Tuesday, March 23, 2010

ankoc: the authority question

McLaren's plan of attack in "A New Kind of Christianity" has essentially two prongs. One is in the first question, the positing of a Greco-Roman diety named Theos that at some time essentially replaced the God of the Bible. The second is how he claims most people interpret the Bible, how wrong it is (of course), and the way that he claims is 'corrected'. This is pretty much the Authority Question.

As per usual with the great enlightened ones, McLaren says that we simpletons have it all wrong. "There will be no new kind of Christian faith without a new approach to the Bible, because we've gotten ourselves into a mess with the Bible", pp 67-68. Apparently, because there are still Creationists, those who deny global warming, and those who think a good war is better than a bad peace, we just aren't interpreting the Bible rightly.

To prove his point, McLaren digs up some kind of novel from about the time of American Civil War, the early 1860s, a pro-slavery novel. Apparently, because someone tried to use the Bible to defend slavery in the US, we are interpreting the Bible wrong. It's a scare tactic he goes back to a few more times, so I've noticed, in what I've read so far of the book.

He says that we mistakingly read the Bible as a legal constitution, "Like lawyers, we look for precedents in past cases of interpretation, sometimes favoring older interpretations as precedents, sometimes asserting newer ones have rendered the old ones obsolete. We seek to distinguish "spirit" from "letter" and argue the "framer's intent," seldom questioning whether the passage in question was actually intended by the original authors and editors to be a universal, eternally binding law. As a result, we turn our seminaries and denominational bodies into versions of the Supreme Court. At every turn, we approach the biblical text as if it were an annotated code instead of what it actually is: a portable library of poems, prophecies, histories, fables, parables, letters, sage sayings, quarrels, and so on", pp 78-79.

The last part of that quote brings us to how McLaren's says we should see the Bible--as "the library of a culture and community--the culture and community of people who trace their history back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob", p 81. How this works comes back to the emergents' favorite word--conversation. "It's not the solitary scholar with furrowed brow, bent over a book in a library, whose approach best resonates with the Bible as library; rather, it's a community gathering in which people listen to the Bible being read, then respond and interact with it and with one another." p 84

He singles out the book of Job to show how it would work, in a way, I suppose. "God has just told us that a large proportion of what is uttered in the book of Job is false and foolish. Yet we are taught that the book of Job, being part of the Bible, is the Word of God and is inspired by God. Does that mean that God inspired the introduction and conclusion, but not the middle, where the pious blowhard's speak? Or does it mean that God inspired the pious blowhard's false statements? Or that God was pretending to inspire that part, but was crossing the divine fingers behind the divine back, so as to come out later to say, "I was only kidding in that part"? p 89. His conclusion about revelation in Job, and the Bible as a whole, is that "...revelation doesn't simply happen in statements. It happens in conversations and arguemtns that take place within and among communities of people who share the same essential questions acros genertaions. Revelation accumulates in the relationships, interactions, and interplay between statements." p 93.

What is all this about? "But here's what I hope: that his approach will not try to put us under the text, as conservatives tend to do, or lift us over it, as liberals often seem to do. Instead, I hope it will try to put us in the text--in the conversation, in the story, in the current and flow, in the predicament, in the Spirit, in the community of people who keep bumping into the living God in the midst of their experiences of loving God, betraying God, losing God, and being found againd by God." pp 96-97

Some of my thoughts about all this...

In the previous section, McLaren says that he wants look at things in a more Jewish way. But he seems to go against that here, because if I understand these things correctly, the Jews of biblical times viewd "the Law and the Prophets" in a way very like how people in the US view their own Constitution--as the basic laws by which their society is governed and ordered. If anything, the Law of Moses and the words of the prophets would have an even greater authority than the Constituion in the US, because while the Constitution was a document made by a group of men and has been changed or amended over time, the Law and the Prophets were God's own words, and we are given very few cases of God accepting input from people concerning them. He had taken some things into account, much like Jesus said in regards to divorce, but He didn't consult with Moses when He gave him the law, nor did He consult with Isaiah or Jeremiah over what prophetic words He was to give them.

If you read this part, "Like lawyers, we look for precedents in past cases of interpretation, sometimes favoring older interpretations as precedents, sometimes asserting newer ones have rendered the old ones obsolete. We seek to distinguish "spirit" from "letter" and argue the "framer's intent," seldom questioning whether the passage in question was actually intended by the original authors and editors to be a universal, eternally binding law. As a result, we turn our seminaries and denominational bodies into versions of the Supreme Court...", and wondered "Ok, what constitution is he writing about?", perhaps you have an interesting question. Remember, McLaren comes from the Left, in both politics and theology. Perhaps his attempts to make the Bible a kind of 'living document' (I haven't seen those words used the book, but the idea is certainly there), reflect a view he may have that the US Constitution is a 'living document', and neither are to be interpreted in a 'strict constructionist' type of way.

McLaren wants to liken the Bible to a library. Having read a bit in other parts of the book, I've seen that he has some interesting ideas on what sections of the library parts of the Bible would be in. Here's a few..

