Thursday, March 22, 2007

More about Bible Study

Beth mentions Marcus Borg in her comment about Bible study. There are many other authors, who, over the past decade have added enormously to our understanding of the Bible and offered new ways of looking at these texts which form the foundation of the Christian Tradition. Among them are John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Walter Wink, Robert Funk and Elisabeth Schuster Fiorenza. Some of these formed part of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who tackled the perennial question of what we can know of the historical Jesus. In their attempt to make accessible the critical approach to understanding the Bible they were much smeared by conservatives and popular press alike, but I believe they have offered ways of making the Bible an interesting document for twenty first century thinking people.

But we really are faced, as Beth points out, with a huge problem in getting members of more liberal congregations, as well as those outside, interested in Bible Study. It is partly, as Beth points out, a question of dealing with the alienation from the texts arising from the experience of a pre-critical and narrow interpretative approach, which just does not speak to people who have had any exposure to modern education and scientific thinking. But I think there is also the question of the commitment required to undertake critical Biblical study. First even the most enthusiastic beginner has to overcome the pain felt when leaving behind a comfortable corner in their lives and moving out in an unknown direction to a strange land. Secondly a large amount of background reading and study is required. Thirdly, critical study does not deal with short passages, picked thematically from here and there to support particular theological/political positions, but with extended readings, whole books and whole genres of texts. Time and time again we see that even seminary-trained priests and pastors, once they have passed through the hoops of their churches academic requirements, just abandon it all and return to the simple, pre-critical ways of preaching and presenting the Bible.

But I believe it is vital that we pursue every way of making critical Bible understanding known to and welcomed in our congregations. For otherwise we fall back on two alternatives, neither of which is attractive. The first is to return to a pre-reformation situation where only a small elite can understand and use the Bible. The second is even worse, that we leave Bible study to the conservatives and evangelicals.

There is also another problem out there. For those looking for an alternative way of being a Christian, there are some recent works which are very seductive. Among them are The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, The Da Vinci Code, The Jesus Papers and The Tomb of Jesus. While these books go beyond the canonical scriptures, and take into account other documents, artifacts and information, it is all processed through the same pre-critical lens as the fundamentalists use. Unreliable data processed by uncritical thought produces absurd conclusions.

So it is vital to, as I said in another post, to find ways of encouraging thinking Christians to take the leap into the new ways of reading and studying the Bible. We shall be glad to hear from anybody who has stories of successful (or unsuccessful) ventures in such work.


Anonymous said...

One methodical approach to relatively intensive Bible study is to join a local Education for Ministry (EFM) group. Held one morning or evening a week (3.5h)from Sept through June, this four-year course covers the old testament (year 1), the new (year2), church history (3rd) and the philosophers (4). A group led by a mentor usually has students in the four years working together. Although the course is obstensibly to prepare for ministry, I'm taking it as an aid to a thorough, critical study of Christianity. It encourages outside reading, healthy debate with classmates and mentors and often, unexpected results. For more information on EFM contact me or Tim Smart at DIO.

Anonymous said...

Me above is Earl (sorry)

dianab said...

"But I think there is also the question of the commitment required to undertake critical Biblical study. First even the most enthusiastic beginner has to overcome the pain felt when leaving behind a comfortable corner in their lives and moving out in an unknown direction to a strange land. "
There is much precedent for this experience. Many passages in Scripture tell of individuals or groups going into the desert as part of a journey to a new way of being. The Hebrew exodus from Egypt and the forty days spent by Jesus in the wilderness are but two examples. Examples exist in other spiritual traditions also, such as the vision quests undertaken by native North Americans.
The challenge is not to flee the darkness, but to meet and engage it, comforted by the knowledge that our God, who has already gone with us into all our darknesses, including death, is there beside us, supporting and sustaining us.

Anonymous said...

I agree that socially progressive and inclusive Christians should take up serious Bible study, and I am myself an EFM graduate, but I can't agree with the positive evaluation of the Jesus seminar. It's not just conservative evangelicals who have pointed out the faulty assumptions of their method of determining what (very little, according to them) authentic Jesus material the gospels contain. Luke Timothy Johnson and Richard Bauckham, not to mention the late Raymond Brown, are I think more reliable guides. Marcus Borg is fine, aslong as you balance him with Tom Wright (and vice versa!).

Anonymous said...

I am taking EFM right now. This a wonderful tool to avoid falling into the BIBLE SAYS disgrace or syndrome. EFM makes you stop, think and reflect. It should be a indispensable tool to understand to where your rector comes and goes to.