A recent post by Doug Kings has stirred things up at the BOFI (Book of Faith Initiative). BOFI is an ELCA effort at energizing Bible study, but Kings, a Chicago pastor, is skeptical.
The church does indeed have a Bible problem but it’s not people’s ignorance about it. The question is whether the church can let the Bible be what it is: the collected thoughts of a particular ancient people, containing their prejudices and ignorance but also some genuinely profound insight into living with God and with one another in our paradoxical world of beauty and pain, purpose and confusion.
The sexuality task force, with commendable candor, admitted the ELCA lacks a basic consensus on how to read the Bible. Without such a consensus, we will continue to flail about, squabbling among ourselves, uncertain of our mission. How the Bible should be read today is not obvious.
As one who has taught adult Bible education in my own parish for a number of years, I share Kings’ critique of the church’s ambivalent attitude towards the institution of scripture. Kings suggests the ELCA seminaries teach the historical critical method, but whisper on the way out, but don’t tell anyone. The “Word of God” is understood as the “words of God” without correction.
I belong to a men’s group at my present parish consisting of retired, mostly professional men with long histories in the church. Nearly a quarter are retired clergy. Yet, I bite my tongue at the misconceptions: John the apostle was the same person as John the evangelist; the same for Matthew; 2nd Peter’s comment about the transfiguration proves that it was a historical event (after all, Peter was there!); the consistency of the synoptics proves their truth. And these all just at yesterday’s meeting!
Yet, I challenge only selectively.
Wellhausen, the 19th century scholar most associated with the Documentary Hypothesis (JEPD) and the historical critical method, supposedly stopped teaching it near the end of his career because it didn’t lift up the faith of his students but actually detracted from it. He didn’t reject the accuracy of the approach but the utility of it. So too is the church’s ambivalence and my silence in the face of the misconceptions of my men’s group.
Kings suggests that we simply need to be honest about what the Bible is and especially what it is not:
Modern scholarship has actually discovered a great deal about the Bible but much of it is ignored because it doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. Modern biblical study’s totally unsurprising conclusion is that the Bible is theology, through and through. Thus, it isn’t history, biology, geology, astronomy, economics, political science, psychology or any of the other contemporary subjects which so fascinate us and about which we have so many questions. For answers to them, we must look elsewhere.
He is right, of course, but the difficulty lies in challenging inbred assumptions without seeming to question faith.