Friday, January 16, 2009

Unitarian Universalists and the Bible (January 11, 2009)

Let’s face it, the Bible is a problem for many Unitarian Universalists. It’s full of violence, and sexism and historical errors. Some say it is the word of God, but we know from looking at the plain facts that it was written and edited by men who were often motivated by the need to support doctrine of the church, and to shore up power.

The Jonah story this morning, has many things in it that make UUs uncomfortable. First it’s full of magic- magical storms and magical fish. It, like many other stories, is easily proved to be biologically and Zoologically inaccurate. Second, it paints a portrait of God that UUs don’t identify with, that “punish the wicked, intervening in history” anthropomorphic God. I think if you asked most atheists to describe the God they don’t believe in, this would be it. In fact, I think it was stories like this that turned me into an atheist sitting in Presbyterian Sunday school when I was my son’s age. Third, it seems to be all about obedience, and we UUs cringe at the mere idea of obedience to religious authority. This ties in with our distaste for the word “wicked” since we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

But here’s the leap I make. I believe that the humans who worked on this book had worth and dignity. I think that many of the ancient authors and editors who worked on this cannon were trying to make something good, something that would be useful to their children and their children’s children. To me the fact that the oral traditions and writing and editing by so very many people went into this collection helps me feel connected to it. That’s why we as UUs need to be scholars and detectives, and teach our children to do the same, so we can listen to the many voices we hear and tease them apart. Only then can we know who we can trust and who we want to listen to with a skeptical ear.

So let’s be detectives and scholars about the Jonah story. The First thing to bear in mind is that the bible is an anthology. I remember reading the illustrated children’s bible I was given in 2nd grade in my Presbyterian Sunday School Class. I thought it was super cool, and couldn’t wait to get home and read it. I noticed immediately that it does not hang together like a good novel. I tried to read every word in order and what with the genealogies and all, I stopped before I got through the book of Genesis. It wasn’t until I got to college that someone explained to me that the bible is not a novel. It’s not a history of everything. It’s an anthology. That same professor blew my mind by explaining that it’s not all written by the same person! Even those 5 “books of Moses” are proven to have at least 3 different authors, or teams of editors. I thought I was learning something sort of fringe, because I was learning it in a Feminist Theology class, but when I pull out the Revised Standard Version of the bible , there it is in the introduction! This is a mainstream idea!

Later, while I was in seminary, a professor introduced us to literary criticism of the bible, This way of looking at scriptures presumes if we knew what literary form a book of the bible was, it would help us know how to read it better. This blew my mind. I had thought the whole thing was one giant history, like My dad’s 10 volume set of the Durant Story of Civilization. Certainly there are books in the bible that take the form of histories, and so it is reasonable to compare these with the archeological evidence. But if we realize what we are looking at is a piece of poetry, then we approach it with different eyes. My professor explained that to us using that famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
and in a very entertaining lecture showed us how it would be silly to get out your archeological tools to prove whether or not all bushes were on fire, and the ubiquity of blackberry picking during Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lifetime.

The bible is full of poetry, letters, parables, hymns, fables, in addition to the historical writings spun to shore up the power of certain political administrations. So it is always a good idea to understand “what was going on in the history of the Jewish people” when reading the Hebrew Scriptures, and “what was the political status of the Christians” when reading the New Testament. It turns out that the story of Jonah was written during the time when the Jewish people who had been in exile had finally returned to Israel. This book appears in a collection called “The latter prophets,” a set of 12 short books that conclude the collection Christians call the Old Testament. The book of Jonah is different from the others, however, which are collections of prophetic words, or “Oracles” this is instead what one biblical scholar calls “…a tale which is neither scientific nor even historical but a parable like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son ”(3) Mainline Christianity sees the bible full of poetry and metaphor. It is the more fundamentalist Christians who want to talk about what size and shape of the fish.

To understand this parable, we need to know that during this time when the Jewish people had returned from exile, there was a strong bent of nationalism, and isolationism such as we find in the writings of Prophets like Ezra and Nehemiah. According to Biblical Scholar William Neil(1), Jonah, while he may have been based loosely on the life of a historic prophet(2) , is mostly a caricature of a bigot. This is not a “What would Jonah” do story, this is a “some people these days are so bigoted they would rather die than reach out to the gentiles” story. Wow. I had never heard that before. As a UU I can sure get behind a parable about how God is working in the world across national and religious lines and strives to change the minds and hearts of bigots.

And if this is a parable, we don’t need to worry about what kinds of large fish are indigenous to the waters near Tarshish, whether or not a person could really survive for 3 days in the belly of a fish any more than we need to worry about how While-e-Coyote can walk on air until he looks down and realizes he’s standing in mid-air, and where he hid that “help” sign he holds up just before he plummets.

