This morning I was preaching in Altavista. Until I arrived in the USA on Friday I thought Altavista was just a search engine. But, it isn’t – it’s a real place in Virginia.

We (our wonderful hosts, Bishop Neff Powell and his wife Dorothy) drove an hour and a half to get there and everyone in the church was warm, friendly and very welcoming. They even understood my non-Queen’s English English. But, going there teased my imagination at the level of searching for links that might be rather fanciful. So, before we head off to the next service in Roanoke (preaching again) here are some tenuous connections arising from preaching on Jonah in Altavista:

1. Jonah was searching for a way to escape the call of God – something I and other Christians have worked on with great diligence.

2. God doesn’t give up on us when we run away – even if he knows we are racist bigots who haven’t quite ‘got’ God’s character.

3. God links together grace and generosity with the search of ordinary people (the Ninevites) for the freedom of a new start – even when God’s ‘chosen one’ thinks his own righteousness is all that matters.

4. Jonah’s search for justice against the Ninevites hits up against God’s longing for justice for the Ninevites.

5. Being sicked up from a big fish onto a beach might represent a big hint, but it doesn’t automatically mean that you then get the point. Prejudice and self-righteousness go deep.

There’s plenty more, but that’s for starters.

Anyway, over lunch with some wonderful people one man told us some great stories from his reading of World War Two history. The funniest was about the reunion of combatant paratroopers forty years after D-Day. These ageing old guys were invited to re-enact their original parachute drop into France. Hours after they had all been dropped and identified by family members and the local Gendarmes, one was still missing. Eventually they found him propped in a bar, smashed out of his skull. When they asked what he was playing at, he answered: “You told us to do what we did when we parachuted into France. So I did. I made my way to the pub and got smashed.”

I bet that’s what Jonah wished he could have done in Nineveh. At least it would have spared him having to see people discover that God loved them after all and wanted their lives and society to reflect that.


Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a speech yesterday in which he praised the impact of the King James Bible, stamped all over the nonsense assumption of secular neutrality, and called for Christians to be confident about their faith, the Bible and their right (nay, responsibility) to speak into public life. Not surprisingly, it has caused a bit of a stir amongst the commentariat whose assumptions got a bit of a kicking.

Cameron was speaking in an Anglican cathedral, so was duly confident in his laudatory observations on the impact of the King James Bible. He also used the occasion to give the Church of England a bit of a kick in relation to its wrangles over women and sexuality. Fair game, I say. And it was good to hear a British politician ‘do God’ without embarrassment, hesitation or self-exonerating caveat.

But, having praised the phenomenon and some of the content, I am still left with a cautious hesitation myself. And I think I know why this is.

He managed to talk up the language of the Bible without really referring to the content of it. Yes, the KJV has powerfully influenced our language and, proclaimed by the Church, has shaped our culture and law as well as our worship. But, we can’t just leave it there.

It reminds me of a rude remark I made recently at an interfaith gathering. I said that many of the global interfaith conferences I attend are a bit like a glorified BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk’… provided we don’t actually talk about anything. Yet, avoiding ‘content’ is a sure way to waste time and money on non-engagement and the fostering of a false sense of coherence when all we have done is avoid speaking about ‘content’ that might prove contentious. Of course, this is a caricature, but it made the point: we have to move beyond talking about talking to talking about something.

Well, Cameron lauded the language and spoke eloquently about the need for moral codes and ethical foundations in private as well as public life. He argued for a thought-through moral and spiritual basis for our ethics – rather than just assuming one.

But, the problem with the Bible is that as soon as you get beyond the language to what it says, you begin to find it challenging – on lots of fronts. Beautiful language is a means to comprehension, not an end in itself. And it’s taking a bit of a risk challenging the Church of England on its ethical conflicts when those conflicts arise precisely from going through the language and on to conflicted ways of reading the text in its integrity. So, it is alright for the Prime Minister to “recognise the impact of a translation that is, I believe, one of this country’s greatest achievements” and to claim that “the King James Bible is as relevant today as at any point in its 400 year history” as long as we don’t delve too deeply into what it says. He goes on:

One of my favourites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a brilliant summation of the profound sense that there is more to life, that we are imperfect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see beyond our own perspective. The key word is darkly – profoundly loaded, with many shades of meaning. I feel the power is lost in some more literal translations. The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror”. The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”. They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.”

