for your post.

- Stasa

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