So let’s look at another issue UUs have with the bible. The bible is about long ago times, and is not always relevant today. None of these books were written in the last 1500 years. I believe in the value of ancient wisdom and stories, but I cannot believe that no new religious truth has come into the world since the cannon was closed. UUs believe that revelation is not sealed- which is a theologian way of saying, that we believe new truth keeps coming into the world every day. But I also believe in the value of ancient wisdom. I wouldn’t have bothered studying UU history if I didn’t, and I wouldn’t read the ancient texts and stories of the world if I didn’t.

I also believe that meanings change over time as people and culture change. Latin-American theologian Ivone Gebara says that back when the bible was written they used symbols that came from “more or less concrete experiences that all of us were familiar with. Today, in many places, the “lilies of the field” barely even exist. ”(4) So some of the readers of Jonah’s story were fishermen, they lived at a time when the seas had not been over-fished, and species had longer life expectancy. I don’t know what it’s like to have to travel by boat. I don’t know what it is like to be in a body of water with really big fish. That is only to say that the meanings of the bible cannot be static, because the symbols and imagery used have changed as our culture and our world have changed.

Finally, let’s look at the role of women in the bible, for example let’s look at the women in Jonah’s story. Right. This is my point. And generally the bible is the story of those who held the power to pick and chose the stories that made it into the cannon. The Bible, because it is written, excludes women, who had an oral tradition. Many feminist scholars such as Jo Ann Hackett have reminded us that the women of ancient Israel had their own religious traditions and rituals and stories, but that religion was a segregated affair in ancient Israel- men and women did not worship together. The rites and stories of the women would have been invisible to the men who wrote the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Feminist theologians read the bible trying to catch glimpses of a woman’s life and religious tradition, and also to look at the mechanism by which women and other peoples were excluded from political power: how the bible does not tell their story, and how it can be used to continue to oppress.

A beautiful “Midrosh” of one of the few stories where women do appear, what Biblical Scholar Phyllis Trible calls “Texts of Terror” was a novel called The Red Tent by Anita Diamont. Her novel tries to imagine and evoke the lives and spirituality of the women from the story of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Some of you will remember that Dinah was part of a very violent story of rape and retribution. Many people have asked “Why are there violent stories like this in the bible, and why should I read the bible which includes so much violence and despicable acts” Diamont was the first to give me the idea that we tell the story of terrible events so that they will not be forgotten. Like 9-11. Like the Holocaust. As we collect the important stories of the last 3000 years, we should not expurgate history, but remember the darkness that is possible, along with the goodness to which we aspire. This is confusing to us because one of the most popular ways of reading the New Testament is to look to Jesus, the disciples and apostles as examples for our to live our own lives. But this is not how the Hebrew Scriptures were written. So when we read the book of Jonah it is not so that we will ask ourselves “what would Jonah do” but so that we will understand the way we sometimes are, and how we are called to be better.

So why should UUs bother with the bible? Because it’s something we can share with thousands of generations of people, and many stories cross 3 religious traditions (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) and around the globe. Because the stories had already held up a long time by the time they were written down- so that they have layers of meaning. And because it’s an anthology, there are all types of writing, something for everyone. I have been amazed as I have gone through the different stages of my life how stories that seemed opaque and irrelevant to me when I was younger suddenly have a relevance for my life in a new stage.

So what do we tell our kids?
First we need to ask, what are they ready for? Preschoolers do not need to hear violent stories, no matter how holy the source. But for children who are old enough to be hearing about war on the news, or playing a fighting video game then a story about war from the bible would seem relevant and might even help bring meaning to those video games.

Then, teach your children to be scholars and detectives. Even if there is a moral written into the bible story, we should hold the door open for other meanings. If we tell a story like Noah or Jonah, we can tell the story without the interpretation that bad things happen because God is punishing wicked people, and just present the events of the story. In so doing we open ourselves for a great conversation about why do floods and other natural disasters happen, and we can remember the dove of hope which reminds us -that even when things seem the worst we can be on solid ground again.

Third, we can use some of the more archetypal stories as a mirror for personal reflection by asking “where are you in this story today?” For example, the story of Jonah was meaningful to me in Seminary, it reminded me of how I couldn’t get anywhere when I wanted to be a singer, of jumping into the waters of uncertainty and transition, and then incubating in the belly of the fish (Seminary). I bet it means something different to each of you- ask you neighbor at coffee hour where they found themselves in the story of Jonah.

Finally, teach your children to practice noticing the things from the bible that conflict with their own experience of life and of the divine. Because we UUs take as our first source of our own authority our own experience. As Ivone Gebara writes. “It is of fundamental importance to avoid putting the authority of the bible above that of life… Our life experience is our first teacher.”(4)

The bible, in my opinion, is worth wrestling with. Worth being a scholar, worth being a detective. It is not the only book of wisdom honored by our Unitarian Universalist tradition, but it was a powerful resource for the first Unitarians and Universalists and can still be for us today. It can be a companion to us on our free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

1. William Neil. Harper’s Bible Commentary. p. 294.
2. ‘The Book of Jonah” Oxford Annotated Bible Revised Standard Version p. 1120.
3. Ivone Gebara Longing for Running Water p. 197
4. Ivone Gebara Longing for Running Water. p. 134.

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