I take the point (and basically agree with him), but the Bible isn’t meant to dazzle us with poetic magic; it is meant to open us to the mind of God… which tends to be a little bit challenging.

Like Shakespeare, the King James translation dates from a period when the written word was intended to be read aloud. And this helps to give it a poetic power and sheer resonance that in my view is not matched by any subsequent translation.

Again, point taken. But, resonance isn’t enough. It isn’t a performance prop. Like with Shakespeare, it is possible to enjoy the spectacle and experience of a play while going home oblivious to the point of it all. It won’t kill you, but you are missing out on rather a lot.

Cameron (or whoever wrote the basic text) does a good job of exposing assumptions of neutrality, affirming the role of the Bible in the development of British politics and culture, the fundamental power of biblical anthropology in shaping what would now rather weakly be called ‘human rights’, and the importance of biblically informed theological and spiritual motivation in social altruism. He says:

The Bible has helped to shape the values which define our country. Indeed, as Margaret Thatcher once said, “we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.” Responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, self-sacrifice, love… pride in working for the common good and honouring the social obligations we have to one another, to our families and our communities… these are the values we treasure. Yes, they are Christian values. And we should not be afraid to acknowledge that.

I didn’t know we were afraid to acknowledge that. But, we are not told which biblical origins these virtues are derived from… or just how to deal with the fact that some people who read that same Bible will not recognise in the same way Cameron does how those virtues should be worked out in concrete priorities, policies or practices. He is absolutely right to knock on the head the utter nonsense that confident Christianity confounds those of other faiths – usually a patronising and ignorant gesture from secular humanists who think they know better than Muslims what offends them. Christianity has indeed created the space in which all people can freely worship or not.

However, Cameron’s conclusion made me wince a little – not at what he said, but at the unarticulated assumptions behind it:

I believe the Church of England has a unique opportunity to help shape the future of our communities. But to do so it must keep on the agenda that speaks to the whole country. The future of our country is at a pivotal moment. The values we draw from the Bible go to the heart of what it means to belong in this country
…and you, as the Church of England, can help ensure that it stays that way.

And what might the ‘agenda that speaks to the whole country’ actually be? I suspect it has to do with stuff that some Christians, precisely because of their reading of the Bible – in whatever translation – believe is contentious on moral grounds. I am not saying they are right or wrong; my point is simply that Cameron’s point is itself contentious… as soon as you move beyond vague generalities about ‘values’ and ‘magic’ and into the text itself.

But, maybe he has just opened the door a little to a willingness to take the content of the Bible seriously and invite people to look at the text itself rather than some general or selective bits of nice language. (‘The Word became flesh’… which is when it all got a bit difficult…)

Two cheers for a brave and serious speech. One cheer reserved for the reservations above.

I have written about the Bible before now and created some interesting conversation. (Put ‘Bible’ into ‘Category’ and you’ll get a selection.) What becomes clear is that lots of people (Christians included) have little or no idea how to read the Bible. That is not to say that they are illiterate; it is simply that the Bible is a big, strange and complicated book and many people are not enabled to approach it.

Frankly, I wouldn’t attempt to read other forms of ancient literature without some guidance and I would be very cautious about coming to firm judgements when I knew myself to be on shaky ground in terms of my own knowledge. Yet, again and again, we find people trying to read the Bible as if it was a monolithic genre of literature, monovalent in its meaning, monovocal in its story and monochrome in its theology.

Two things bring me back to this: (a) reading Walter Brueggemann on reading the complex Old Testament in the way it is intended to be read and (b) the reports last night that “coded references to biblical passages are inscribed on gunsights widely used by the US and British military in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

Apparently, Trijicon, the US-based manufacturer, was founded by a devout Christian, and claims that it is run according to “biblical standards”. So, they have marked the inside of Advanced Combat Optical Gunsights with references to inter alia  “2COR4:6” and “JN8:12”. Not surprisingly, some people are not happy about this – including me.

Apart from the obvious objections to such a practice (which I am sure others will address), the intriguing question for me is why the manufacturers chose the references they did and didn’t select others. Forexample, the sixth Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Or something juicy about genocide from the Conquest narratives?

The point is (and this is where Brueggemann comes back in) that we are selective in quoting the bits that we like or that back up the ideologies we have already adopted for other reasons – reasons that we think are derived from the same Scriptures, but might not be.

