Monday, June 25, 2007

Reasons People Read the Bible

I broke my baby toe this morning. And this is entirely the reason why I'm writing a post at this moment. Because I was not able to drive to my class this morning I have some time to write a little. I'm sure I will recover, thank you.

Last week at an enrichment class titled How to Read the Bible my mind wandered back to this blog. At the top of the first page the facilitator passed out was:
"1) CURIOSITY APPROACH--Interested in finding out what is in the Bible, what it actually says.
Limitation: May or may not be an encounter with the Word of God."

This made me smile because I immediatly thought of Cervantes and his ongoing project, especially in light of the caveat. Honestly? I can't see you making it past Numbers with this methodology. Really, if it hasn't already happened, you will be flinging the book across the room. But maybe that's just me.

I found it interesting that my facilitator didn't even mention the literal approach. I am, as I've said before, RC, and as a people we do not read the Bible literally, or subscribe to its "inerrancy." And while I may mock such individuals who do here, in real life I suppose I treat them much more gently. When I encounter Catholics with these kinds of false, pre VII beliefs, I try to carefully educate them. Sensus plenior is a very Catholic concept. It is the fuller sense or deeper meaning of biblical texts. Catholics are open to all that science, history and literary studies can teach us about the Bible.

Anyway, I thought it might be of interest to share some of these approaches with Dialogue readers.

"2) SEARCHING FOR GOD APPROACH--Read the Bible to see what can be learned about God and how God relates with human beings.
Caution: Sometimes may create more problems than it solves depending upon the reader's mental and spiritual states, openness, personal spiritual needs, etc.
3) HISTORICAL, CRITICAL APPROACH--Interested in researching the Bible as to its composition, asking questions about authors, author's intention, community context, literary forms, etc.
Limitation: Such analysis is usually intellectual and it may or may not lead to an encounter with the Word of God.
4) APOLOGETIC APPROACH--Looking for texts to argue, substantiate or prove a point. The Bible is used as 'prooftexts.' Note: a biblical passage is biblical ONLY in the Bible. Take it out of its context and it becomes something else.
Caution: Can become defensive. Looking for one liners to prove that one is right. Not a healthy way of approaching the Bible.
5) INSPIRATIONAL APPROACH--Reading the Bible for support, comfort, consolation, reassurance, solace, etc.
Caution: Have to be careful so that it does not create a lack of challenge to my life or that it feeds my passivity. May or may not be an encounter with the Word of God.
6) DIALOGICAL APPROACH--Merging my story with biblical stories and letting the Scriptures inform and interpret my life. You find significant analogies between your life today and the biblical text.
A healthy way to encounter the Word of God.
7) LITURGICAL APPROACH--Selecting verses from Scripture to be used in worship as a proclamation of the Word of God.
Should be an encounter with the Word of God.
8) PASTORAL APPROACH--An attempt to explore the Word of God in order to obtain information, direction, insights, etc., about a particular need that needs to be addressed in an extended or local community.
Presumes that one has a healthy attitude about God's Word, the faith community and the workings of the Holy Spirit."

Rather than just ending there I'll try to wrap this up a little by saying the Bible is not for kids. This is an adult book. It takes a mature, adult understanding to find faith in it. Those of you who grew up in the "Church of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" know that approaching the Bible in a literal fashion is childish and hard to swallow once you reach an age of reason. Doing so seems to either kill a persons faith, or stunt it. Fundamentalist Christians seem to me to be people frozen at the earliest stages of moral reasoning and spirituality.

And that's about it for today.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Genesis 8:13-22

13 By the first day of the first month of Noah's six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry. 14 By the twenty-seventh day of the second month the earth was completely dry.

15 Then God said to Noah, 16 "Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. 17 Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number upon it."

18 So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons' wives. 19 All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on the earth—came out of the ark, one kind after another.

20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it. 21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: "Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

22 "As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease."

I'm not going to worry about the ecological problems here -- note, for example, that with only two of each kind of herbivore, the carnivores are going to exterminate them if they are to survive, and of course the earth is not going to be revegetated to enable the herbivores to survive anyway. Whatever. Remember that this is a fable and is already completely preposterous.

Rather, I'm just going to note that in classic fable format, this one has a little tag that tells us what it means. As we discussed earlier, in contemplating the possible sources of the archetypal flood myth, this clearly arose from some great catastrophe, perhaps the breaching of a natural seawall and the filling of the Black Sea, perhaps a vast storm, which utterly destroyed a people's way of life. The point of this story, after all, is to reassure. God is capable of wrath, but he has promised restraint. The people would have needed this story to have the confidence to move on, and rebuild.

Unfortunately, for those of us fated to live at this particular moment in history, the promise is mythical. The earth is in some peril -- not of the destruction of all living creatures, certainly, but of great changes that will bring hard times upon us. And it's not God's wrath that threatens us, but our own folly. The promise given in Genesis isn't going to help us. We're on our own now. It's up to us.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Genesis 8:1-12

1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. 2 Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. 3 The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, 4 and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 The waters continued to recede until the tenth month, and on the first day of the tenth month the tops of the mountains became visible.

