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"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere
ignorance and conscientious stupidity." - Martin Luther King

Mystique of Sacred Scripture
07/03/2018

Recommended reading:

Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition, Mayfield Publishing Company, Palo Alto, California, 1985

The world's best known and most influential book, the Bible, is also one of the least understood. Although three great world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—claim its authority for their beliefs, neither they nor any of the hundreds of lesser faiths that have developed from them can seem to agree on its fundamental message and meaning. Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition, p. xi.

Commentary: Although I had learned "memory verses" from the Bible since the age of 5 years, and studied and learned material FROM the bible all of my reading life, it was not until my 44th year that I learned any significant thing ABOUT the Bible other than what was inferred from my own reading of it. The above book, often used as a college level textbook, was an invaluable mind-opener for me.

Recommended reading:

Burton L, Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?, HarperCollins Publisher, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, 10022, 1996. The following passage is from this book, p. 1-3.

PROLOGUE from Who Wrote the New Testament

THE MYSTIQUE OF SACRED SCRIPTURE

Fascination with sacred scriptures seldom surfaces for observation or remark. Their mystique is subtle, something that most persons in a culture would hardly recognize even if mentioned. I have been pondering that mystique, asking why the Bible has such a curious hold on our minds and imaginations. I have not been thinking about the obviously embarrassing public displays of foolish obsessions with the Bible in our time, listening for the hoofbeats of John's four horsemen of the apocalypse, for instance, or citing Paul to prove that gays are sinners in the eyes of God. Madness of that sort can pop up in times of social and cultural crisis no matter what the issue or the mythic authorities might be. I am thinking instead about all of the seemingly innocent ways in which the Bible is taken for granted as a special book, and about all of the ways in which it works its magic in our culture without ever being acknowledged, consulted, or read.

The range of procedures for consulting the Bible is astounding. Students tell me that their grandmothers used to seek "a word for the day" by letting their Bible flop open to a "verse for the day." Ministers, priests, rabbis, preachers, and teachers by the thousands pore over these texts in quest of some lesson or message fit for their classes or congregations. Groups are now forming outside the formal boundaries of institutional religion to study the Bible in the hope of discovering some fundamental truth felt to have been lost in our recent past. Think of the intellectual labor invested in the academic study of the Bible, the production of scholarly studies and guides for interpreting the Bible, and the huge flow of literature that constantly pours forth from church houses and commercial publishers of books on the Bible. One might well wonder at all this activity swirling around a single book.

This constant consultation of the Bible is partially explained by the important role assigned to the Bible in our religious institutions. Readings from the Bible are essential to liturgies, lessons from the Bible are basic for teachings and doctrines, and references to the Bible are felt to be necessary in the construction of theologies by those charged with the intellectual life of religious traditions. The remarkable thing about this kind of appeal to the Bible, however, is that it does not seem to matter whether all of the theologies and teachings so derived agree. And it does not matter that, for a particular teaching or view, the "biblical" basis may consist of only a small set of sentences taken out of context and pressed into a dogma. This is true even at the highest levels of serious theological discourse. A study by David Kelsey (1975) has shown that, as one moves from one theological system to another among the Christian traditions in America, the selection of biblical texts said to be basic for the system also changes. It is as if everyone knows that the voices recorded in the Bible are many and diverse but that everyone continues to treat the Bible as if it spoke with a single voice. And even though the Bible is treated as a book with a single message, everyone understands that it must be studied as if the message were hidden or un­clear. It is treated as if it were a collection of divine oracles that have to be decoded in order to arrive at the truth they contain. Is it not odd that one needs to consult the Bible, study the Bible, comb through the Bible, or pierce the surface of its enigmatic language in order to discern the hidden truth that gives it the authority it has for our religions? Is it not odd that we have not taken note of this curious preoccupation with the relentless "study" of the Bible in our society and that we do not ask what it is about the Bible and our religions that lies behind such fascination?