Brueggemann suggests that we should read the Bible with humility as well as excitement, sensitivity as well as boldness. The God of the Bible will not be pinned down by our ideologies and also refuses to be forced into a sanitised straightjacket of simplistic monovocal orthodoxy. The Bible has to be read with an openness to the shockingness of some of its stories and not made into a book that ‘makes me comfortable and happy’. And the ‘hard bits’ should not be ducked.

We are not told, but I wonder if Trijicon includes among its references such verses as John 5:39 or Matthew 23:27-32 or Psalm 137 or Luke 23:34?

Worse still, this makes the Christian faith, the Christian Church and the Bible itself an easy target for ignorant atheists who find in it their own ammunition for simplistic targeting of a book they haven’t read and can’t be bothered to try to understand.

The white stuff came again in Langenargen today, but it couldn’t make up its mind whether to thicken into real snow or wimp its way into sleet. I think the sleet won.

I have been reflecting again on how my perception of people, events, places and ‘issues’ can be challenged by a new perspective. Yesterday I mentioned (again) Helmut Schmidt’s observation that politicians need ot be able to speak at least two foreign languages in order to be able to examine their own culture and assumptions from the perspective of an ‘outsider’. When you sit ‘inside’ another culture and look through its lenses (cultural, linguistic, philosophical, historical, political, etc.), you begin to relativise your own – or, at least, get them into some sort of proportion.

What is relatively crucial to one culture might be unimportant in another. Seeing it through the latter’s lens might leave me still thinking it is important, but at least I will have checked it out against the bigger picture of the world’s realities. For example, the state of the local scout hut might be a huge issue locally; but, in the light of the devastation in Haiti, it becomes a minor issue in the grand scheme of things.

This constant readjustment is vital in stopping us becoming obsessive about trivia. And it applies to more than just politics and scout huts.

I have just read Kenneth Bailey‘s excellent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. I was first introduced to his writings 25 years ago when I read Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes. Bailey spent 40 years living among Middle Eastern people and tried to learn to read the Bible as it would be read through their eyes. After all, it is their book. He discovered that much of our western reading of (for example) the parables of Jesus is off the mark when put up against people who instinctively understand and ‘feel’ the cultural stuff underlying them.

The book is excellent and easy to read – with only a few bits that made me question his assumptions. It deserves a wide readership – especially among those who dare to preach this stuff. Its subtitle is Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Reading this reminded me of an exercise John Bell (of the Iona Community) did with over 100 of my clergy about six years ago. I had become Bishop of Croydon and wanted to bring my clergy together for encouragement and fellowship. I wasn’t sure I was the person to do this, but asked John to do a ‘study day’ with us – at least I could make the thing happen. John agreed and led a stimulating, challenging and hugely encouraging day that sent many of us back to re-read our Bible afresh.

In the afternoon he handed out a white envelope to everyone. Each envelope had on it a letter: A, B, C or D. Before we were allowed to open the envelope John told four stories of characters in the Gospels: Mary at the wedding at Cana, the woman with the heamorrhage, the child Jesus ‘put among his disciples’, and one other (which age has removed from my memory).

Having told the stories, he then asked us to open our envelope and ask ourselves whether the person on the black & white postcard-photograph was what the character in the story might have looked like. There was a silence, followed by laughter. One person near me had a picture of a crabby-looking Middle Eastern woman in her fifties, with few teeth, but a determined look on her face. Another had a beautifully back-lit photo of a youngish woman in lingerie looking wistfully towards the camera.

The point was obvious. We bring to our reading of the Bible so many assumptions before we even get to the text. We grow up with images that colour our reading and (sometimes) prevent us properly understanding what the text is trying to say. For example:

  • Why do we see Mary as the perpetual 16 year-old, waif-like and dressed in lovely blue, when at the wedding in Cana she was clearly in her late forties or early fifties and had been widowed for a couple of decades or so?
  • Was the child a boy or a girl? Was he/she a clean-looking and well-clothed ten year-old or a scruffy three year-old urchin?
  • Why did I always assume that the woman who had been bleeding for almost a couple of decades was elderly and unattractive? Why couldn’t she have been young-ish and beautiful – sexy even?

My/our reading of these characters – and, therefore, the meanings we brought to the texts – had all been conditioned by unconsciously imbibed images and assumptions about them and what they were about. These ‘filtered’ images shape the way we read the text, think about their meaning, form our theology or reinforce our prejudices about what Jesus is all about.

