By: Alton C. Thompson
We find ourselves in a curious situation regarding the Bible as we approach the end of the second millennium. On the one hand, we have access to more information about the Bible than at any previous period in history. On the other hand, [however,] there has never been a time when the Bible has had less influence in mainline Protestant churches, which has led one writer  to speak of “the strange silence of the Bible in the Church.”
In 1526 William Tynsdale made the New Testament available to anyone who could read English, an act considered so radical in its implications that Tynsdale would pay for it ten years later at the stake. Today the Bible is readily available to anyone who wants a copy, and most people do have one. But many seem not to know what to do with it:
The author of these words—Schuyler Brown—was, at the time of the book’s publication (1998), Professor Emeritus at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, and a Lecturer at the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland. The tradition from which he came—Anglicanism—is, he noted, (p. 23) “an anomaly in the spectrum of Christian denominationalism: a nonconfessional church. Not only does it have no magisterium or teaching authority; it possesses no confessional declaration comparable to the Augsburg Confession for Lutherans or the Westminster Confession for Presbyterians.”
I recently re-read this book by Brown (because “something said that I should”), thereby re-acquainting myself with the theme of the book, that (p. 137) “the way the Bible is studied in the modern world[,] it is incapable of delivering what people expect from reading the Bible, namely, ‘that the past becomes alive and illumines our present with new possibilities for personal and social transformation’” (this latter being a quotation from Walter Wink’s The Bible in Human Transformation, 1973). He added (p. 137) that “as long as historical criticism remains ‘the only game in town,’ the hope that the Bible can function as an illuminative, transformative, and revelatory text will continue to fade.”
Note—relative to the ensuing discussion—that the views expressed here regarding the Bible seem to reflect the author’s Anglican heritage—its non-confessional nature in particular. I don’t mean this as a criticism of Brown, of course; I point it out only because, I believe, it helps one understand Brown’s perspective on the Bible.
As to what readers expect out of the Bible (among other points that he makes relative to the Bible), earlier Brown had stated:
- Readers of the Bible seek to hear “the word of the Lord” addressing them out of the sacred text, as they wrestle with the challenges of daily life. (p. 36)
- It is scripture’s ability to nourish the soul with present meaning which confirms its standing as a canonical text. (p. 36)
- Bible reading leads not only to communicable insights[,] but also to a bliss which cannot be expressed in words. (p. 37)
- It is the emotional energy released through Bible reading which serves to promote change, whether in the reader’s spiritual life, in the reader’s socioeconomic environment, or in the way in which the text itself is viewed. (p. 38)
- When the purpose of reading scripture is personal transformation, it is not necessarily the most knowledgeable or ingenious interpretation which is prized. (p. 42)
- The Bible can only become scripture when it takes on personal significance for the reader. (p. 47)
- [Referring to a passage in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Brown notes that different people have different attitudes, and these differences] affect one’s experience in reading the Bible, particularly insofar as they predispose us to be attracted by certain passages and repelled by others. (p. 49)
- An approach to the Bible through the thinking function may be counterproductive from a religious point of view. (p. 51)
- The Bible confronts the reader with the same immediacy as Jesus’[s] preaching, and with the same exhortation: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Mark 43:9) (p. 59)
- It is only the individual who can interpret the text. The quest for meaning is not a collective enterprise. (p. 60)
- A foundational text like the Bible elicits countless new meanings, as it is read in ever-changing circumstances which its human authors could never have imagined. (p. 65)
- The Christian faith holds out a promise of new life and personal transformation, and scripture has frequently served as the vehicle for such transformation . . . . (p. 85)
In summary (so far as the above points are concerned), Brown believed (in 1998 at least that:
- People (non-professionals, that is) read the Bible in search of answers to the challenges of their daily lives.
- Bible reading can result in the achievement of a feeling of bliss.
- It is to be expected that a given person will be attracted to certain Bible passages, but not to others.
- Different readers will see different meanings in the Bible, and a given reader will see different meanings at different times.
- Reading the Bible can illuminate the present—and thereby give one ideas (“revelations”) for personal (“new life”) and societal transformation.
- The Bible has value for a person only insofar as it takes on personal significance for that person.
- Given that only the individual can interpret the text, there is no value in meeting with others for a joint interpretative effort.
I am in substantial agreement with these points, but am led to make some additional points. First, I agree with the point that what’s of value in the Bible is what the reader regards as of value—not a theologian, pastor, bishop, etc. And I would agree that different people will find different things that “speak” to them in the Bible, and that the same can be said regarding a given person at different points in time (with the additional point that how one reacts to a given passage will depend on the translation that one is reading at the time).
A point that Brown fails to address, however, is whether certain kinds of passages in the Bible tend to be more generally attractive than others, with certain other kinds tending to be generally unattractive to most people. I would answer this question by asserting that, e.g., genealogies tend to be of interest to few, if any, and that the passages having most general attractiveness .are those that present—indirectly, if not directly—guidance for how one should live one’s life. Brown, in referring to “the challenges of daily life,” suggested this point, but never emphasized it. Some such passages (e.g., those commanding one to stone to death certain transgressors) lack, appeal to us moderns, of course. But those passages that make or imply commands of a more “civilized” nature resonate, I would argue, with most readers.
Indeed, I would go so far as to assert that it is only such passages that resonate with the modern reader—which (presumed) fact has an extremely important implication:
The Bible should be excised, in a Thomas Jeffersonian manner, to remove all of the “extraneous” portions; and if it is a useful text that we are looking for, we should create one using the excised Bible along with similar passages from other works—religious and otherwise.
Doing so would, of course, put an end to the need for Christianity—but would not, of course, in itself put an end to Christianity. That would occur only if a new religion/philosophy were created that resembled Christianity in featuring regular meetings. This new religion/philosophy would not need to have a “sacred text” (e.g., of the sort referred to above), but having such a text might be a wise “move” for two reasons;
- It would help give the new religion/philosophy a distinctive identity.
- Because the new religion/philosophy would thereby resemble Christianity, its attractiveness to people dissatisfied with Christianity would increase.
Whether or not this new religion/philosophy (e.g., NeWFism) would adopt a “sacred text,” its “thrust” should, in my opinion, be helping its adherents become good neighbors and good citizens—of their communities, their regions, their states, their country, the world.
Were this new religion/philosophy to adopt the aforementioned sort of “sacred text,” those who read it would likely find that many, if not most, of the passages in it “spoke” to, resonated with, them—there being, though, individual variation with this, of course. And although Brown, in referring to the Bible, stated that “The quest for meaning is not a collective enterprise,” I would assert, rather, that:
- If the new religion/philosophy were to develop and use the aforementioned sort of “sacred text,” I would expect that members would gain both from private reading and from discussions with others during their “church” meetings—discussions which might, or might not, make reference to that text.
- If the new religion/philosophy did not develop and use such a text, it is discussions that would be featured during “church” meetings—having the “thrust” specified above. (Other features would be added at the discretion of the members of a given “congregation.” In saying this, I imply—and do so intentionally!—that this new religion/philosophy should avoid the temptation of creating a hierarchical bureaucracy—that would likely take on a life of its own, thereby undermining the original intent established for the new religion/philosophy.)
Note that the “church” meetings to which I am referring would be very unlike the meetings associated with any of the current denominations of Christianity—including Quakerism. That fact might seem to make this new religion/philosophy unappealing. But if (a) Brown is right about why people read the Bible (“the challenges of daily life”), and if (b) many of those currently associated with Christianity (such as me!) are dissatisfied with the religion, the prospects for this new religion/philosophy “taking off” would seem to be very substantial. (Those addicted to orthodox thinking would, of course, remain in Christianity—but would disappear from the planet as the society collapses as a result of global warming.)
As to how meetings should be conducted, I discuss this matter at length in my “Worship: An Exercise in Revisioning.”
- James D. Smart, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970.
- Schuyler Brown, Text and Psyche: Experiencing Scripture Today. New York: Continuum, 1998.
About the author: Al Thompson works (data management) for an Engineering (Avionics) firm in Milwaukee. Click here to mail him.