Monday, January 12, 2009

What to do with a difficult book: the Bible!

Happy New Year! And straight to work - I've noticed a couple of times recently that how we read the Bible is central to how we understand ourselves as a Christian community and how we understand our good news. There are those who find the issue quite easy - they just say, 'Do what the Bible says, because the Bible has all the answers.' And yet I suspect most people who say that are just as inconsistent with their use of the Bible as anyone else, because it's simply not a straightforward 'guide book' or 'manual', but involves some 'getting into'. On the other hand, there are those who say, 'It's just too difficult', so let's pick the bits we like but leave the rest - but that fails to appreciate how even the hard bits can be so fruitful for us, especially in the way they help us to take into account different voices within our community - because different people find different bits hard. So here's an example of a more balanced & fruitful approach:

Mark starts his Gospel (probably the first Gospel to be written) being fully aware that Jewish people were under the impression that God had stopped speaking (it says so in Malachi, at the end of their scriptures), so how can these Christian people dare to say that God has done a new thing? Well, he pumps his opening verses full of Scriptural references, quoting Malachi, who prophesied a new messenger, and Isaiah, who spoke of new things 'in the wilderness', referring to John the Baptist, and showing that he was clothed just like the ancient prophet Elijah - i.e. these are signals that the God of the Jewish Scriptures is still acting. And then there is the explosive idea, when Jesus comes to be baptised, that the heavens are opened - reversing their closure in Malachi - and God's Spirit comes - reflecting the opening of Genesis, where God's Spirit stirs the earth into new life - i.e. a signal that new creation is happening now!

What this tells us is, 1) Mark was a sophisticated writer, piecing together his material in such a way to show the vitality of his new kind of faith; and 2) the Bible refers to itself in a way which often needs de-coding, though different people find different answers, but best of all: 3) it tells of a God who does new things, who gives new insights, new wisdom, new possibilities, so must not be confined within fixed interpretations, because God speaks to every generation, rooted in an ancient history but pouring out into the future too. So what is on the horizon for us?