This is why one of the Bible verses that really stands out and haunts me (as someone who takes the Bible with the utmost importance) is John 5.39:

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me…

In other words, those who think they stand closest to the Scriptures are in most danger of missing the point. It was true for the Pharisees and I think it remains true for me.

Today we went to a wedding in a small Hampshire village. The groom’s mother conducted the service in the beautiful ancient church and the weather responded well to the glorious attire of many guests. I didn’t manage to get any pictures, though. Which, being translated, means: I forgot to take any.

As at many weddings the second Bible Reading was from chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth – the one about love. It was the last verse that got me thinking while we were waiting to leave the church for the reception. It reads:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

I once heard the Charismatic translation of this:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is tongues.

And this memory got me to thinking about how many other words might illustrate our Christian preoccupations. For example:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is … sex.

Or ‘money’. Or ‘being more right about things than my neighbour’. Or ‘liturgy’. You probably get the idea.

So, any bright suggestions to fill a moment of vague curiosity? This could be interesting, revealing… or just a little bit worrying.


the-holy-bibleA few days ago I commented on my concerns about the handling of the Bible in churches and the problems associated with merely displaying passages on a screen or notice sheet. An interesting conversation ensued, but with the usual ‘either-or’ assumptions about what I was querying. Yes, different people need different approaches, but questions remain about the use of the text itself in public worship and what effect the medium has on the message itself.

This morning I was with friends in an urban church in a tough area of South London – a church that has grown in just over three years from an average congregation of 15 to one of around 80. This morning the congregation was over 80 and multiethnic – a wonderful place in which the church is growing a worshipping and serving community. When I licensed the vicar there I had no idea if it would work or not – and I feared the challenge and stress might damage the vicar. This morning I felt very close to tears witnessing such an encouraging community worshipping and belonging together, reaching out in welcome to newcomers.

Hymn singingDuring the service I was reflecting further on the phrase I used in my earlier post: ‘liturgical osmosis’. I had questioned whether people learn the faith (and the Bible) merely by absorbing some of it during disconnected services, but without realising it. I was urging a more serious approach – after all, I would be rightly suspicious if my children went to school and the teacher simply hoped that something of a disconnected discourse might either accidentally or incidentally enable the child to learn – for example – to read or count or learn grammar. We expect teachers to take ‘learning’ seriously and teach in such a way as to make learning more rather than less likely.

However, I want to redress the balance a little by urging that ‘liturgical osmosis’ be taken as seriously as other forms of ‘deliberate’ learning/teaching. We are constantly absorbing not only sensations and feelings, but ideas and constructs that impact on and shape our mindset and, therefore, our behaviour.

sheepFor example, this morning we sang that unfortunate song, O let the love of God enfold you. Why unfortunate? The chorus line asks God to ‘come and fill your lambs’ – but doesn’t say what with. Sage and onion stuffing?! It is a very odd line to sing without feeling weird. So, why do we keep singing it – especially when the post-resurrection Jesus enjoins Peter to ‘feed’ and ‘tend my lambs/sheep (John 21), but not to ‘fill’ them?

Perhaps a better example of what I am saying can be seen in the great Easter song we used to sing a lot in my church when I was a vicar in Rothley, Leicestershire: Graham Kendrick‘s In the tomb so cold they laid him. The first verse goes like this:

In the tomb so cold they laid him, death its victim claimed; powers of hell, they could not hold him – back to life he came.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Except, of course, that Jesus did not come back to life. As Paul puts it, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. But if you keep singing about ‘coming back to life’, it isn’t too long before you are thinking at a subliminal level that when we die we simply come back to life. We don’t. Christian hope/trust is rooted not in an outcome, but in a person: that if God raised Christ from death, so will he raise us also. The rest is detail.

As Tom Wright has noted many times, Christians are really confused about death, resurrection, heaven, ‘spirituality’ and the cosmos, etc and slightly dodgy songs don’t help. Wesley noted that we learn our theology from what we sing rather than from what we read or hear in a sermon. Or, to put it more bluntly: sing rubbish and you’ll believe rubbish.

rock gigSo, those who are responsible for leading worship carry a great weight of responsibility in terms of both content (theology) and form (the choice of medium). Perhaps more is going on than sometimes the quick choice of songs or hymns might suggest.

In other words, the content of what we believe/assume is shaped by what we red/sing/hear/imbibe – which means that the message cannot be divorced from the various media in which it is represented.

