LCI Council member, Revd Simon Hall, reports on speaker, author and theologian Michael Hardin’s visit to LCI and asks the question “How did Jesus read his Bible?”
I spend a lot of time debating on Facebook. Probably not hours every day, but certainly minutes. Sometimes a lot of minutes. Now and then I can’t help myself, even though I know it probably doesn’t do any good. I don’t always think I can change someone’s mind, but it bothers me that people just can’t seem to see the other side of the argument. And when you can’t see the other side of the argument, you tend to assume that the person you’re debating with is obstinate, or defensive, or stupid. Or maybe even evil. Think about Donald Trump supporters. Or people who voted differently to you on Brexit. The temptation to demonise those we disagree with (sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally) seems to be deep rooted in human nature, and religion has often colluded in that demonisation. In the spirit of Facebook I’m going to write an article that will probably make you want to argue with me, but hopefully not demonise me!
The longest running and most heated debate I’ve ever had on Facebook was about the Bible. It wasn’t very pleasant, although I tried to be. A friend had vented in public about an issue concerning church politics and someone had weighed in with what ‘The Word of God’ had to say on the matter. I confess, that phrase really gets under my skin. Its use is normally a coded declaration that one has ‘a high view’ of the Bible, and yet it is very poor Bible reading, since John’s gospel identifies Jesus as The Word of God. I responded to them, they responded to me; it got messy.
Sometimes Facebook deceives you into thinking you are having a chat with two or three people, but for months after that argument people mentioned to me that they had followed it right to the bitter end (which was a couple of weeks later). I was surprised, but then not so surprised. After all, the Bible is central to Christian faith and so many of our disagreements turn out to be about how we read the Bible and what presuppositions we bring to it. I meet so many people who are struggling to make sense of it. It seems as if modernity has handed down to us two almost completely useless approaches to reading the Bible.
I say modernity handed us these views because, in very different ways, they both cede centre stage to a modern, ‘scientific’ worldview. Both agree that unless the Bible is a textbook then it doesn’t have a lot to say to us. One group, traditionally called liberals, argue that the Bible is clearly not much use as a textbook, since its entire worldview has been superseded by science. They have spent over a hundred years raking through the scriptures, like a scavenger in a ruined city trying to find something of value. Their process, once called ‘demythologisation’, breaks up both the text and the Christian faith into smaller and smaller pieces, searching perhaps for ‘the real Jesus’, or just some small fragment of meaning. The results are often meagre pickings, and while the liberals always claimed that they were trying to make Christianity relevant, their churches are in rapid decline. The other group, often called evangelicals or fundamentalists, assert that the Bible is indeed a textbook of science, history, ethics and theology. Not just a textbook, but the textbook, all but written by God to tell us everything we need to know about everything. Sunday School teachers tell children that the Bible is ‘The Haynes Manual for Life’, but how many Haynes Manuals include a picaresque description of the creation of the car; lots of stories about people driving the car really badly; prophecies about how the car should be driven and how one day a perfect driver will come to show us how to drive properly; a rather lurid description of a loved-up couple having sex in the car; songs about how great the car’s inventor is; laments that the inventor never shows up to car conventions any more; further storytelling about the perfect driver finally arriving: everyone conspiring to make him crash; then… You get the point.
To my mind, worshipping the Bible as a heavenly textbook or dismantling it because it isn’t are both increasingly untenable positions for a Christian to take. There might be some short term gains from the certainty that each view gives us, but both can become deathly over time.
One question I rarely hear Jesus’ followers asking is, ‘How did Jesus read his Bible?’ Surely this is where we should all start? When biblical scholars gather they will inevitably talk about ‘hermeneutics’, which is a rather academic way of saying that each of us brings stuff to the table when we engage with the Bible. My hermeneutic is a complicated array of feelings, prejudices, learning and faith, but probably the most important thing is that I admit what all this stuff is. The worst hermeneutic is the unacknowledged one. For example; I believe in God and that God raised Jesus from death; my politics are of the left and I lean towards pacifism; I come from a fairly chaotic family background but I still believe in marriage and family. All these things shape how I read the Bible just as much as my academic study of theology. The question of how Jesus read his Bible then becomes, ‘What was Jesus’ hermeneutic? What did he bring to the table?’
