Saturday, 30 August 2014

Discovering a love for the bible - for the first time!

I mentioned in my last blog that the work of Brian D McLaren had helped me through difficulties with The Bible. So let’s elaborate on that a bit.

Over the last five years or so the bible has come alive for me. I have discovered a depth, richness and wisdom that were never there before. Over a period of time the bible firstly became a problem, then irrelevant and eventually died. And it almost took my faith with it.

My Christian story is like many others. From my teens I was in a strict brethren assembly for nearly 15 years. This was a great environment for learning about what was in the bible. But it was the last place on earth to question its content. The bible was inerrant in every way. To question whether there was a real Adam and Eve, Noah or 900 year old Methuselah was unthinkable. The answer to any question was ‘the bible says’. The question that followed any statement was – ‘do have a chapter and verse for that bro?’

Even as I moved into the more ‘progressive’ thinking of events like Spring Harvest and New Wine there was still that underlying mind set. The bible had to be factually literal. If it wasn’t then the whole basis of our faith collapsed and the whole basis of our social acceptance disappeared.

The questions that were always there became more problematic the more I studied the bible itself. And there was no shortage of problems –

  1. A literal belief in every statement required an acceptance of facts which in any other context would not be given a second thought. The sun could not possibly have ‘stood still’ in Joshua 10. Where was it planning to go? People do not have conversations with snakes and did Balaam really have a conversation with his ass, so to speak? (Numbers 22). Was Jonah really swallowed by a big fish and stay in its belly for three days? Even St Augustine struggled with that one –
  2. There are very obvious contradictions. We have three gospels which give one account of Jesus and a fourth which is almost entirely different. We have a letter to the Galatians saying - There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Then we have the writer of Timothy saying that a woman is not permitted to teach and have authority over a man.
  3. There is sickening violence. Did God really kill the entire firstborn of Egypt; possibly one of the greatest acts of genocide in history? Did God tell Joshua to kill 12,000 men and women in Ai, to plunder the city and to hang the king of Ai on a tree? Was God really angry with Saul for failing to kill all of the Amalekite men, women, children and infants? And how does that tally with a god of love and mercy?

We could go on. These difficulties were always there but were suppressed because, well the bible was God’s word and He knew best. My real crisis came when I was asked to speak on the massacre at Ai and had to admit that I had nothing to say! In the light of the ‘all or nothing’ mentality the whole building began to collapse. If the baby had to be thrown out with the bath water then so be it.

One advantage of hitting rock bottom is that you then have the freedom to face things head on. There is no longer any other agenda driving you. From this point I began to actually study the bible itself and also how and when it was written. Suddenly there was a bigger picture that made it all so much clearer. I was helped here by Brian McLaren, Karen Armstrong and more recently Marcus Borg (see below).

I firstly explored where the whole idea of inerrancy came from. For many, the answer is obviously found in 2 Timothy 3:16. But let’s break that verse down –

‘all scripture’ – the writer is manifestly not talking about the bible. There was no such thing at that time. We were at least a century away from that. Even the Hebrew cannon was not yet complete. All the writer knew was the law and the prophets. There has be a considerable stretching of logic to extend this to the bible as we know it.

‘is God breathed’ – this expression is all about giving life. We are told in Genesis 2 (the second creation story) that God breathed into Adam ‘the breath of life’. So, according to that story I am God breathed. But I am certainly not inerrant. So, we are told that, ‘all scripture’ has its life and vibrancy from God but that is a long long way from a claim to inerrancy.

‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness’. I have to confess to ignoring that part of the verse for many years. So scripture is useful. It has a role to play. It is important. But there is nothing say that this means that every single statement has to be literally and factually accurate.

There are two conclusions from looking at this verse. Firstly it is highly questionable, in any event, that something is inerrant just because it claims to be – I did once hear a Spring Harvest speaker say that. Secondly the bible itself does not actually make any such claim.

Rather than undermine my faith this discovery of the patently obvious was liberating. It opened the door to enable me deal with all of the above problems, and more.

It certainly resolved the question of violence. Those books are ancient documents written by humans in a very violent age. Most other writings from that time concern warriors who wished to prove that their god was greater then others. It was part of the literature of the day. The stories do not reveal a violent God but are the written record of verbal accounts that had been around for hundreds of years. That was how stories were told at that time.

If it is no longer essential to hold on to the literal factuality of the bible then the bible can become a living resource to teach us so much about God and ourselves. The one thing I have learned is that there is all the difference in world between saying the bible is true and saying that every detail is factually literal. In fact the truth is not dependent on whether the stories are recording historical facts or not.