The four bishops in the Diocese of Southwark meet once each month from 8am till 2pm. During this meeting one of us leads a Bible Study and this morning was my turn. Without going into detail, several intriguing questions emerged.

I picked up on the call by the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians (2:11) to ‘remember’ their story and how they (Jews and non-Jews) had moved from being ‘aliens and strangers’ into being members of the same ‘family’. This injunction to ‘remember’ their story recalled the warnings given to the people of Israel before they entered the Promised Land way back in the Old Testament.

In Deuteronomy 26 (for example) they were told that when things began to go well for them they would soon forget their own history and begin to behave badly: if they took their gains for granted (and not as ‘gift’) they would forget that they had once been slaves and homeless wanderers – and would begin to treat other people as slaves, etc.

In order to try to avoid this sort of amnesia, the people would instigate an annual festival – a ritual aimed at reminding them of their origins and that their ‘blessing’ was  to be regarded as ‘gift’ for the benefit of all in the community. One of these festivals involved the first crops of the harvest being brought to the priest and the recitation of a creed (the oldest form of creed in the Hebrew Bible). It begins with a blunt articulation of the reminder that ‘my ancestor was a wandering Aramaean…’. The active verbs are all attributed to God in the story of how the people were liberated from slavery, etc. So what?

the-holy-bibleThe ritual re-telling of the story was intended to prevent the people ever forgetting their story. The Christian equivalent is the Eucharist (or Holy Communion). This is where we re-member our story of God’s generosity and re-commit ourselves to live generously as his people in the world. But how is this story to be told when people clearly do not learn the Christian ‘story’ by what I rudely call ‘liturgical osmosis’? Just hearing disconnected readings in a service (followed by a sermon which doesn’t always paint the big canvas onto which the particular detail of ‘today’s’ sermon fits) does not help people learn the content of the Christian faith, learn to handle the Bible or grow in confidence in having a ‘reason for the faith that is within’ them.

What worries me about this is the fact that many churches do not have Bibles in the pews. The Bible readings are often printed in a service sheet. In an increasing number of churches, everything is projected onto screens using PowerPoint. The net result is the same: the excerpts are disconnected and decontextualised. It is possible for a generation of Christians to grow up never handling a Bible or knowing how to read it as a book (or books). And this must have an impact on biblical literacy and confidence.

It seems to me (especially from how this matter is addressed when I do Parish Visits) that people need to grow in confidence in an intelligent handling of the Bible, an increasing familiarisation with its narratives and teachings and an openness to having character shaped by a regular reading of the Bible – alone and in the company of others. This means churches having Bibles available and encouraging people to use them during services. The Bible is not easy and needs some opening up if such confidence is to grow.

It is perhaps not surprising that some Christians feel diffident in using or defending the Bible in the face of an aggressive atheism/secularism or a confident Islam. A simplistic recourse to the sort of fundamentalism that cannot be questioned is hopeless in engaging with the wider world.

So, without in any way wanting to encourage a luddite approach to creativity, I do worry a bit about service sheets and screens and their effect on our corporate ‘remembering’ of our story. I am sure I am not alone.

I need to lie down in a darkened room. The Daily Mirror is reporting the ‘shock’ news that most teenagers haven’t a clue about the Ten Commandments. Under the heading  ‘Kids forget God’s rules’, this is how it is reported:

More than a quarter of 11 to 16-year-old Britons cannot recall ANY of the Ten Commandments, a shock poll reveals.

It found just one in 17 adults and teenagers could recite all 10. And many were left baffled by the language of the Old Testament rules.

Most of the 1,000 questioned for the survey commissioned by computer game makers Electronic Arts said there should be modern commandments such as “protect the planet”.

So there.

The-Ten-CommandmentsWhy should any teenager be expected to know any of the Ten Commandments? The only way to remember anything longer than three words is to repeat it regularly until it becomes part of us – and repetition is not something we do with our children any more. Perhaps this is also why children don’t grow up knowing any poetry by heart. And if children go to a church regularly, they are more likely to know a short mantra to a good tune than a Psalm or prayer or Bible passage – because we are now slaves to informal novelty and have lost the art of purposeful repetition.

The point of liturgy is that, having prayed it alot, it ends up praying you.

But, back to the forgotten Decalogue. I remeber the Sunday Times phoning a load of clergy on a Saturday afternoon and asking us straight off to recite the Ten Commandments. I managed nine, but not in the right order. I had come out of the garden on my day off and was put on the spot. Inevitably, the shock report the following week suggested that clergy do not know the Ten Commandments either. The hole in this sort of nonsense is not hard to spot, is it?

