The disappearance of the Bible from European culture is self evident: once it was part of the intellectual and imaginative make up of poets, novelists and artists. Even if only a few knew the original languages in which the Bible was written, there was for the English speaking community the King James’ Bible – ‘That old tongue’ with its ‘clang and fervour’. Even that has disappeared: our culture today does not value reading, let alone reading books. I remember being taken to task by a fellow cleric in my last deanery. I arrived early for a meeting and settled into a book. My colleague took one look at my concentration and said – ‘what good do you think that will do you?’ I didn’t have the courage to reply honestly!
Sunday by Sunday you come to this place and listen to the Bible being read aloud. Day by day the clergy read and listen to large portions of this text being read. We preachers are required to expound the text. And different brands of Christians – conservative, liberal, radical – all appeal to the Bible to legitimise their attitudes, opinions and sometimes plain prejudice. But in spite of all this deference to the Bible, my experience adds up to this – outside the circle of experts there is considerable confusion and widespread ignorance. We are confused about what these texts mean and we continue to argue fervently about what constitutes the truth.
I want to share with you this morning on this Bible Sunday some reflections about the Bible as I look back over using it as a priest- and look forward to the necessity to continuing to attend to its texts and meanings for us.
The first thing I have had to learn is to bring my concerns, preoccupations and questions to the text, as clearly and consciously as possible. We cannot abandon our values as we read. This throws out the so called objectivity and neutrality of the scholar,; scholarship is not neutral; it has its own value system, exalting the rational over the emotional, the intellect over the imagination – its own political values of an essentially conservative nature, socialising students into its own methods and preoccupations, and until recently this was the sole preserve of white middle class males.
Reading the Bible has to happen in such a way that the text is allowed to breathe and speak. Reading the Bible is tough and delicate – bringing together the readers passion and the strangeness of the text; and there always has to be enough room for the text to address the reader. We need to open ourselves up to the texts challenge and wrestle with the truth not mould it into our comfort zone.
Reading the Bible needs to be preceded by a sense of anticipation, that it will yield some hope and truth.
And in this sense we need some curiosity, some passion and desire to learn more about these books and their stories and ideas. We will need to develop a sharp, historical imagination so that we can know the ancient world and how this world has shaped the texts, its preoccupations and concerns. Rumours about the strange book will keep its memory and transforming power alive in the study and the life of the Church. The Bible can help safeguard us against making Christ in our own image – there are too many parts of us and the Church that ignore the texts. We should allow the Bible to alert us to our own attitudes to slavery, xenophobia, misogyny. As a Christian we should seek to find within the Bible a sense of a living word that is from God and of God. In this I have discovered what a dangerous book the Bible is. It threatens organised religion, it holds up a mirror to the endless capacity of us all to be greedy. It reminds us of the dignity of the human being, especially the poorest. The Bible offers us extraordinary pictures of the possibilities and hopes of a new world – the Kingdom of God.
In all this there is a density and opacity – a deep mystery in which the writers share a sense of the transcending God disclosed among the vagaries and unpredictable areas of our living. This is the word of God – not a rule book of instructions but the primary source for feeding our imagination for a new a transformed world.
Let us Pray:
May your word be a lantern to our feet
and a light upon our path
that we may behold your coming among us.