The second charge, that the Bible is irrelevant, is part of an intellectual tradition going back to the Enlightenment which sees the book as superstitious mythology used by pre-scientific people to make sense of what they couldn’t explain. Put simply, we have outgrown the Bible in the same
And yet the Bible continues to be read by millions of people from every country, refreshing their spirits and giving them a compass by which to plot their lives. It is read by people who love glossy magazines and daytime T.V. and it is read by people who have forgotten more about science than you or I have ever learned.
I want to say a few words today about the place of the Old Testament in the life of the Church. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul said: ‘for whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’. As the New Testament was neither completed nor its pieces in wide circulation at the time, this means that Paul was talking about the place of what we call the Old Testament in the life of
the Church. And yet the Church has historically had a fractious relationship with this four-fifths part of the Bible.
It started as early as a hundred years after Jesus with an influential Christian leader called Marcion who claimed that the God of the Old Testament could not possibly be the same God found in the New Testament. For Marcion, the God of the Old Testament was an unhinged and vindictive character given to wiping people out on a whim, like some crack-addled drive-by gangster in downtown L.A. By contrast, the God of the New Testament was so superior in moral standing as to be another deity altogether. He was warm, cuddly and kind to animals and children. As you may sense, this is a bit of a caricature of Marcion’s thinking, but something of this perception has remained with the Church and should be challenged. The Old Testament remain the Jewish scriptures, so when Christians attack the Old Testament it represents an attack on Judaism, just as an attack on the New Testament would be an attack on Christianity. In fact, an attack on the Old Testament by Christians represents a wilful act of self-harm, because it is our spiritual story too.
Even the adjectives we use – old and new – speak volumes. It can look to Jewish people, if you will pardon me using a dated political analogy, a little like New Labour’s dissociation from Old Labour – something you left behind a long time ago and which you’re embarrassed to be reminded of. And yet the Old Testament was the book Jesus grew up with and through which he understood the character of God and his own destiny. We can’t do justice to the New Testament without embracing the Old Testament. Failure to do so is a little like leaving the 3-D glasses on your lap in one of those museum presentations about sea life. You simply miss the awesome depth that others are gasping at.
One of the most striking themes is the way its great figures of faith are depicted as flawed people whom God is still able to use – early signs of the concept of grace which the New Testament makes such a big thing of. There are no fawning biographies on display, only a realism about human limitations. Noah was a drunk, Abraham a liar, Jacob a cheat, Joseph a big head, Moses a murderer, Rahab a prostitute and Gideon a coward – yet every one of them is held up as a person of faith to be admired in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. Even Samson, a psychopath and probably the world’s first recorded suicide bomber, gets a mention. Had King David been alive today, he would have been hounded from office for his affair with Bathsheba by a gleeful and hypocritical press which would have rejected any confession of guilt as self-serving humbug. God, by contrast, called him a man after his own heart. This is the perversity with which people judge the Old Testament. They think of the modern world as forgiving and the Old Testament as vindictive, when it is largely the other way round. We have a rogues’ gallery of faith and this should inspire us because it gives hope to ordinary people with habitual failings that God can still use them in his service. He doesn’t really have much alternative, when you think about it. I do not wish to ignore the leathery chunks of Old Testament which we turn over in our mouths, lacking the will to swallow yet having the good manners not to spit out, but neither have we the time to digest them here. I will say this much. Every generation of faith tries to understand how God is at work in their world. Ancient Israel was no exception. It is presumptuous of us to think we have arrived at a definitive understanding of God because this is to master him and make him less than he is. We can learn a lot from ancient writers if we have the humility to listen, even if some of us may struggle with their interpretation at times. They took seriously the sheer dominant power of God and interpreted events through this prism. All too often, our way of coming to terms with nasty outcomes in life is to presuppose a less powerful God as a way of enthroning his love. As St. Paul said, God has a Spirit of power and of love, and we have to hold this truth in creative tension, however hard it may be, if we are to be faithful to what has been passed down to us.
A random survey has been carried out on churchgoers to measure how often people read the Bible privately. Only 1 in 4 read the Bible more than once a week, while 1 in 3 hadn’t read the Bible at all in the previous year. It is little wonder that so many of the churches of this country are weak and anaemic when so many its members voluntarily deprive themselves of spiritual food.
And when we get round to approaching the Bible it is often with the mentality of an iPod user. An iPod user downloads the songs they like from a range of artists to create a menu of favourites and looks with pity on previous generations which had to buy a whole album just to get hold of the two tracks they liked by an artist. As a way in to understanding the Bible, the iPod approach has its merits. Getting to know the bits we like is a good start, but we have to learn to love the whole album, including those demanding tracks towards the back, if we are to call ourselves true fans.