General Disclaimer: This post represents the point of view of the author (that’s me) at the time that I wrote it, and not any “official” position of Ravensworth Baptist Church. Ravensworth is a church that holds all kinds of people and therefore all kinds of opinions. These are some ideas that occurred to me as I was reading some ideas that Marcus Borg wrote on his blog. In a few weeks, I may not even agree with myself. I’m always having arguments with Past Ben – he’s never as smart as I’d like him to be.
I agree with almost everything Marcus Borg has to say. Recently, he wrote about the importance of the Bible to Progressive Christianity. Since it is so often conservatives who put the most direct emphasis on scripture, it’s an interesting topic, posed by Patheos.com. I have one quibble, but first you should read his excellent blog post here:
Here’s my one objection: Borg argues that ideally all Christians should be willing to admit that the Bible is sometimes wrong. But I think that actually is playing a game that isn’t helpful – it implies that the Bible can be correct or incorrect, that it is an equation that has an answer and sometimes that answer comes up short. To me, at least, it isn’t about that one way or the other and thinking about it that way severely weakens our ability to understand the Bible’s meanings.
There are a couple senses in which the Bible can be “wrong.” It could be factually inaccurate, which, of course it is. But it just doesn’t make much sense to scrutinize a sacred text for accuracy the way you would the newspaper, whether you are trying to prove its value or its worthlessness. It betrays a serious lack of imagination. When the writer of Genesis says that God created the world in 7 days, this is not “right” or “wrong” because it is a story. It is a myth – in the grandest sense of that word. There is no right or wrong here. This is an attempt by an artist to put an idea of Creation into words that connect and resonate with other people. It is an expression of human understanding and spirit approaching the Divine – an expression that comes out in poetry, in story, because those are the tools we have as human beings to talk about the spirit, the imagination, emotions, and other stuff that is really hard to talk about. So to me, “admitting” that the Bible is wrong in these cases doesn’t make sense.
Imagine standing in front of a Monet (Sunset in Venice, say). You are admiring this powerful work of art and letting it touch your spirit. The person to your right says, “This is not an accurate representation of Venice at sunset.” The person to your left says, “You must hate Monet you jerk – it is SO an accurate representation of Venice at sunset.” For you to then turn to the person on your left and say, “I’m sorry, I love Monet, but you’re wrong – it’s not an accurate representation of Venice,” would be only slightly less dumb. “Who cares? Both of you shut up, you are ruining this with your dumb mouths,” seems much more appropriate. In other words, both people are missing the point.
Now, Ben, you say, there are parts of the Bible that DO seem to claim more historical authority, and can’t be so easily dismissed as myth-making poetry.
(SUB-POINT: just because I’m saying that much of the Bible is myth-making poetry doesn’t mean it can or should be dismissed. That’s the opposite of my point – it has more power because it is Sacred Art rather than Historical Fact. Consider the relative staying power / continued relevance of any past issue of The New York Times and The Bible.)
(SUB-SUB-POINT: Sacred Art can and does employ Historical Fact, by the way. Photography isn’t less an art form because its subjects are taken from the real world. Just because factual accuracy isn’t the point doesn’t mean that there aren’t any facts.)
That’s true, but these also are not asking to be judged on their accuracy, but on the power of their ideas – just like this mini-essay blog post I’m writing right now. I am writing about things that exist in the real world – the Bible, Marcus Borg, myself – but I’m also using all kinds of trickery that one might describe as “inaccurate.” I’m writing in the first person and in a conversational style to make you think I’m sitting there with you, having an informal chat, partly because that’s more natural to me, but partly because it’s more persuasive in this context if I can make you think I’m your friend. But of course, I am not really talking to you at all, and I might not be your friend (but I’d like to be!). I’m even putting words in YOUR mouth and putting “You” and Monet into a little fable. Those are outright lies, right? Of course not, because that’s not the point of the essay. We can easily see those as rhetorical strategies, or artful(ish) attempts to make the idea I’m trying to express more entertaining. Why can’t we look at scripture the same way?
The other sense in which the Bible could be “wrong” is when it directly or indirectly condones things that seem immoral to most people today: genocide, slavery, etc. This is the sense that Marcus Borg mostly seems to be saying progressive Christians should be willing to admit. And I agree, I just wouldn’t use the word “wrong.” I might say that a particular story isn’t useful, or that it fails to achieve its purpose, or even that it is morally repugnant to me and doesn’t seem to be talking about the God of Love that I worship and that is spoken of so often in other Biblical literature. The stories in the Bible are sacred because they are attempts to understand both ourselves and God. Those attempts, as Borg also says, were made by people who were full of other agendas as well – politics, tribal identities, survival. So yes, sometimes they are not great as stories that are supposed to teach us about a loving God. And any interpretation that looks at them and says, “Well I guess since the Bible is kind of okay with slavery, slavery must be okay,” is certainly wrong. That’s just moral laziness. If we think of the Bible as stories (fiction and non-fiction) about struggling with these ideas of God and Humanity and how to live well, then we are also free to struggle with those ideas. And we can and should come to different conclusions. But to me the story of our struggle is no more “right” or “wrong” than the stories in the Bible.
What I would personally rather us be okay with and more vocal about as progressive Christians is an understanding of the Bible as a collection of poetry, stories fiction and non-fiction, letters, images, ideas – Word Art – that wrestles with what it means to be human, both body and spirit, made by something greater than ourselves that is nonetheless both inside and outside of ourselves: the Spark, the Great Light, the Flame Imperishable. We need to be honest about how the Bible was written by many different people in many different styles and approaches, over the course of many centuries. We need to see that perhaps some of those writings were not written to explain a loving God at all, but were written about the little god of the writer’s own heart – a god of Tribe, or of Greed, or of Violence. Of course, sometimes God and god find their way into the same book because well-meaning writers are still flawed human beings. We should learn to tell the difference for ourselves and to talk about that difference to others.
The Bible isn’t right or wrong, but it is True as a source of divinely inspired wisdom and human foolishness. From a Christian point of view, it is the story of how we reached out to God, and how we felt God reaching back.
P.S. Apologies to Dr. Borg (I’m pretending he’s reading this) for misrepresenting his argument so I could springboard off into my own separate rant.