There were a few comments on yesterday’s blog that made me want to unpack some ideas a bit more. If you didn’t read the blog, I wrote about how maybe we need to get away from viewing the Bible as a trusted source in our spiritual lives due to the large number of tracked changes that have been made to Scripture over the years. One such statement that I want to response to is from friend and regular commenter, Nathan:
“I think the language of “lies” here is – with all kindness, friendship and respect – disingenuous. It implies a willful deception, for which we have no historical evidence – in fact quite the opposite. These changes have been studied and tracked very extensively over countless years. We do have an extensive body of data that gives us a very good indication of what has taken place and even why. The changes present certainly aren’t insidious as it seems is implied. There are very practical and agreeable reasons for many of the changes.”
Let’s get into, shall we?
I don’t disagree that we’ve tracked such changes for a very long time, and that trained historians and theologians can point out the how’s and why’s as they relate to these textual changes in scripture. Simply said, I understand why textual changes happened. People in powerful positions wanted a little more control (I have a memory of professor Ed Gentry telling me about the addition of an anti-women in ministry verse while attending his New Testament class a few years ago), to the less malicious “he who is without sin cast the first stone” verse that yesterday’s article talked about, or maybe a translator wrote down the wrong letter or word, thus changing the meaning of a verse or story. There are a myriad of reasons why these changes happened, some good reasons, but some bad, too.
Because of this I’m uncomfortable embracing a religious worldview that includes reliance on writing with obvious textual changes that are viewed as “real” or “honest” only. I am also uncomfortable with the lack of accountability from the pulpit when it comes to exegeting these verses for a group of believers.
I’m not afraid to say I’m a purist. I want to get to a ground level spirituality, or have none at all. I’m skeptical that Biblical scripture has any more to do with getting to “real-ness” than say, a piece of fiction. Both can show us grace and mystery, sacrifice and adventure, but fiction knows what it is, a narrative story that allows the rise of mystery and wonder inside ourselves (which, by the way, is pretty real to me). A piece of fiction that does this is valuable unto itself, for the thing which we want to exists in fiction intrinsically does.
Scripture, or better yet an orthodox view of Scripture asks us to embrace the Bible as something we can trust historically, even when we contextualize it and understand that say, Song of Songs is poetry, or Revelation is apocalyptic fantasy. I cannot trust the Bible as history. All I can trust is that people changed it to suit their needs, whether intentionally or unintentionally, whether for the worse or the better.
I am not skeptical of the religious text itself when viewing it anthropologically, I’m just skeptical of thinking it can be anything more than that: a piece of writing that shows us how humans use narrative to explain the hard to answer questions, that we use narrative to bring meaning to our lives.
This worldview, one that says Scripture is a collection of stories from people trying to make sense of the world around them is something I am unafraid of. However, I am sure that upon hearing this, people will accuse me of trying to live out a story that is based in fiction, as if something based in fiction is less valuable than something based in “reality.”
The subjective feelings that rise in each of us from interacting with narrative bring a certain real-ness, for we have a visceral reaction to the story. It represents a whole slew of things we feel or want to feel, things we can explain, but most often things we cannot explain. Some people upon understanding this are happy to continue to embrace the ritual of their religious tradition, viewing it as simply one of the many ways to encounter the divine which is found in our subjective, emotional experience when living out the Jesus story. Others cannot abide this.
The Jesus story is an amazingly important one that has shaped and touched most every part of the world, whether for the worse or better. It is obvious that there is power in the story, whether or not it is “real” by our 21st century standards of real-ness (standards that by the way, I don’t fully embrace). Do I believe that, for example, the resurrection literally happened? No. I don’t. But that people wrote it down, that people enact it throughout their religious rituals regularly, that people embrace this story, whether or not the story is portrayed as it literally happened doesn’t remove the story of meaning.
I assert that however such textual changes have occurred in scripture, embracing the story despite them is more than an okay thing to do. But we must hold the story loosely, and throw out the pieces that just don’t make sense culturally any longer. The difference here is embracing the Jesus of History, someone we know very little about, versus embracing the Jesus of the Story, someone portrayed to fit our need for meaning and resurrection-hope.