Why read the Bible in 21st Century America?
Alasdair Macintyre in After Virtue notes:
I can only answer the question what am I to do?, if I can answer the prior question, of what story or stories do I find myself a part?
Paul D Hanson in A Political History of the Bible in America has commented:
To gain a solid footing for understanding the mixed legacy of American political history, it is necessary to turn to the more ancient epic from which the leaders of our nation, from colonial times to the present, and for better or for worse, derived justification for their actions. That epic is the Bible.
So a further question is Why read the Bible at St Martin’s? Walter Bruggemann in his reflection for Day 6 of The Bible Challenge says this:
In our society where we imagine we may be or must be on our own, prayer is the core acknowledgment that in fact our lives are referred beyond ourselves.
We are a society that must reclaim a civic conversation that is both communitarian and inclusive. Personal and public attitudes and actions result from identity shaping stories. Small stories dominated by bigotry and violence have a harm upon our civic conversation. Stories of healing and liberation shape ideas of virtue and civility. Sharing such stories strengthens the moral capital of a society. I return to Bruggeman’s concept of prayer referring us beyond ourselves. Reading it, we can experience the Bible as an anchor point for an experience that cumulatively builds up in us, the more we read. This experience refers us beyond the circularity of our own small conscious stories of God or other, expanding around us the richness and texture of a larger story against the backdrop of which we become aware of our lives being lived.
Daily Bible reading is not transactional. We cannot predict the effect as if we could produce a predetermined outcome. An analogy here might be the build up of minerals in the bloodstream as the result of daily intake.
Walter Bruggemann in The Prophetic Imagination contrasts the power of prophetic imagination against that of the imagination of empire:
It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.
Reading history through a later lens
Much of the material in Genesis is technically myth material. Myth is an expansive story that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Myth is a once-upon-a-time story, e.g. Genesis 1 – 3 and is frequently misunderstood in two ways:
- Taken literally –as concrete truth- and imposed upon contemporary context e.g. creationism
- Taken as fairy story – i.e. not true –and having no application in a contemporary context
What we read in Genesis is the later written recording of ancient oral tradition stories. The stories in Genesis can’t be read literally because we receive them through a reading of history through a later lens. The oral tradition stories date from around 2000 B.C. What we read is the recording of these stories beginning around 1000 B.C. for the purpose of creating a national history for David’s unified Kingdom of Israel so that it might be a nation like other nations around it. We see the same process in our own recording of our national history. We tell our history in order to challenge but more commonly justify our current status quo of national attitudes and worldviews shaped by the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
The unified Kingdom of David was the end result of centuries of conquest and assimilation. Reading through the Davidic lens we read the story of Cain and Abel as a story about the conflict between herding and agrarian societies. The Israelites were a shepherding people, while the Canaanites were a farming people. Ergo, the story tells us that God favors herding activity over that of growing things. Noah curses his son Ham for beholding him while in naked, drunken stupor. Who are the children of Ham? Why none other than the Canaanites. In both stories, we see the later justification for the Israelite’s conquest of their neighbors and confiscation of their land.
In The Bible Challenge book, each day questions are posed following the daily commentary on the texts read. After the first week of The Bible Challenge here are some points we might focus on:
- Gen 1-18 covers 4 creation stories: Gen 1 & 2, Gen 3-4 (The Fall and the fist murder) and Gen 6-8 (Noah). Gen 9-11 deals with the sorting out of the Canaanite nations as a preparation for the call of Abram in Chpt12 and the creation of the Israelite people. What’s the highlight or the nadir for you?
- Note how Matt begins in true OT style with a genealogy – why?
- Matt 5-8 has a particular name – what is it? How do you feel about Jesus’ teaching here?
- How has the first week of The Bible Challenge affected you?