For example Brian McLaren deals with Adam and Eve in his latest book –

‘The story of Adam and Eve doesn’t have to be about literal historical figures in the past to tell us something very true about us, our history and our world today. We humans have consistently chosen the wrong tree. Instead of imitating and reflecting god as good image-bearers should do, we start competing with God, edging God out, playing god ourselves.’ *

So it matters not whether this really happened or not. The real truth lies behind the story, not the actual history. The same goes for Jonah. Once we see it as a parable about one man’s journey to enlightenment, it becomes so much more than a cute, if rather unlikely Sunday School story. We are very comfortable with the parables that Jesus told. Nobody needs to believe that there really was a sower. The bible is packed with stories which reveal God to us. And it is the truth within them that is relevant. If we never get out of the need to prove that it is all factual despite our intelligence and experience, then we are in trouble.

This does not mean that the bible is of no value. In fact it is of supreme value, if read correctly. These books are the gateway to us understanding God. Not because they were supernaturally dictated, but because they were written by those who were expressing their experience of God.

So how do we read the bible?

(a) A reasonable starting point is our own intelligence and experience. We draw the truth from the bible as it it is revealed to us following careful and prayerful study. If everything that we know tells us that the massacre of children is wrong then we read those stories from that perspective.

(b) We must explore the times and the context in which particular passages were written. So if, in Romans 1 Paul is writing about the unacceptable behaviour of his day - including homosexual activity by heterosexuals, we have to careful about applying those words to sincere same sex relationships today just by word association.

(c) We must look at the whole story and not use bible verses like fortune cookies. I remember years ago booking a speaker for a youth group. He let us down on the night and left a phone message to say ' -can't make it. Romans 8 - 28',  as if that coded message made everything alright.

(d) Read the bible through the lens of Jesus. He said that he was 'the way, the truth and the life'. This has usually been used to promote the exclusivity of the christian faith. But I am not so so sure. If you look at the the context, he was answering a question about finding God. His answer was that if you want to know what God is like then 'look at me'. So the bible has to be read from the same perspective. Jesus has to be our starting point in finding the truth of the bible.

(e) Read it imaginatively, always look for the truth behind the words.

These are just some ideas but the possibilities are endless.

The books of the bible were written in a particular time and place. We need to read them from where we are. We should not translate an ancient cultural world to today. We need to seek the truth within the books and interpret that truth within our world.

It is this process that has brought the bible back to life for me.  It has been transformed from a dry, unmovable rule book to a rich well of truth and life.

This is neither a liberal nor conservative viewpoint. It is the result an honest struggle over many years.

*Brian D McLaren We Make The Road By Walking – Hodder and Stoughton 2014

Helpful reading –

Karen Armstrong The Bible, the biography – Atlantic Books 2007

Marcus J Borg Reading the Bible Again for the First Time – Barnes and Noble 2001

Brian D McLaren Generous Orthodoxy – Zondervan Book 2006

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Greenbelt 2014 - Travelling Light - some thoughts

I am just back from this years Greenbelt festival at its new venue – Boughton House, Kettering.

The theme for this years’ festival was Travelling Light. As I was lugging my camping gear from the car park to the camping area I was beginning to wish I had done just that. But more of that later.

The new site is beautiful. Its setting in the grounds of the lovely Boughton House is quite idyllic. It gave the whole weekend more of a festival appeal and allowed for venues such as the Grove to come into their own. This is a small outdoor space which was used particularly well by those involved in Forest Churches, which explore the relationship between faith and our natural world. My wife Jackie and I went to the waning moon event on the Friday evening and found it fascinating and quite moving. (I should say that there were those who thought it actually involved Wayne mooning but that is another story.) Some say that it is a bit New Age but in fact it is the opposite. I have found some interesting stuff here –

Greenbelt is a festival which includes speakers, often with a radical edge, music and performing arts. One speaker who is worth a mention was Nadia Bolz-Weber from Denver, Colorado. I have heard her before and recently read her book in which she writes of her experience of watching 24 hrs of God TV non stop*! She speaks as she writes – it is pacey, funny and powerful. Two things stick in the memory. One was her comment on LGBT friends. She reminded us that we do not welcome them because they are a project; so that we can feel that we are ‘in touch’ and ‘inclusive’. Rather, we welcome them because they are not really different from the rest of us. We are all in need of God’s grace. In another session she talked about her own church which is the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. Her congregation includes many who are on the edge of society including the homeless, those with addictions and ‘drag queens’. But they only really struggled with welcoming strangers when a group of 50 something, respectable citizens from the suburbs turned up! Hang on that’s me!

Brian D McLaren has been a huge influence for me and I enjoyed hearing him on the bible and on other religions. I have read most that he has written on these subjects and he has helped me get through a number of difficult times especially with the bible! He is one of those speakers that I could listen to for hours. I also confess that became a bit of a groupie by going to get a signed copy of his latest book, We Make The Road by Walking. I had the briefest of chats and was tempted to ask for a selfie but bottled it.