Science Fiction
(concerning Revelation) "Clearly, this is a work of Jewish apocalyptic literature, which in turn is part of a larger genre known as the literature of the oppressed. These kinds of literature worked in the first century in wasy similar to the way some science fiction works for us today. For example, when we read or watch Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The Matrix, or Wall-E, we don't think the writers and filmmakers are trying to predict the future. No, we understand they are really talking about the present, and they are doing so in hopes of changing the future." p 123

(concerning Noah and the flood) "In this light, a god who mandates an intentional supernatural disaster leading to unparalleled genocide is hardly worthy of belief, much less worship. How can we ask children--or nonchurch colleagues and neighbors--to honor a diety so uncreative, overreactive, and utterly capricious regarding life?..."

"It's useful to compare the Noah story to the earlier sotry it seeks to adapt and improve upon, the Utnapishtim story (from Tablet 11 of the Epic of Gilgamesh, discovered in the mid-1800s, probably dating back in oral tradition to the second millenium BCE, and recorded in clay in the mid-seventh century BCE)...

"Now remember, in making this contrast, I'm not trying to defend the view of God in the Noah story as morally acceptable, ethically satisfying, and theologically mature. Nor am I trying to make Gilgamesh look bad to make the Bible look good. Instead, I'm simply recommending that we compare the Noah story to its predecessors as well as its successors...I'm acknowledging that, yes, the portrait of God found in the Noah story is far less satisfying in many ways than a portrait that emerges later in the biblical library. Yes we can celebrate it for being a step up from the portraits it was correcting and seeking to replace..."pp 109-110

Given such examples, I think we have the right to ask (if claiming a right isn't 'constitutional') just how much of McLaren's library-bible winds up on the fiction shelves. Since Revelation obviously does so, what about Daniel, and end-times prophecies by Isaiah and Ezekial, and even the sayings of Jesus about the end? Since the story of Noah is (for him) obviously fictional, what about other stories? Is what God did to Egypt early in Exodus unacceptable, making him "hardly worthy of belief, much less worship"? What about the events in Joshua concerning the conquest of Canaan, such as God knocking down the walls of Jericho? What about all the times this god let other nations conquer Israel, even carrying off many of the people into slavery and exile? Was God being "uncreative, overreative, and utterly capricious regarding life" when he did that?

And since McLaren lists such luminaries as Borg and Crossan among those he learned from, they who would toss out pretty much everything the Gospels say about Jesus, perhaps a better question would be "How little of McLaren's library-bible actually makes its way onto the nonfiction sections, if any at all?"

In reading his thoughts on Job, I really have to wonder if McLaren has really ever read a book, let alone the Bible. Only someone who hasn't ever read or heard a story, or who is showing a sense of desperation, could write such a thing expecting people to believe it a good argument. He may as well try to claim that God approved of the words of the serpent in the Garden, because they are recorded in the Bible, event though they are shown to be lies when God speaks. Or that God approved of the murder of Abel by Cain, because it's recorded in the Bible, even though when God speaks to Cain about it, he obviously disapproves. Or maybe that God approved of Pharoah's mistreatment of Israel because it's recorded in Exodus, even though God plainly says he doesn't. It's a weak argument to claim that inspiration means that all that is recorded in the Bible is in there because God approves of it, the mere fact that it records people sinning proves that. Moreover, McLaren would never make such an argument in regards to any other book or writer. Would he claim that Tolkien approved of Boromir's betrayal or Gollum's obsession? Would he claim that Lewis approved of the words and actions of the White Witch?

The last couple of points I've tried to make meet a strange combination here, "...What about God's voice, which we encounter in the introduction, striking rather strange bargains with the Satan, and at the end, flingin questions as a machine gun spits out shells? Can we trust God's voice to be God's voice? Or is even "God" a character int eh story too, no the actual God necesarily, but the imagined God, the author's best sense of God, the fictional character playing God for the sake of this dramatic work of art? This is a powerful and perhaps terrifying question." p 94. He goes on to say that he considers the book of Job to be "a kind of archetypal theological opera" without even the rather weak claim of being 'based on a true story'.

Considering what McLaren writes here about God in Job, and what he wrote God in the account of Noah, we may safely say that pretty often, in McLaren's mind, the God of the Bible is not really God, nor even a good portrayal, but is most often "the imagined God, the author's best sense of God".

One gets the impression McLaren thinks that God should have created McLaren long ago, so He could have him as His PR Manager.

Perhaps the real god who isn't worth believing or worshiping is the one who just couldn't get himself understood by those people long ago, who couldn't help that they kept writing about him killing people, telling to go to war and conquer, while all the time he's just a milquetoast diety who wants people to be good little pacifist. Such a weak character isn't even worthy of respect, let along worship.

I think I'll end this here, though no doubt a lot could be said about his idea of "revelation through conversation". For example, I can only imagine what criterion one must pass in order to qualify for their 'conversation'.

No comments: