Who Is Speaking?: Review of What is the Bible?

The danger with asking complicated questions is that you sometimes forget to ask the simpler, foundational questions.  Rob Bell's new book, entitled What is the Bible?, asks a simple question, but in so asking it exposes a truly fundamental issue about how one approaches religion.  In asking "what is the Bible?", Bell asks the reader to consider the question of how we understand what these sacred texts are and what they are supposed to represent.  If you don't get that right, then you will inevitably lost in the weeds.

Let's look at this from might seem like a strange place--a comparative look at the three great monotheistic faiths.  The name for the holy text of Islam is al-Quran, which translates to something like "the Recitation."  According to Islamic theology (as I understand it), the angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet Muhammad and recited (hence the name) the Quranic text to him, and Muhammad in turn wrote in down into the form we have today.  More to the point, the angel Gabriel was passing on what Gabriel heard directly from Allah.  In other words, according to Muslims, the author of the Quran is Allah, and the Quran represents, literally, the words of God.  Muhammad is a scribe, and nothing more--he had no hand in the composition of the Quran.

We can think of this as a "vocalist" understanding of what Scripture is--a recording of words that God is saying directly and in an unmediated fashion to God's people.

On Pete Enns's podcast this week (which, if you have any interest in the Bible, has become "must listen" content), he had a fascinating discussion with Dr. Benjamin Sommer, a scholar who teaches at the primary rabbinical school for Conservative Judaism in the United States (and, according to his bio, taught at Northwestern University while I was there).  Dr. Sommer, in explaining a key difference between the various branches of Judaism, drew a distinction between the Orthodox view which holds that the Torah was communicated directly to Moses on Mount Sinai by God, and the Conservative view which holds that the Torah was written by humans in response to a divine revelation, but is not itself composed by God directly.  The Orthodox view is essentially the same approach as the approach taken by Islam--a vocalist understanding of what at least the Torah represents.  On the flip side, Dr. Sommer calls the Conservative view (and his view) a "participatory theology" of the Bible, in which humans are responding to the encounter with God and composing a text that reflects that experience.  You can still say that the Biblical text (in this case the Torah) is divine in a participatory theology approach, but it is divine in a different way than if you take a vocalist position.

If you were to go to official doctrinal statements of Christian denominations, the word you will usually find associated with the Bible in this context is "inspiration," as in the Bible is "inspired."  This is a word that I think obscures far more than it clarifies, as you get into a complex and convoluted discussion of precisely what you mean by "inspiration" and how inspiration works in the context of a specific text.  More importantly, especially in the case of conservative Christianity and especially especially in the case of conservative evangelical Christianity, you find what you might call a "functionally vocalist" reading of the Bible.  In other words, whatever formal distinction is drawn between what evangelicals mean by inspiration versus how Muslims or Orthodox Jews understand their holy texts, for all practical purposes conservative evangelicals read the text as if it were direct, unmediated communication from God.

The commonality between Muslims, Orthodox Jews, and evangelical Christians is that there is nothing, and can be nothing, "behind" the Biblical or Quranic text.  If the text is God speaking directly to God's people, then the normal sorts of questions we ask about an ancient text--why was this written, what influenced the author or authors, how was it put together, what are the circumstances surrounding the drafting of the text, etc.--are just not applicable to the holy text.  Asking "what influenced the author?" of the Biblical text is meaningless if the Biblical text was authored by God; likewise, it cannot be the case that the text has any real meaningful lineage or foundation if it is unmediated divine communication.  You cannot really analyze the Bible if it is a vocalist text; all you can do is follow it.

[As an aside, I think a conservative reading of Catholicism, especially as expressed in Vatican I and the decree on infallibility, is a functionally vocalist understanding of divine revelation broadly understood (as opposed to the Bible alone).  But, that's another post.]

Which brings us to Bell's book.  Bell talks about a number of topics, but the one overarching theme of the book is that Bell is encouraging his readers to "lean in" to the humanity of the authors of these texts.  Rather than seeing the Bible as some sort of univocal divine communication, Bell wants us to be attentive to the authors of the text and the messages they are trying to communicate to their audiences, both contemporary and modern.  

When people charge in with great insistence that this is God's word all the while neglecting the very real humanity of these books, they can inadvertently rob these writings of their sacred power.

All because of starting in the wrong place.

You start with the human.  You ask those questions, you enter there, you direct your energies to understanding why these people wrote these books.

Because whatever divine you find in it, you find the divine through and in the human, not around it.  (pg. 188).

To use Dr. Sommer's formulation, Bell is calling for a participatory theology of the Bible in a Christian context.  Bell is not saying that the Biblical text has nothing divine about it, but he is insisting that the words of the text themselves are thoroughly human in their composition.  Like Dr. Sommer, Bell would say that "behind" the Biblical text is an encounter between a human being and the divine, an encounter which the writer than tries to express in limited and context-dependent human words.  But because the words are human, they can be analyzed and chopped up and studied in the way that any other text is analyzed without requiring you to deny that there is something of God behind the words.

The problem with a vocalist theology (or, at least, the problem from the point of view of someone who doesn't believe in a vocalist theology) is that you spend so much time trying to discern the direct, unmediated voice of God that you miss the way that God is acting on the writer of the text.  You stop listening to the writer's own voice, which is telling you something very powerful about how they have had an experience of the divine.  And, because the writer is, at the end of the day, a person just like you, the reader, are, it is a powerful and relatable experience.