Fortunately for anyone wondering about this, LCI was visited by speaker, author and theologian Michael Hardin, who delivered a day seminar on this very topic. Obviously, the first thing that has to be said is that there was no Bible in Jesus’ time. There were no books, only (very rare) scrolls located in the temple and in synagogues. Hardin went so far as to suggest that Jesus might have been illiterate, perhaps learning to recite the Torah and a few other scrolls the way that a young Muslim does today. So Jesus didn’t have a Bible as such, just a number of individual scriptures and the traditions that had grown up around them. Parts of the Old Testament were already hundreds of years old and the question, ‘how do we apply this ancient text in our contemporary world?’ was one Jesus would have wrestled with throughout his life.
Some of things Hardin said were as plain as the nose on your face, but nonetheless shocking. When Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…’ (Matt 5:37f) he is explicitly overruling the teaching of the Torah. Just as Jesus sought to overturn the sacrificial system of the Temple, so he also overturned the ethic of retributive violence. This simple act surely invalidates for Christians any way of reading the scriptures that gives equal weight to the laws of the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus. It’s okay to say the way of Jesus changes the way we see law because Jesus himself said it.
But Hardin went a lot further than that. Systematically, he went through Old Testament texts quoted by Jesus to show Jesus does the very thing a good evangelical is told not to do: he cuts out the violence, the retribution against enemies, and the sacrifice. Think about Jesus’ big moment in Nazareth when he reads from Isaiah’s classic jubilee text (see Isaiah 61: 1,2 and Luke 4: 14-30). Which part does Jesus omit? The part about God’s vengeance. Is it possible the crowd wanted to lynch him because he was taking away acknowledgement of God’s right to avenge, and perhaps, therefore, their right to revenge?
Most of us do this almost unconsciously, for example when we start reading the lament of Psalm 137 and skip over the psalmist’s invocation of infanticide. But it is remarkable to realise that this is happening in the New Testament too. Perhaps our desire to turn away from the violence is actually a sign of the Holy Spirit working in us. Throughout the day Hardin suggested that Jesus was, in effect, ‘saving’ his followers from ideas of a vengeful god that kills entire populations that displease him and requires constant sacrifice to be placated. The day was exhilarating and disorienting in equal measure.
Hardin is open and clear about his own hermeneutic: he has been captivated by the work of the French anthropologist, literary theorist and occasional theologian Rene Girard. Girard sees the world through very particular lenses, the contours of which I can’t outline sufficiently well here, except to say that Girard believes that the scapegoating mechanism, by which individuals and whole communities avoid the real conflicts of life by blaming someone else, is at the centre of ritual sacrifice in human communities all over the world. Sacrifice is about dealing with our own anger and violence rather than any god’s anger over sin, for example. Jesus came to show that only forgiveness can really overcome the problems that scapegoating tries to solve. So, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus become the lens through which we read and interpret the rest of Scripture.
Is this ‘Christocentric hermeneutic’ really something new? Well, yes and no. The American Old Testament scholar Peter Enns is trying to hold onto the belief that all Scripture is inspired by God by suggesting that all the so-called ‘texts of terror’ (that is, texts that narrate slavery, assassination, beheading or other heinous acts) are there because God wants us to see where we’ve come from without trying to copy the mistakes of our ancestors. This chimes with Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz, another visitor to LCI, who is mystified by the way some Christians treat all stories from the Old Testament as normative for life today. ‘We treat them as what they are, stories about your crazy drunk uncle. No one thinks you should emulate your crazy drunk uncle just because you’re related.’
It’s Jesus who is the Word of God, not the Bible. Perhaps if we start with the Jesus we can discover together in the scriptures, we can learn to handle scripture as he did, recognising that in him, something has definitely changed, and nothing can be seen in the same light again, not even the Bible!
Article by Revd Simon Hall, Member of LCI Council