Does the Bible have a future?

Thursday, 21 November, 0900–1030

Text for an introductory presentation to a panel at the Ninth International Sabeel Conference, Jerusalem on Thursday,21  November 2013. [video]

The conference organisers indicated as follows:

This panel discussion arises out of the following critical awareness:

Since the Bible has been used to support highly destructive moments of human history such as theft, slavery, murder, assassination, war, genocide, population transfers, forced conversions, and environmental degradation, perhaps the Bible is too dangerous for the masses. Maybe we should take it away from the laity and only allow it to be read and interpreted by professionals? Yet neither political leaders nor the church’s anointed have been free of biblically justified atrocities. Perhaps the Bible should be counter-balanced by other authorities such as scientific findings and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Can the Bible be redeemed and used as a source for human advancement, and if so, how?

This panel has its theme, “Does the Bible have a future?” This is a very different kind of topic, and it plays into my own research and writing about the “once and future Bible.” It could be a theological diversion from the challenges of justice and peace, but perhaps it is also about asking what kind of ways we might imagine the Bible contributing to justice and peace, rather than promoting and endorsing violence and oppression.

Let begin by noting a simple but significant error in the title of our panel and of our conference.

The title refers to “the Bible,” but there is not ONE BIBLE. Rather there are many Bibles, as Yohanna reminded us yesterday morning.

There is more than one form of the Bible and one expects there always will be, just as there is more than one expression of church. That diversity of Bible extends beyond the formal differences of content between Anglican, Armenian, Catholic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Syriac Bibles, since — even when we have the same set of books in our Bible — we may choose to read some parts while ignoring other parts.

So much of the power talk around the Christian Scriptures speaks as if the Bible was a single thing, that exists in one agreed form and through which God speaks with one voice. I suggest that is simply not so. The Bible is diverse and God speaks through the Bible in many different voices.

Yet so often our language about the Bible reflects an assumption that we all mean the Protestant Bible, as it emerged in NW Europe at the time of the Reformation. That particular form of the Bible is the Bible most of us know, but it is not the Bible of the Catholic Church nor of the Eastern rite churches. It is the Bible of the North Atlantic Theological Organisation, but it is not the only Bible. It is not the ancient Bible. And it is not the best Bible.

I suggest, with as much humility and grace as I can muster, that the first thing about the future of the Bible that we need to embrace is that the Bible has always existed in multiple forms and that it will continue to do so. Our desire for certainty seduces us into thinking of the Bible as a single thing that speaks with one voice, and that plays into theological power games that — as we see in this land, but also in other lands — can have unjust outcomes for the people of the land, the am-haaretz, the little ones of God.

So I have no doubt that Bible has a future, even if I find it hard to predict just what those futures of the Bible may be like.

A further preliminary response to this topic would to ask why are we discussing this theological topic rather than a real topic? My own response to that comment is that, in my view, an authentic Christian response to occupation, dispossession and violence must be derived from our understanding of Jesus, and for that I need the Bible. Not because I will ever take the Bible literally, but because I must always take it seriously.

So let me clear at the outset that I have no doubt that the Bible has a future. Indeed, I am sure that the Bible does have a future, but I do wonder whether it will be a future that serves the powers that be or a future in which the Bible functions as a prophetic text, calling us all to repentance, renewal and action?

Let me also say that how this is future takes shape rests with the communities of faith for which the Bible serves as sacred text. Academics will not determine the future of the Bible. That will be determined by the people of God, in all their diversity.

While I am sure that that the Bible has a future, I am not sure whether the future of the Bible will be toxic for humanity or a good thing for us all.

For sure, I suggest, the toxicity of the Bible rises in direct correlation to its integration with the powers that be — whether those powers be inside the church or outside the church.

Not every reading of the Bible is healthy and good for us. I wish I could promise that the future of the Bible is one characterised by life-affirming readings, but I fear that will not be the case. People of power will always find it expedient to co-opt and exploit the Bible for their own ends, while evading its prophetic claim upon our lives. In this respect, I have found the contributions by Nancy Cordoso Pereira to be challenging and transformative for me.

As we reflect on this further, I would affirm that the Bible — in its diverse forms and with its diverse voices — is a key text for both victims and perpetrators, and will continue to be so unless we can change the ways in which people read the Bible. This suggests at least two different futures for the Bible: one that assists victims to use it more effectively, and another that disarms the Bible so that it cannot be used as a weapon of fear and hate.

The trick is not to change or domesticate the Bible, but to change and empower the readers.

So I invite you to think about the two sides of the coin for the future of the Bible: How to make it work better for the little people, and how to make it work not so well for (and even against) the powerful people.

Some of the strategies will have both outcomes, so they are high value options.

These would include:

  • Improving biblical literacy within the churches and in the wider community
  • Accessing contemporary critical biblical scholarship
  • Recognizing diversity within the Bible and attending to the minority voices
  • Acknowledging the dark side of the Bible
  • Celebrating the positive side of the Bible

One key element will be reading the Bible contextually:

  • In its ancient historical contexts
  • Through its history of interpretation across the centuries
  • In our own contexts now
  • In the context of scientific insights and human rights values
  • In our multi faith context (as one religion among many, not as THE only true religion)

If we can make progress across these issues, then for sure the Bible will not only have a future but it will be a future that brings healing and hope to all people

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  1. For far too long the Bible has been used as the basis for deciding the ‘way’ for society. There are other writings which promote a more humanitarian, caring and non-discriminatory way of living. So much that is wrong can and is justified by quoting biblical passages. Some of the stuff in the Hebrew bible was good for the period about which it is written, but not for society today. The New Testament does not focus on the need for us to take responsibility for our own actions, thoughts, etc. Of course there are truths in every religion, however my preference at the moment is for the Buddhist way. Of course as my knowledge broadens my preference may change.

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