Scripture has the ability to preserve, pass on, and renew culture, tradition, and group identity like nothing else. In this entry I want to focus on this communal conversation as a major positive application of scripture in common usage. Of course there can be negative aspects to this as well, but we’ve spent much of our time looking at the negative ways scripture is commonly used so we will leave those implications aside for now until we tie all of these scriptural facets together in the final third of this series. For now I want to discuss how scripture as a positive good can craft an identity, establish a community, serve as an on-going discourse to address the needs and concerns of a people, keep that people in touch over long distances of time and geography, and serve as the nexus between the role of “scripture as peacemaker” that was discussed last time and the role of “scripture as meditative redeemer,” which will be discussed in the next entry. [By the way, if you would like to read where the conversation has gone so far, please click the links in the first paragraph of the previous article, linked in the previous sentence]

 

*Scripture as the clothing of Community

We start with perhaps the prime example of scripture as communal conversation–the Jewish people. With the example of Judaism, text as temple and scripture as ongoing conversation across space and time reaches a pinnacle of example. The primary scripture in Judaism is Torah, and although this primarily refers to the first five books of what Christians commonly call “The Old Testament,” the word “Torah” (or “teaching”) has evolved for Jews to include the rest of the Jewish Bible as well as the post-biblical Rabbinical writings:Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, sometimes even “non-religious” literary and artistic Jewish works of poetry, art, and culture. Biblical Torah itself is inter-conversational–a self-referential dialogue between people and biblical authors across place and time. Judaism has never shied away from continually conversing with, refining, and even arguing with the text itself. Often these conversations with the text become scriptural texts themselves, to which the copious amount of varying viewpoints and differentiation which encircle many a Torah selection on a page of Talmud surely attests. Rabbinical students  throughout history have devoted vast amounts of time and energy to becoming thoroughly versed in the intricacies of the long line of scriptural conversation into which they are stepping into so that they can continue that conversation. They then bring that conversation back to their communities and engage the community itself in entering the conversation as well. The resulting discussion and repercussions from that ongoing conversation may vary–they may reinforce what to outsiders seems like quaint conservation of ancient thought and ritual or invigorate modern communities into rapidly evolving reclaimed revisions which serve progressive and new ends. With the Jewish example, there are clear moments of history in which this scripture as an on-going conversation has ensured the group’s very survival as dispersion across the globe, separation from a shared temple, and waves of recurrent oppression and bloodshed has often forced text to serve as temple–linking a people together and providing them with hope and a shared identity in the face of complete hardship.

Yet Judaism is far from the only example of a group engaging scripture to converse across space and time and to preserve, renew, and refine tradition and culture. The Qur’an is the focus of Muslims everywhere across the globe and in its Arabic recitation it distinctively draws together many disparate cultures and contexts. Whether read in Arabic or translation, memorized and recited personally, or listened to audibly in a host of different inflections, it is a scripture bonding together a people across space and time. It is also a scripture that is dissected and deliberated on by varying schools of interpreters, interpretations of which inspire social mores, laws, and major life decisions. Christianity–whether in Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox orientation–also is a religion in which scripture has played a major role, whether as impetus for the formation of a new denomination (admittedly often as a result of a split over difference of interpretation with the others in a previous group) or renewal of an existing one. Every creed, council, and major decision in Christian history lays claim to at least some scriptural claim and has often been the starting and ending point of any major discussion, position, or decision made by a church. Outside of strict monotheism, scripture is still formative for many people; Tibetan Buddhists enter intense formal debates over monastic texts which serve the role of scripture, Hindus celebrate the televised dramas which reenact the key moments of their holy stories which are told sprawling over a history of scriptural texts, and communities in Asia versed in multiple Eastern religions spin prayer wheels upon which the holy words of their various texts are written.

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So you may grant that scripture is an ongoing conversation into which each generation of adherents enters if they continue that conversation onward from their parents. Yet you may still ask how this is a positive good. Yes, that conversation can sometimes serve only to preserve that which may very well be a stifling and restrictive “bad.” Or it can serve to cause a community to set themselves apart in oppressive and prejudiced ways from those outside of their own community in violent ways. These are issues worth pondering another time. Yet in keeping with the position here, that scripture as an ongoing conversation is indeed (or can be) a positive good, I will say it does so as the nexus between serving as a peacemaker and serving as a personal meditative redeemer. I claim that the highest good scripture can do is to inspire active, engaged peacemaking. Scripture as a meditative redeemer can inspire a person to yearn and seek for more, assuage personal troubles and then draw them into a community of conversation. Hopefully, in the right community, that conversation with scripture can accomplish much more than solitary consideration can–thus challenging easy or dangerous misconception or misappropriations, becoming alive in a group in a way that serves as impetus for peacemaking. Peacemaking can be done solo, yet is best and most efficiently done communally–and though communities and groups are certainly capable of heinous conclusions, ideologies, and actions, the hope is that with the right community in line with a long history of recurrent conversation, a safeguard against the worst excesses of scriptural misuse is possible. That of course, is cause for warranted debate, however. The point here though, is that at its best, scripture is an ongoing conversation among a people which provides them with solitary comfort as well as group impetus for positive, peaceful action.

There are many loaded themes which are beginning to emerge as we end this portion; hopefully we will find ways to address some of them as we begin to head into the last portion of this series.

