This is the one time of year when I’m ready to declare war on Christmas myself. It’s impossible to venture into a store without Christmas music and Christmas displays. Christmas catalogs are over stuffing mailboxes all over the land.
At this time of year this seems like anything but a religious holiday. Our commercial society’s wildly overdone winter solstice gift giving rituals look sometimes like paganism’s revenge. The early Christians turned the pagan Saturnalia feast of ancient Rome into a Christian holiday; today the merchandisers are taking it back.
The dissonance won’t be so jarring by next week; right now the entire commercial world is dedicating itself single mindedly to the task of getting me to spend money I don’t have on gifts the recipients don’t really want, and I resent it. By next Sunday I will be in more of a gift buying mode myself, and those holiday displays will start to make sense. The gifts will look more inviting, and I’ll be thinking that money isn’t everything when it comes to the people you love. By the next Sunday I’ll be humming carols and wondering if I should buy an elf hat and my personal war on Christmas will have ended, as it usually does, in unconditional surrender.
The Second Sunday in Advent is sometimes called Bible Sunday among the diminishing number of people who pay any attention to historic Anglican ideas; the collect (special daily prayer) for this Sunday was written by Thomas Cranmer and focuses on the Bible and Bible reading:
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Bible reading was and for many still is central to Protestant religious culture. Harry Truman read the Bible through cover to cover five times during his presidency; a deep, personal Christian faith was one of the things he shared with his predecessor Franklin Roosevelt (and that Franklin shared with his cousin Theodore).
But there’s a temptation that goes with Bible reading: it is to turn the Book into an Oracle—to ask it questions it wasn’t intended to answer. The Bible is not the Mayan Calendar; it is not there to tell us when the world will end or, for that matter, to provide a scientific account of how it began. For two thousand years Christian scholars and theologians have warned against reading the Bible in the wrong way by asking it the wrong questions. In the classic text that many Christians use as their reference point for understanding what the Bible is for, St. Paul writes in his second letter to Timothy (chapter 3 verse 16 for those who follow such things) that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.”
It is worth noting that paleontology, geology and astronomy are not included in that list of what the Bible is good for.
Some Christians believe that you have to take the Bible literally to get any good out of it at all; if snakes didn’t talk in the Garden of Eden the whole thing is a sham. (Non-believers often think this is what Christians believe, and conclude that the whole religion is a waste of time.) Others seem to think that you should interpret it to agree with whatever fashionable ideas are blowing in the winds around you. I haven’t been able to content myself with either position; as usual when perplexed, I hunt for the middle ground.
It seems to me that the Bible gives us a kind of commonsense picture of how the revelation process works, and while my rough and dirty approach might not work for professional theologians, I’ve always found it useful as a layman’s guide to an alarming and complicated book. The picture that helps me comes out of the gospels. Those gospels show Jesus doing something very important from the Bible student’s point of view: he was teaching the people around him. Given that Jesus is the son of God and that in his teaching we can see God in action revealing truth to humanity, Jesus’ method of teaching can help us figure out what the Bible is meant to do. His teaching is an example of God’s word coming forth in real time.
Jesus was actually a very unusual religious leader. Unlike a lot of prophets and holy figures, Jesus didn’t teach about health or hygiene. He gave his followers no ideas about what to wear or what to eat. He left no instructions about how to wash your hands or what motions to use when you pray. He didn’t tell his followers how to divide their inheritances, which cousins they could marry or what animals were good and bad to eat. He didn’t come up with a Christian haircut, beard trim, or method of brushing your teeth. Unlike the Mayan Calendar, he refused to give any date for the end of the world. He didn’t give a date for the beginning of the world and he made no effort to settle any scientific or historical controversies.
There’s no arcane supernatural knowledge. He doesn’t tell us how many kinds of angels there are, and what powers each wields. He is utterly silent on the functioning of the celestial system. He taught his followers to pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but he doesn’t tell them anything about what goes on in heaven or what people do there. If there are djinn, he is silent about them. His teachings seem to flip between impossible counsels of perfection and assertions of God’s infinite love.
When he taught, he often spoke in parables—stories that were not necessarily literally true, but that nevertheless open the door to a deeper understanding. Two of the most famous are the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the first, Jesus tells us about a young man who asked his father for his share of the family fortune and then went off to a foreign country to spend it in wild and dissolute living, on prostitutes and other fun things. When the money ran out, and the country he was visiting was hit by a famine, the young man was starving and penniless and decided to return home and beg his father for a job as one of his handymen. But when his father saw him coming, he ran out to meet him, hugged him and ordered a feast to welcome him home. The son he had lost but still loved had come back to him, and that was what really mattered.