The best performance, by a mile came from the brilliant poet Harry Baker –

My name is Harry Baker,
Harry Baker is my name
If your name was Harry Baker
Our names would be the same

So you get the idea! It is unique, machine gun slam poetry. His use of words is pure genius. You can catch him on You Tube doing the magnificent Paper People –

He is surely destined for greatness.

On the music side I caught Levi Hummon at the Canopy Tent. A great young singer songwriter from Nashville who appeared alongside his dad Marcus Hummon. Think Jake Bugg does bluegrass and you get a vague idea! And there was Sinead O’Connor. I didn’t know what to expect. She looked like an older version of, well, Sinead O’Connor. The first couple of songs didn’t do much. But I have to say that I warmed to her as she got going. She still has a voice to die for. She did a great version of her one huge hit which feels like a lot more than 7 hours and 16 days ago. But the highlight was the beautiful Thank You For Hearing Me. She can still rock it with the best them and was a real and pleasant surprise.

One other highlight was the fantastic reception for Vicky Beeching as she appeared in the Big top for a session on marriage - 

And we cannot forget the volunteers who man the  various stalls in G-Source - particularly those supporting Palestine which is a subject close to my heart.

So overall it was a great success and congratulations to the organisers for the brave decision to go for something so different from the previous years at Cheltenham Racecourse. There were quite a few teething problems. Access to the site was a nightmare and many people, particularly those with mobility problems, had a major struggle to get from the car parks to the camping area where no vehicles were allowed. That will need to be looked at next year.

But this also brought out the best. The Greenbelt volunteers were heroes as they helped us brave the elements on the final day. And there were many younger and healthier campers who helped others to drag their gear back through mud. A special word goes to the women who helped me pull my trolley up the hill from the campsite who turned out to be a vicar from a church in Bootle..

I also noticed lots of queues at women’s loos so maybe a few more of them next year too!

But I have come away with much to think about and will certainly be there in 2015 – although possibly in a bed and breakfast!!


Photo curtesy of Jackie!

Friday, 15 August 2014

Concerning Vicky Beeching, Kellie Maloney and other Special People

The first blog that I posted on here related to same sex marriage. I stated quite firmly my support for what should really be known a ‘inclusive marriage’. But reading over it again, there are some parts of it that now make me feel uncomfortable. I talked about it as a ‘subject’ that was driven by religious and political arguments. I talked about those who were ‘for’ or ‘against’ ‘Gay/Lesbian’ marriage. Worst of all, I declared myself in favour of ‘it’.  

I have not changed my opinions, far from it. But the blog was all about an issue, a controversy, an ‘it’. I seriously overlooked that behind all the talk, there are real people who suffer real pain, real rejection and real loneliness. At one level, those in the LGBT community are as ordinary as the rest of us. They have mortgages, they go shopping, they worry about paying the bills, they go on holiday. And they are as special to God as the rest of us. 

They are fully included in the words of the writer of Psalm 139 –

‘For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.’ (NIV)

It is shameful that we have talked about a group of humans as if they are somehow different. And that goes for those who support and oppose inclusive marriage. It is not about being right.

This has been highlighted by two stories in the last week. The first concerns the Christian musician, theologian and media personality Vicky Beeching who gave an interview to The Independent in which she said that she was gay and also talked about her life.

You can read the interview itself here –

It is a very honest and powerful read. But one small section says more than anything else. Talking about her struggles as a young teenager she says  

"I remember kneeling down and absolutely sobbing into the carpet. I said to God, 'You have to either take my life or take this attraction away because I cannot do both.'"

Nobody should have to face that level of pain in any circumstances. But for a young girl to struggle alone for fear of God and the church is, or should be, unthinkable.

The other story concerns the well known boxing promoter Frank Maloney who has publicly declared that he is transgender and is going through a process of becoming a woman. He will now be known as Kellie. Boxing has an image of being a sport for the macho – despite the recent success of women boxers. It is a tough world. When I was about 10 I went to a local boxing club in Bootle. Part of me wanted to learn to look after myself and part of me wanted to glide like a butterfly and sting like a bee. I still remember when I got in the ring and was quickly smacked in the face. It really hurt. I went home and decided that incisive wit was a far more effective form of defence!

Boxing is tough. So it was particularly brave of Kellie to place herself in the public eye. In an interview with the Mirror she also talks about her struggles –

‘I can’t keep living in the shadows, that is why I am doing what I am today. Living with the burden any longer would have killed me’

She mentions the lifelong conflict within her –

‘What was wrong at birth is now being medically corrected. I have a female brain. I knew I was different from the minute I could compare myself to other children. I wasn’t in the right body. I was jealous of girls.’

There are, of course, hundreds and hundreds of others who remain trapped in silent fear.

So I think I need to stop arguing about an ‘issue’ when we are really talking about special, valuable people who are suffering and alone.

We should also be grateful for these two people, from different worlds, who have made themselves vulnerable so that we can all learn this important lesson.