Endism is nigh, texts are tricky

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
20 Mar 2007

It is taken for granted in many parts of Western culture that reading Scripture is inevitably an inward-looking activity, and that its results are arbitrary. This view is mistaken. Recent developments in the academy and beyond show that reading Scripture can be a way not only of forming identity within a tradition, but of improving mutual understanding between members of different traditions of reasoning. Nicholas Adams, New College, Edinburgh.

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One of the mixed blessings involved in writing about religion is the correspondence that comes your way. I try to respond to critics and advisers alike. But sometimes I feel guilty about binning missives when little clues suggest that 'life is just too short'. Any letter or email with the word 'prophecy' in the header is always a good warning in itself, since it invariably announces the writer's conviction that they hold some special key to unlock the 'meaning of the Bible' and (inevitably) the end of the age. Endism is always nigh, and texts are invariably tricky.

It is these patchworks of de-historicized scriptural passages and half-baked, retrojective regarblings of current events which are lumped together by prophecy pundits. They have, for many thoughtful people, confirmed a contemporary cultural disposition to think that Christian and Jewish scriptures are little more than primitive playgounds for the deranged religious imagination. Those who deploy sacred texts in this way are (without intending it) showing the deepest possible disrespect for them.

Christian faith is inescapably rooted in biblical tradition. But the Bible isn't a series of knock-down propositions. It is a set of living, dynamic, troubling, inspiring and disturbing accounts of the ways of a mysterious God among wayward people across the centuries. For Christians its interpretative core is the Gospels. They are, by their nature, diverse rather than singular. They speak of a God of unutterable grace who, in Jesus, turns upside-down every expectation of the conventionally religious.

In Christ nothing we thought we knew about God, the world or ourselves remains untransformed. But, as the New Testament records demonstrate, and as the communities that have been formed from it show, Christians have continued to disagree about the precise nature and impact of what God has declared in Christ. To be 'biblical people' involves recognising ourselves as part of this vital argument. And to recognise it as an argument rather than a war or a foregone conclusion.

In other words, to read the Bible is most definitely not about engaging in some sort of divination. It is, rather, to be invited into an unending process of exploration, guided by a conviction that in the fabric of the world (and in the flesh of a person) there is unquenchable life overcoming death-dealing, and enduring love overcoming fearful hatred. The fidelity of the process is therefore reflected in its fruits. Good textual interpretation issues in characterful lives and moral responsibility.

Meanwhile, most serious biblical scholars and students will naturally ignore the vast quantities of scriptural fantasising that flood the internet - not to mention meretricious nonsense such as 'The Bible Code'. Of the informed challenging of misunderstandings there is no end: and since the 'answers' that the Bible pundits seek are to do with human certainty (not the wrestling with contingency in which open faith deals), the grounds for conversation seem pretty sparse. The trouble is that this leaves a huge gap between those who learn without leaping and those who leap without looking.

One of the few scholars who genuinely seeks to fill this particular void without being either obscure or patronising is Craig C. Hill, Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. His book 'In God's Time' (and the website created to promote it) is a model of patient wisdom on things eschatological. It's far from simplistic, but can be commended without hesitation to congregations and church study groups. In the process it also manages to challenge some of the excessive scepticism that can pass for biblical scholarship, too. Also superb in providing an overview of the text, and wrestling it away from the clutches of naive or immoral readings, is Keith Ward's What the Bible Really Teaches: A Challenge for Fundamentalists.

Another valuable venture which has been developed in university circles and some inter-religious settings (like St Ethelburga's peace and reconcilition centre) is scriptural reasoning (SR). This has been pioneered by Jewish interpreter Peter Ochs of the University of Virginia and others. It is a way of reading scriptural texts across traditions in a way which pays careful attention to how the narrative actually shapes life, and vice versa. It doesn't require a lot of pre-theorising, but it demonstrates how the actual use of scripture can be both life-enhancing and a window onto new insight and understanding. Stephen Fowl's treatise Engaging Scripture (Blackwell) is also enlightening in this regard.

Edinburgh theologian Nick Adams has used SR as part of a project to critique theologically the work of Jurgen Habermas on communicative theory and human cultural divergence. But he is also interested in reading sacred texts anew as a faith community discipline at local level. His Ekklesia article about this [still located on our old site at the moment] is entitled Learning to reason scripturally.

To puchase these books online: Craig C. Hill, In God's Time: the Bible and the Future and the accompanying study guide. Keith Ward, What the Bible Really Teaches. See also: R. S. Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation, John Barton (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, and R.J. Coggins and J.L. Houlden (eds) The SCM Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation.

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