The Bible also works its magic in our culture outside the bounds of religious institutions, although the ways in which it influences our collective sense of values and patterns of thinking as Americans are not readily recognized or discussed openly among us. Most of us do know, however, that biblical imagery and themes pervade the history of Western literature, theater, art, and architecture. We also know that the Bible was always involved in the conquest of other lands. During the "age of discovery," for instance, Columbus studied the Bible in order to plan his voyages, and he read the parable of the feast in Luke 14:16-24 as a commission to circle the globe and "compel" the heathen to convert as Luke 14:23 enjoins (J. Z. Smith 1986). Should not such examples of the Bible's influence in the history of our expansive civilizations bring a little frown of embarrassment to our faces?

We also have a vague notion of the importance attached to the Bible in early American history. It was the one book everyone had in hand, and it shaped the way we viewed the land, treated Native Americans, and constructed our institutions, including schools, universities, and the curricula of higher education. Many Americans have been quite intentional about treating the Bible as a charter for our nation. Thomas Jefferson, for example, thought it important to match the level of enlightenment we had reached in American democratic institutions with a Bible purged of its myths and miracles. Thus the "Jefferson Bible" contained only the pristine teachings of Jesus. As for the unpurged Bible, segregation in the South was long justified by quoting the curse on Ham's posterity in Genesis 9:20-27 on the one hand, and arguing for the right to demand obedience from a slave by citing Paul on the other. When the lure of "developing" the "vacant" lands to the West in the late nineteenth century reached its peak, volumes of utopian poetry were written by leading American authors, such as Walt "Whitman, rife with biblical themes about our manifest destiny as the people of God, called to create a paradise in the midst of an erstwhile wilderness. And the cliches we have used to announce our presence to the world have all been taken from biblical imagery: "righteous nation," "city set on a hill," and "light to the nations." What do you suppose we would have said about ourselves if we had not had the Bible?

In our own time, it is the frequent mention of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" that reveals how naively and automatically the Bible plays its role in public discourse. The term Judeo-Christian means that we stand in the "biblical tradition,” and the biblical tradition is regarded as the source for the values that make our society respectable and legitimate. No one finds it strange to hear senators quoting from the Bible or objects when presidents-elect place their hands upon it while taking the oath of office. It is as if we take our place in history by unreflected reference to the Bible. A vague recollection of the biblical story seems to be in everyone’s mind, a story that begins at the creation of the world with Adam and Eve in the garden, that courses through the Bible and then through the history of Western civilization to flow into the fulfillment of its promise in America with a culmination in the future of consequence for all the peoples of the world. Those who have studied American popular culture tell us that the Bible has profoundly influenced the way we tell our stories, look for meanings, quest for transformations, imagine our futures, and hope for apocalyptic solutions to our problems. If the Bible is that important to our culture, is it not strange that we have not questioned the reasons why?

I have also been impressed with the authority we grant the Bible when discussing issues of social consequence. The list of issues currently under discussion includes the place of creationism in public schools, the role of women in our society, social attitudes toward various sexual orientations, Jewish-Christian relations, theories of white supremacy, patriarchal institutions, the use of natural resources, the definition of family values, understanding violence, how best to relate to other cultures, and what responsibility we have for maintaining human rights around the world. Most of these issues could be discussed without referring to the biblical heritage, but the Bible is always lurking in the background, and positions have been taken on all of them that ultimately appeal to the Bible as the final word. When that happens, thinking and reasonable discussion stop. We do not know how to proceed after the Bible has been invoked. We are all complicit in letting an appeal to the Bible count as an argument.

One of the reasons for our silence when confronted with a proof text from the Bible is that we simply do not know what to make of the Bible and its contents. Thus we do not know what to say in response to those who use the Bible as an authority for their views. Despite the enormous investment in biblical studies in our society, there is actually very little public knowledge about the Bible. One cannot assume that anyone knows why the individual books of the Bible were first written, how they were understood by those who first read them, when and why they were firs brought together in a single volume, what the historical significance of that moment was, how the Christian church has reinterpreted all of them many times in the course of western cultural history, and what the lasting effect of the layered text has been. It is the strange authority granted to the Bible in our society, an acquiescence that pertains whether one is a Christian or not, together with the poverty of our knowledge and public discussions of the Bible, that is the stimulus for this book. Here we are with the Bible on our hands and we do not know how we got it, how it works, or what to make of it in public forum.

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