But, I was interested in the Mirror’s notion that these are God’s rules. I think they are human rules that articulate in an ancient way what it means to live a good life for the common good in a community. They aren’t the arbitrary diktats of a megalomaniac in the sky who wants to control people. They should be taught as such and the hard language of the Old Testament needs to be taught properly, with imagination and translation, opening up young people’s minds to the big pictures of God’s engagement with people and the world they live in.

‘Protect the planet’ is already there.

I was out this morning doing a Confirmation Service at St John, Shirley, and will be out again this evening at a village called Woodmansterne. The Gospel reading for the day is the latter part of John 2 and I tried in the sermon to explain how John’s Gospel works. I did so by explaining how, when you think you’ve got God and the Bible in your grasp, they have a knack of slicing through your defences like Gerrard past Vidic. Just when you think everything is settled, something gets lobbed over your head… as Van der Sar found out when Dossena volleyed neatly into the net for Liverpool’s fourth goal against Manchester United yesterday. And sometimes, even when you know you’ve been found out, you still hold to your original thesis (like Alex Ferguson calling his guys ‘the better team’ after a 4-1 home defeat to the team you resent most) because letting go of it would simply be too threatening.

5757510GYI0000531890.jpgIn his book Flat Earth News Nick Davies writes about a study of how reporters tried to cover a story of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo. They could not get it published for eighteen months until pictures emerged from Abu Ghraib. The primary story related to some research following up an official announcement that a prisoner had died in custody because he had a weak heart. His death certificate, once tracked down, gave his cause of death as ‘homicide’. The story was filed in February 2003, ‘but the New York Times would not run it.’

No one seems quite sure why the story couldn’t get printed, but Davies comments that ‘the most senior people on the paper insisted that it was improbable’ – that ‘the story didn’t fit the running narrative of the US as a force for good’ (p. 148). In other words, the mental wallpaper of the people in charge did not have a pattern for this possibility, so it got filtered out. If the fact didn’t fit the worldview, it was the fact that had to change (or, at least, get parked out of view for a while).

I think this is what happens to us when we read the Bible – especially when we take it with the utmost seriousness and see it as ‘God’s Word’. We read the particular texts through a particular hermeneutical filter and then try to make sense of all the pieces insofar as they fit into that framework. The problem, however, is that the frameworks never quite work and we find ourselves ‘blanking’ the bits that don’t fit the picture we have been given. We can’t let God be horrible in the same way that Ferguson can’t let Liverpool be a better team than his.

the-holy-bibleThis is where the dominant narrative (or metanarrative) comes in. In my view (and I put this forward for argument) the ‘big picture’ needs to be kept open and big and under scrutiny. That’s why a credo such as that by David Jenkins is helpful in keeping the broad framework simple enough for the complicated stuff to fit it: ‘God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.’ Defending at all costs the filter through which I read the text is an action based on fear: fear that if one card is removed, the whole building will collapse. I think we should lose the fear and trust in the God the Bible speaks about – whose presence is to be seen ultimately on a cross.

I realise this also is too brief and the bald statements are open to argument. But, unless we are prepared to risk our ‘reading’ of Scripture by looking at it from other perspectives, it will always be a closed book of static dogmas based on stories that (unlike every other story in the world) allow for only a single interpretation or narration.

Which brings me back to the assertion that if God has indeed chosen to speak through texts, he must have known how texts work and intended for us to explore them accordingly. That’s what makes reading the Bible such an unendingly fascinating and challenging task: there is always the possibility of learning something new that subverts what I had previously thought was fixed. It is one’s openness to that possibility that makes reading the Bible something to be commended.

I said ages ago (in relation to the posts about Andrew Motion and public ignorance of the Bible) that I would write something about how we maybe should read the Bible. Since then my head has been too full of other things; but, today is my day off and I am alone at home with the space to think.

The problem with this is that whatever I write will be open to challenge on the grounds that an explanation in ordinary language about how to read the Bible requires not a few paragraphs, but a few books. I believe the Bible to be inspired and strongly affirm it as ‘the word of the Lord’. But, what does that mean? Here goes.