Take Paul.  Here's a guy who has had his life completely transformed by a revelation of Jesus Christ, and is willing to overturn his entire life to follow the truth of that revelation.  Paul clearly sees the message of Jesus in revolutionary terms, and is willing to give a gigantic middle finger to the entire political establishment of the most powerful empire in the world, as well as the religious establishment of both Judaism and the emerging Christian movement (see, e.g., his dispute over circumcision with Peter).  He seems entirely unfazed by the cost that these positions will bring with them.  And yet, at the same time, he seems to be hyper-concerned about certain elements of social propriety, most notably the head-coverings issue in 1 Corinthians 11.  Most scholars believe that the prevailing culture said that a woman who exposed her hair was considered a prostitute, so Paul is trying to make sure that Christians were not seen as having "loose morals."

But, why bother?  I mean, if you are refusing to take part in the foundation of civil life and corporate worship, why should you care what the general public thinks about what people wear on their heads?  The train of social respectability has long since left the station.  It would be as if someone said, "yes, we are going to protest the government and call for its downfall, and we don't care about the consequences, but it is critically important that we don't walk on the grass on the way there, lest we be accused of disturbing the peace."

Now, all sorts of folks have tried all sorts of ways of harmonizing everything Paul says into a cohesive whole, or equally convoluted taxonomies of why Paul didn't really say what he said.  But I think all of those efforts are grounded in this vocalist way of approaching the Bible--since it is God's direct speech, we must discern the unity and constancy that must be there, even if we can't see it.  But I think a better way is to accept that Paul is the writer of these texts, and that Paul has blind spots and weaknesses and inconsistencies.  He gives us soaring declarations of equality like in Galatians 3:28, and then sometimes backs away from the consequences of those statements, or fails to see the logical conclusions of his principles.  In other words, he is just like every other human being who has ever lived.

Rather than some unapproachable divine oracle, Paul because someone we can enter into a dialogue with, as he explains to us this wonderful new vision of the world and of himself that he has and wants to share.  There is a person there, and we need to recognize that person who is speaking to us.  Some specific parts of what Paul says are problematic, but I think the fact that Paul is inconsistent and conflicted--in other words, human--is not a problem.  He has something to say that is so powerful that he has to say it, but since he suffers all of the same problems saying it that we would have if we were trying to do what Paul is trying to do.  The fact that he has a beautiful and powerful message of liberation to tell and that he is biased and flawed and hung up on what seem to us to be weird things is only a problem with we insist on hearing an unmediated voice of God in his text.  Take that away, and Paul stops being a "problem" and becomes a companion and a friend.

[Plus, in the Christian context, we have a commitment to the idea that God's ultimate revelation is not a text, but a person.  If any thing, the doctrine of the incarnation is powerful support for the proposition that God is not afraid to use human instruments to communicate divine messages.  One of the things that I've recently become aware of is how the incarnation and the significance of the incarnation is essentially ignored in large sections of the Christian world.  Jesus becoming a person becomes this weird bit of Kabuki theatre, offered almost as an interlude between book-ends of vocalist communication from God.]

There is no doubt in my mind that God communicated, in a very profound way, with Paul and with all of the Scriptural authors.  But the words we see are the words of the authors, trying to express the inexpressible.  And because they are trying to express the inexpressible, they are fumbling around and relying on what they know and what they have to do the best that they can to make this make sense to others who might read it.  It would be far easier, in basically every conceivable way, if we could get direct messages from God.  But Bell makes the case that this is not how God has chosen to do his work, and I think he is right in that regard.  And having people to relate to along the way is not without its own benefits.


Carl said…
Great review!

When it comes right down to it, I do not think that any Christians actually think that God wrote the Bible. To paraphrase Pete Holmes, I do not believe people when they say that they believe that.

It just doesn't make sense.

Nevertheless, I would call the Christian equivalent of the "vocalist" position the "wrist hold" position. You know, God reaches down and holds the scribe's wrist as he/she writes?

The big, overarching framework that I take away from What is the Bible? is this: humanity is moving forward in some form. It is a forward movement of consciousness or ethics or something. George Bernard Shaw referred to it as the Life Force. Bell would call it God.

Humanity's interaction with the divine is a progression. Therefore, we shouldn't be surprised to see things that don't jive with modern ethics in the Old Testament. Bell does an incredible job of pointing out that many of those horrendous things were progressive for their time. The example of treatment of female captives of war is particularly powerful.

The people acting those things out were being progressive for the time. When they wrote stuff down, it was progressive for the time because God met them where they were. They weren't where we are now, but they were moving forward.

That's a pretty flexible, powerful, logical framework through which to view the Bible.

Also, I really like your overview of Paul. If you read my blog for five seconds carlroberts.us, you will find inconsistencies. That's because I am human. Sometimes I say contradictory things in the same post, and I know I am saying contradictory things. Oh well. Maybe I'm too lazy to edit it out? Maybe I don't care? Maybe it's a rhetorical device?

I think we are almost incapable of understanding that people in the past were more or less like us. They weren't idiots or simpletons. Paul was a guy who wrote some things. Ok, cool. Maybe he couldn't quite get away from his rules-based understanding of faith. Ok, cool. I have the same problem.

Tomke said…
Just discovered your blog by way of the 'bilgrimage' blog. This particular post was helpful and interesting. Thanked you, Tomke

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