6 After forty days Noah opened the window he had made in the ark 7 and sent out a raven, and it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. 9 But the dove could find no place to set its feet because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark. 10 He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark. 11 When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth. 12 He waited seven more days and sent the dove out again, but this time it did not return to him.

It's interesting how this story suddenly becomes far more detailed than the fairly sketchy narratives we've seen so far. I'm not sure what the meaning of all this detail is supposed to be. I do want you to note, however, that the representatives of the 1.4 million species of terrestrial animals -- including all the carnivores -- subsisted off of the stored provisions in the ark for, by my calculations, a total of more than 300 days. Then the earth must have been instantaneously recovered with vegetation, and off they all went.

I really think the details are just to make this a better yarn. Overall, the literary quality and narrative cohesion are gradually improving -- the stories and the characters are getting to be better developed. If this were just a campfire story, we wouldn't be inclined to look for the symbolism or deep meaning, so I won't do that here and I'll just take it as it is. I can't resist pointing out, however, that the problem of lack of available sexual partners and enforced incest that confronted the children of Adam and Even is about to be recreated for the children of Noah. God certainly does work in mysterious ways.

Sorry I haven't posted here lately, been awfully busy.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Genesis 7

1 The LORD then said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation. 2 Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, 3 and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth. 4 Seven days from now I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature I have made."

5 And Noah did all that the LORD commanded him.

6 Noah was six hundred years old when the floodwaters came on the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives entered the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Pairs of clean and unclean animals, of birds and of all creatures that move along the ground, 9 male and female, came to Noah and entered the ark, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after the seven days the floodwaters came on the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.

13 On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark. 14 They had with them every wild animal according to its kind, all livestock according to their kinds, every creature that moves along the ground according to its kind and every bird according to its kind, everything with wings. 15 Pairs of all creatures that have the breath of life in them came to Noah and entered the ark. 16 The animals going in were male and female of every living thing, as God had commanded Noah. Then the LORD shut him in.

17 For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth. 18 The waters rose and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water. 19 They rose greatly on the earth, and all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered. 20 The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. 21 Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. 23 Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.

24 The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it's a miracle. It doesn't matter how physically preposterous it is, God can do anything. Sure, it appears that this could only have been written at a time when people had no idea of the true nature of the earth, but hey, it's God, reality is irrelevant. There's no sense my going into the water cycle -- rain cannot cause the seas to rise because the source of rainwater is evaporation from the oceans -- or the height of the mountains, or any of that. The believers will believe, and that's all there is to it.

It's much more interesting to consider the near ubiquity of flood myths in cultures from around the world. Some of these clearly could have arisen by diffusion from the same ancient culture that gave us the myth of Noah. For example, the Greeks had a parallel myth about a fellow named Deucalion who built an ark and took his (multiple) wives and animals on it to ride out a great flood. The Romans also had a version of this myth. The Masai of East Africa have a strikingly similar myth as well, although it could easily be derived from contact with Christians in historical times, but there are similar myths from remote areas of Asia that seem less likely to have derived from modern contacts. Other flood myths aren't so similar -- they lack the ark, and have additional elements such as dragons and so forth. The lucky people who are forewarned may survive by fleeing to a mountaintop, or a few people survive because they happen to live on high ground already. In other versions, there are several people or families who are saved on boats or various floating objects. The boats may be anchored, or in one case the ark was destroyed by the devil before the flood came, so God was forced to provide an iron ship for the man he chose to save. In the Hindu version, Manu was saved from the flood by a fish. In a Chinese version, two children survive by floating in a giant gourd.

In my quick review, myths from the Americas are highly dissimilar to the Noah story, whereas tales from various places in Europe, Asia and Africa are notably similar. I'm no expert but this suggests to me that the Noah-style stories come from a common source, rather than some psycho-dynamical archetype as some have proposed. Such a dramatic story could certainly have diffused widely, and if you look at the distribution of myths with floods and arks, it isn't far fetched to imagine an origin in central or western Asia.

One popular candidate is the hypothesized creation of the Black Sea by the Mediterranean overflowing what was then a mountain pass and is now the Bosporus in about 5,600 BC, resulting in the innundation of more than 100,000 square kilometers within a few weeks. This theory is controversial, but if it happened, it must have made one hell of an impression on people in the area - who would, of course, have been dispersed widely thereafter and taken the memory with them. Some would have fled on foot, and some indeed might have saved themselves by jumping into boats. (Christians criticize this hypothesis on the grounds that the Black Sea flood would not have been very similar to Noah's flood, but that obviously doesn't carry any weight with me.) Later studies have cast doubt on the hypothesized 5,600 BC event, but support an earlier and rather different flood in which the Caspian overflowed into the Black Sea.

All very intriguing. Perhaps we'll have a definitive answer one day. Meanwhile I'll just say that all preliterate peoples were unaware of the extent of the wide world, and generally would have thought that the lands they inhabited constituted a good portion of it. Therefore any major flood would have seemed to them like the drowning of the whole world, and of course would have been a very memorable event, to say the least. Suppose that the people of New Orleans in 2005 were unaware of any lands beyond Plaquemines and the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. How might they have interpreted the hurricane?