1. If the Bible is to be accepted as ‘the word of God’, it can safely be assumed that the form of it is necessarily as significant as the content. Indeed, the form will shape the content. Given that these 66 books comprise all sorts of literary forms (poetry, narrative, letter, ‘history’, gospel/biography, polemic, etc.), written over a period of around 1500 years in varying contexts and different languages, the text remains incomprehensible unless the form is taken seriously. This means that you cannot read Hebrew poetry (Genesis 1-11, for example) as if it were scientific text and you cannot read a Pauline letter without recognising that we don’t have the ‘other side’ of the correspondence. We use our research and imagination to fill in the gaps, but this makes claims of ‘plain reading’ or ‘pure doctrine’ at least a little suspect.

2. Those who think you can simply read a verse devotionally out of context and without reference to anything other than ‘my subjective experience today’ will have a problem here. If God has given us a book in particular forms as a way of pointing towards himself, can he also endorse doctrine or theology built on particular texts that are clearly misinterpreted or plainly misused?

3. Tom Wright has made the point (more articulately and intelligently than I can summarise here) that it is misguided to use the language of ‘the authority of Scripture’ – which is usually a way to close down any reading that doesn’t conform with my own unassailable hermeneutical (that is, interpretative) model. It is God who has authority and the role of Scripture is to point to it. This is similar to the other misused phrase which sees the Bible as ‘the Word of God’. The Bible itself makes it clear that Jesus is the ‘Word of God’; the Bible points to him. In other words, the Bible is not an end in itself, but the means to a greater end: the person of God as seen in Jesus Christ.

4. So, how should we read it? I have a problem with churches that print the Bible readings for services on the service sheet. It takes the readings out of any context and means that people can go to church regularly and never handle a Bible – which hardly encourages them to read it at home. It is a big and complicated book and encouragement is needed as well as teaching, if people are to read it properly. And this leads me on to what I think is a crucial task for preachers: offering the ‘big picture’ of the biblical narrative in order that the particular detail being read at any one time has a context in which to be set. We all know the danger of reading a ‘story’ into a photograph only later to find that the cropping of the picture had changed the potential ‘message’ – seeing the whole ‘canvas’ makes sense of the smaller detail.

5. This means that we need to constantly offer the ‘bigger picture’ – a sort of metanarrative that holds the ‘story’ together and makes sense of the bits. This is what I am trying to do in accessible language for ordinary people in most of my books. One way might look something like this: God created all that is and thought it was brilliant – something he hasn’t changed his mind about since then. Human beings(made to reflect God’s ways and character) mucked it up, setting a trend that continues to this day. God called a particular people to show a forgetful world what the character of God is like, if necessary laying down their own life in order that the world might see. This people took their special calling to be a privilege that the world should recognise and lost the plot (literally). The prophets saw through all this and reminded the people that they were called to lay down their lives that the world might see what God is about: they were ignored and the consequences (in terms of politics, economics, military power, identity, worldview) followed. Exile and loss of the plot once again became the experience and formed the context of the people who had thought themselves to be ‘God’s’. Jesus came and embodied what had always been the calling of Israel, to lay down life to show what God is about. He took his friends with him and then left them to live out what had been fulfilled in Jesus and had always been the calling of God’s people: to show what the character of God is about and to live like him in the world.

And what is the character of God about? He is the creator who plays the creation into being and, in the words of Dr John Polkinghorne, creates a world that creates itself. He gives himself away and trusts his people to do the same. He shows in real history that death, destruction and violence do not have the final word in this world and that death does not negate the life that went before it. It also says that human beings are accountable to him and one another and must relate to him both individually and collectively.

Or, in the immortal words of Bishop David Jenkins: ‘God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.’

6. The early books of the Old Testament describe a people learning over time who God is and what it means to be his. But they can’t run before they can walk – so we get all the rough stuff that now looks a bit odd or brutal. The historical books of the Old Testament tell the history of the people from the perspective of a people trying to make sense of the discrepancies between what they believe and their actual circumstances. The prophets see through the religious veneers and political shenanigans of a ruling elite and speak truth to society. The Gospels tell the story of what people experienced of Jesus of Nazareth and ask the reader to draw a conclusion about who he was/is. They also ask us to ask why some people responded well to Jesus and others got him executed. The Acts of the Apostles tell how the early church was dispersed and grew. The letters show how the churches were trying to be faithful in differing contexts, but facing unique challenges, contradictions and competing personalities and theologies. Plus ca change…

So, that, in a 1203 word nutshell, opens the batting on how to read the Bible. Over to you.

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