April 8, 2011
The literary scholar and Catholic nun Thea Bowman recalled in the video “Almost Home” that the old folks she knew when she was growing up in Mississippi were steeped in Holy Writ. “I was reared around a lot of old people,” she said. “They knew Scripture. I knew people who could not read or write, but they could quote you a Scripture with the chapter and verse. They would use Scripture when they were tired and a Scripture when they were frustrated, a Scripture to challenge us . . . a Scripture to threaten you, a Scripture to reward you or to praise you or to teach you; I grew up in that kind of world.’’
But these folks, Bowman said in the album “Songs of My People,” didn’t concern themselves with whether or not Jonah and the big fish that swallowed him were real. What these folks were interested in was the truth that was communicated by that story — a truth that had to do with life today — namely, the imperative of accepting the will of God.
For my money, that was an enlightened point of view, a sensible way of approaching the Bible. Everyone doesn’t agree. There are Christians who believe that the Bible means what it says — period.
If there are two contradictory accounts of the creation of human beings, two differing accounts of the death of Judas, four accounts of Easter morning at the empty tomb, and three accounts of the conversion of St. Paul — well, this is the infallible word of God, so they say.
This is one of the issues that is explored in The Rise and Fall of the Bible (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an engaging little book by Timothy Beal, who is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Beal writes a great deal in this book about the Bible-publishing business, which he thinks is on the wane — likely to decline if not disappear in the digital revolution. Even at that, he argues, although there are lots of Bibles being published and sold — in a dizzying variety of formats — the number of people who are actually reading the sacred texts is another matter.
In fact, Beal maintains, some versions of the Bible — loaded with sidebars and commentaries and graphics that tend to push the Chapters and Verses into the background — are not calculated to get people directly engaged with Moses and Isaiah and Mark and Matthew and the rest of that crowd. In many cases, he thinks, the design is to get the reader to accept a particular interpretation of the Biblical content and to overlook — or remain unaware of — the ambiguities and contradictions that are in the very nature of the Bible. These are Beal’s own words:
The icon of the Bible as God’s textbook for the world is as bankrupt as the idea that it stands for, of religious faith as absolute black-and-white certainty. Just as the cultural icon of the flag often becomes a substitute for patriotism, and just as the cultural icon of the four-wheel-drive truck often becomes a substitute for manly independence and self-confidence, so the cultural icon of the Bible often becomes a substitute for a vital life of faith, which calls not for obedient adherence to clear answers but thoughtful engagement with ultimate questions. The Bible itself invites that kind of engagement.
Beal maintains that the iconic view of the Bible as the single source of religious truth ignores the history of the Bible, which did not exist as a single entity until hundreds of years into the Christian era — and still appears in more than one configuration. Beal predicts that Bible reading — like most other reading — will eventually become a digital experience, and he welcomes that prospect. He sees a healthy similarity between the generations of transmission of the traditions and texts that eventually became the Bible — a process that involved, and still involves, constant re-reading and re-translating and re-interpreting — and the generations to come in which the Scriptures will be subject to the kind of discourse that is already going on in other fields of study on, of all things, the Internet.
Beal points out that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t take the Hebrew Scriptures to have one literal meaning, but engaged in interpretation of a kind that still goes on among Jewish scholars — a process I have listened to with fascination at no less revered a venue than the Western Wall. The author doesn’t see religious faith as a science of certainties but as a struggle that has its intermittent moments of enlightenment and elation and doubt and discouragement. His viewpoint reminded me of an observation made by Albino Luciani — Pope John Paul I — that even the angels ascending to heaven on Jacob’s ladder were taking only one step at a time.
In kindred spirit, what if we were to think of the Word of God not as bound between two covers of a book but as that endless noise of interpretation, an inconclusive process that we are invited to join? What if that cacophonous hymn, rising up across time and space from digital networks, living rooms, lunchrooms, churches, and bus stops is the living Word of God? An endless, inarticulate din of talking, arguing, reading, and rereading in the library of questions. The Word as we don’t know it. The Word as we live it. Word without end.