Friday, November 29, 2013

Rob Bell's "What Is the Bible?" Series

Rob Bell has been blogging a series called "What Is the Bible?" If you're interested in reading it from the beginning, it starts here.

I'm neither a particular fan nor a particular detractor of Rob. (He strikes me as the kind of guy who'd like you to refer to him by his first name. Rob, feel free to call me Keith if you pop in.)

I read his Velvet Elvis, which didn't make a really significant impression; I think he was just tilting at different windmills than those that occupy my back yard. I haven't read any of this other books, including the controversial Love Wins. I was going to write that I have no particular axe to grind, but of course that isn't true; everyone has an axe to grind. I guess it's more true to write that I'm not jumping on board any particular pro-Rob or anti-Rob bandwagon.

So anyway, back to the "What Is the Bible?" series. A good summation of Rob's method can be found in Part 13: Consciousness and Violence. Rob's essential argument is that the Bible was written by people (he doesn't deny divine inspiration, but I suspect that what "inspiration" means is one of the things he'll get around to), those people were influenced by their own cultural biases and attitudes, those biases and attitudes become a part of the text, but also some new thoughts and ideas that weren't a part of the writers' culture also get introduced, which pulls the consciousness and attitudes of humanity forward. This process is very slow, because humanity is incapable of turning on a dime. God works from where we are, and draws us toward the next step forward.



So, for example, there are a lot of stories of violence and barbarism in the Bible. These, Rob contends, are a part of the culture in which the Old Testament was written, as were the claims that God (Israel's tribal god, to be precise) instigated and approved the violence and barbarism. That's just an aspect of life that the original storytellers and later scribes would have taken for granted. But on the other hand, there are ideas, like caring for the poor and needy, widows and orphans, and setting slaves free, that are genuinely new, genuine steps forward out of the barbarism in which the Bible was written.

Another issue which doesn't factor strongly into that particular post but does factor into earlier ones is the issue of historicity. Rob argues that our debates over historicity tend to obscure the intended point of the narrative; for example, arguing over the historicity of Jonah and the Great Fish can obscure the point of the story, which is God's willingness to forgive the Assyrians, the Assyrians' willingness to repent, and Jonah's unwillingness to forgive or accept their repentance.

I'm sympathetic to a lot of what Rob is doing here. I think he's right that arguing over historicity tends to obscure the main point of many passages (and I appreciate that he applies that critique to those who oppose historicity as much as to those who affirm it). He's right that the Bible was written by people, who wrote in a particular time, place, and culture, and that those factors strongly influence how the narrative is written (or even, how God was working in the lives of the people involved). He's right that people don't turn on a dime and that God has been working over a long period of time to change us, and that the issues that look barbaric and inexcusable from our point in history--tribal warfare, slavery, polygamy--were allowed by God because unless he miraculously overrides all human civilization by force, they simply couldn't change in a short period of time. Moreover, God wants to work in and through human beings to create change, not simply override us. Changing us is the point, and that takes time.

Still, I have reservations, too. Rob seems to want to relegate the story of the Flood to the kind of story that everyone else told about their gods getting mad at humans and sending massive floods, but the promise never to flood the world again he seems to want to take as a genuine insight, a new step forward. He wants to make the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac into a subversion of the kinds of demands that pagan gods made, which it is, but it also assumes that the real God never really asked a real Abraham (if there was a real Abraham) to do this. Although he doesn't say so straight out, his equivocation on whether these stories are literally true often assumes that they aren't, although he (rightly) asserts that them not being literally true is also not the point. Similarly, in Rob's view the tribal violence that Israel engaged in was not commanded by God, but the insight that this particular tribe was intended to benefit all tribes everywhere is genuine and real and compelling.

This is an attractive way to deal with the modern (okay, if you must, the post-modern) objection to the Bible as a horribly primitive violent outdated book which can't possibly speak to 21st century mores. If you oppose gay marriage on biblical grounds you're a bigot who must approve of polygamy and slavery and cutting off rival chieftan's heads and setting them up on poles. Rob's answer to that is very neat.