The parable of the Good Samaritan tells about a merchant who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, where he was robbed by thieves who took all he had and left him to die of his wounds. A Samaritan (a member of a sect that regular Jews of the day considered heretical and unclean) found him, brought him to an inn (there were no hospitals in those days) and told the innkeeper to take care of the man and send the bill to the Samaritan. The superficial point here is that we should be good to those in need, regardless of their faith or ethnicity; the deeper point is that Jesus was using a member of a despised outsider group as the good example, flipping conventional values on their head and challenging his audience to reexamine their prejudices and assumptions.
Now both of these stories have been studied and prayed over by billions of Christians for almost two thousand years, and they are both still today crucial points of reference for many people in their personal and spiritual lives—and well they should be. They are the kind of stories that haunt you, that keep unfolding new meanings as you come back to them on your journey through life.
But these stories don’t just tell us about life; they also tell us something about the way God teaches. They were intended to teach us about ourselves, other people and what’s important in life; they weren’t intended as newspaper reports on contemporary life in ancient Palestine. They are intended to challenge us, to shake us up, and to jolt us into a different kind of awareness. Their validity doesn’t depend on whether there “really was” a prodigal son who returned to his father, or whether police reports in Jericho would corroborate the story about the Samaritan. The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t lose its force if archaeologists can’t find the receipt for the innkeeper’s bill.
Those examples of Jesus’ actual method of teaching—of God’s process of revelation—condition the way I and many other Christians down through the centuries have read the holy books. As far as I can make out, this is the tradition in which C.S. Lewis read the Bible. It is a serious but not always literal approach. It doesn’t run around with a crowbar gleefully smashing the credibility of biblical narratives, but it doesn’t assume that every book or passage of the Bible aspires to the same kind of literal Truth. The famous story of Jonah and the whale reads a lot more like a parable than like a newspaper article; for many Christians it’s enough to see that God teaches us in parables and stories in the Bible, just as Jesus did during his ministry.
But if not every word in the Bible is the literal truth, some believers and non-believers ask why would we believe anything in it? Just to use lay common sense, I think it’s pretty easy to tell from the context, especially on the truly important points, how something is intended to be read. The Bible itself treats different books and stories in different ways. From Genesis to Revelations, for example, nobody ever says anything about the importance of believing that Jonah was literally swallowed by a whale or belched out on the shore. No one says our religion is true and important if Jonah went into a whale’s belly and it’s a pack of fairy tales if he didn’t. It’s a story and it’s there to be thought about and reflected on. (Jesus refers to the story of Jonah, but that does not mean that he believed it literally or thought that his listeners should. It’s called a literary allusion and people make them all the time. If I quote Huck Finn or Othello, I’m not committing myself to the belief that either of these characters existed or really said “in real life” the words attributed to them in the literary text.) Like the parables that Jesus told, the Jonah story tells us something important about who we are and challenges us to put off our conventional habits of thought and try to see the world more like God does, but it isn’t trying to tell us anything about the ecology of the eastern Mediterranean in 700 BC or how many Frequent Voyager points Jonah had in his account.
There are other stories that the Bible treats very differently. In his first letter to the Corinthians, for example, Paul gives a list of things which he quite specifically claims to be historical facts, and he says that if these things aren’t true, then Christianity is a waste of time and Paul himself is a fraud.
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
4 And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:
5 And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
6 After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep.
7 After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles.
8 And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time…
13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen:14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.
By the Bible’s own criteria, you can interpret the Jonah story any way you want, but if you try to read the story of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as symbolic, then you might as well put the Bible down and go read Mother Goose.
Bible Sunday reminds us that even though not every word of the Bible is intended as history in the modern and scholarly sense of the word, the Bible itself is a historical book. It’s about specific people, places and events. It is either, in its main points, true or false. It is inspired by God, as Paul and Cranmer thought, or it is beautiful and evocative poetry: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening in the (very) Extended Play edition. If it’s pretty poetry, you only have to pay as much attention to it as you want; if it is something more, you have to come to grips with its demands and assertions.
Advent, as I wrote last week, means “The Coming,” and part of the coming that we have to get ready for is God’s entry into the realm of actual history. The essence of being a believer is to believe that the story of Jesus isn’t a story of legends and poetic myths from the deeps of time. It’s about a series of events that happened (or didn’t happen) in a particular place at a particular time and that still matter today. A man grew up and traveled around the Holy Land telling stories, doing amazing things and claiming to be the son of God. Then he was crucified, died and was buried.
And then he was back, and he’s still back and among us today.
That is the Coming that we are prepping for this time of year: God’s revelation of himself in history, first through his written word, the Bible, and then through his son. Bible Sunday is a good day to reflect on that truth. Jesus isn’t a symbol or an evocative literary figure; he’s a person, he’s real, and he’s coming into our lives.
[Image :: Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son]