Except that it is also very subjective. Anything that conflicts with contemporary mores we can relegate to the bad, old past. This is just the kind of story that ancient, primitive people were liable to tell. You just have to ignore that old stuff and look for the glimmer of progress that culminated in, well, in where we are today. Or more to the point, in where progressives say we should be tomorrow.

So it just isn't possible that the real God could actually have asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a test. Or that he could have told the Israelites to conquer Canaan and yes, in some circumstances, to kill everyone in a city. He couldn't possibly have flooded the world and spared just one family. And we can leave open the questions (wink, nod) of whether fish can swallow people, snakes can talk, and things like that.

My only problem with this is that the only source material we have for the glimmers of progressivism is the same text that gives us the bad, old stories as well. Isn't it possible that the real, true God actually worked in and through the bad, old culture to produce results that he wanted? Is it possible that God spoke to Abraham as though he were one of the pagan gods Abraham had been used to, in order to show him a more excellent way? Is it possible that God actually did flood the world, just once, in order to show what the sinfulness of humanity could lead to, and the memory of that disaster is what has populated almost every ancient culture with a flood story? Is it possible that God did tell the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites and in some cities to put everyone to death because a) he knew they wouldn't go through with it anyway, and b) he knew that they would corrupt the Israelites into the same depraved, child-sacrificing, enemy-mutilating, horrible culture that they had, and c) in a society dominated by tribal warfare, a peacenik society would be (almost literally) eaten alive?

In other words, can we accept the insight that some of these things were temporary concessions to the culture, and also take them at a little more face value than Rob seems to want?

Because here's the point: I don't think any of the above divides me from Rob as brothers in Christ. I think it's acceptable to take some stories that appear to be literal history as possibly being something like parables instead. And I agree with Rob that the historicity of some of the stories is not the point, and that arguing over historicity often misses the point. If I didn't think that way, I'd have to reject not only Rob but people like CS Lewis as being believers as well. There's room for disagreement there.

But the real point is that I don't see anything in Rob's method that would stop us at the Old Testament. So then the question is, Is it necessary to believe in the Resurrection? Or is that just a part of the old mythical past, just another Corn King legend, that's supposed to illustrate some deeper and more profound point? If we're supposed to take it literally, why is that suddenly so important? Is the dividing line just arbitrary? If we don't take it literally, are we still in the realm of Christianity anymore?

I won't try to answer these questions. I'll wait to see what Rob has to say. Good or bad, I'm sure it will be interesting.

3 comments:

  1. It's a good question, as always. I would posit that the answer is a matter of genre in a way. It seems that many scholars have come to the conclusion that the OT was written down in the form we have it centuries after the events occurred by editors and redactors. The NT, on the other hand, was written within decades of the actual events, therefore one could argue it is more history than hagiography. So handling it differently from a historical standpoint would be justified.

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    1. True, but "many scholars" have applied the same principles to the gospels, talking about oral tradition, editors, and redactors, despite the relatively short timeframe. Rob himself mentioned in his first post that "the four resurrection accounts in the gospels differ on basic details."

      But with regard to the documentary hypothesis in the OT, I think there's room for a lot of debate. Gordon-Conwell taught us what it was and how it came to be, and why conservative evangelicals reject it. I don't think it holds a lot of water--it's as if the Oxfordians somehow got control of Shakespearean studies. If true, the Pentateuch was written much too late and under too chaotic conditions to be of any historical value at all--including what happened during Moses' lifetime.

      But even if we go with Moses writing the Pentateuch, that's still at least 500 years after Abraham and millenia after the early chapters in Genesis. What you think about inspiration is going to seriously affect how you view Genesis. But then it doesn't have to have any effect at all on how you view Jonah. Rob seems to be using the same methods regardless of whether the source material is ancient or relatively recent (with respect to its being written down).

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  2. Don't know quite what to make of this. I'm going to have to spend some time in my Special Circle, conferring with a Senior Guardian. LOL- Dave

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