 

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In light of the entries I’ve made so far in this series on scripture in common usage, some readers may be wondering if I see any positive applications of scripture. We’ve looked at scripture being misused by being set up in opposition to science, misinterpreted by being divorced from history, and being misconstrued by flat readings which ignore a text’s intended community, cultural context, and its neighboring texts. Hopefully it has been apparent that there are positive ways of “doing” scripture, even if that has been best seen so far as the  direct contrast to the common misuses described. But in this next leg of the series I plan to showcase concretely a few ways in which scripture can be used positively. Along the way I will continue to push at what the concept of scripture itself might be, what it is that makes particular things function as scripture and what repercussions that may have–not just on those who adhere to a particular scripture, but to everyone. The prologue I did for this series briefly described a conversation on climate change; on issues such as that one, the effects of scriptural interpretation affect not just “believers” but everyone living on the planet. If policy is affected by those who misuse scripture to argue for disengagement (or opposition to proper address of contributing factors) with policy issues affecting climate change, everyone will feel the effects. That is far from the only issue in which this is so; but I aim to argue that the positive applications of “scripturing” can also affect the rest of the world. I begin with a big one, for me the big one–scripture as “peacemaker.”

* What is “Peacemaking?”            

Christian Ethicist Glen Stassen argues that peacemaking is the true call for Christians to engage with the world around them. “Peacemaking,” according to Stassen, is that which the biblical witness (for Christians) truly gives account of, and that it is peacemaking that should best dictate active political  Christian engagement rather than any theory of “Just War” or “Pacifism.” So what is “Peacemaking”? It is active (never passive) engagement with the world to  correct that which is wrong, repair that which is broken, heal that which is sick, and in every possibility make a friend of those who are enemies. It is not the disengaged, inactive stance of pure pacifism nor the following of all orders in carrying out all “necessary evils” of Just War. It is truly a Christ-following path in which one works to actually do what is needed after careful discernment and conversation to determine what that action actually is. Furthermore, Stassen claims, “peacemaking must be understood holistically. It must include economic justice, human rights, [and] defense of the ecostructure.” (Stassen. Just Peacemaking. 1992 ed. p. 28)   Stassen doesn’t leave it at flowery language and move on. He gives constant concrete examples. The first edition of his first major work on Peacemaking focused intently on the nonviolent movement to bring down the Berlin wall, particularly the intense, organized efforts of Baptist and other Protestant groups in East Germany who sought to bring down the wall through nonviolent means, modelling their work after Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and especially for these churches which placed a significant level of importance on scriptural authority, Jesus. Stassen’s work throughout the years has addressed time and again different methods to end war. Stassen’s work cuts clear paths directly from scripture exegetically applied to policy and political actions to redress injustice, all with careful attention on how this is best done in a multicultural and pluralistic society. Nuclear disarmament, the Iraq War, and all manners of economic justice and human rights are specifically focused on in his work. All is done with a constant compass set to careful, for him prayerful, consistent yet creative, context-specific and culturally applicable uses of scripture.

So that is what “Peacemaking” is. I am not using the term just to reference a church consulting scripture to settle an in-house dispute (though that could be included under the topic of the next post in this series, “Scripture as Communal Conversation”). I am talking about scripture used as a referenced impetus for proactive engagement with culture and society to bring about justice–justice not just for the community who holds a particular text sacred but justice for all and in full.  This is a key use of scripture that has often been ignored by those who wish to castigate all that is in any way related to scripture. I can understand that desire, especially by those who know only the “texts of terror” (as Feminist theologian Phyllis Trible describes them). Scripture has done it’s share of harm and served as a tool of oppression quite often. A healthy discussion on that issue is certainly warranted. Yet it has also done it’s share of good,  and overlooking the role it played in the Civil Rights movement in America is a key result of disparaging scriptural use in its history entirely. Were it not for the serious ways in which Martin Luther King Jr. engaged with scripture and used it in his prayers, sermons, and speeches, a good portion of his audience would not have heard the call to work for justice quite so compellingly and many others may not have followed his methods of active (peacemaking) non-violence either.

Scripture as Peacemaker is a function of scripture certainly not limited to Christian (and Christian appropriation of Jewish texts) either. Jewish movements, including ones grounded in conversations springing out of Torah, Midrash, Talmud, and not to mention Jewish song, prayer and art (all of which are Jewish “scriptures”) aiming at peacemaking are countless. Islam, so often notoriously scapegoated as only a violence-inspiring religion, has a history replete with examples of Qur’anic exegesis inspiring co-existence, acceptance, room for difference, and an umbrella for justice which includes those of other faiths.  Islamic theologians and Qur’anic commentators have often found even in the most troubling texts inspiration for equality, justice, and an extended covenant for others. Speaking of troubling texts, one which in its surface is fully focused on war and the duty one has to play out one’s role in it when found embroiled therein–the classic Hindu work the Bhagavad Gita–was a source of constant inspiration for Gandhi in his nonviolent quest; he even wrote his own commentary on the work and found joy in interpreting it as guidance for the inner spiritual war one has with oneself (very much like the broader, fuller extension of Jihad in Islamic theology and the Qur’an).

Scripture used as peacemaker is a positive application of scripture from which the whole world can benefit. It is also a much broader, more nuanced, more complex topic than this brief foray into it has probably shown. Hopefully we will return to this in additional ways as we progress through the last half of this series.

 

It’s been awhile since I’ve picked up this thread, so if anyone wants to read where it has gone so far feel free to click the following links. I began with a prologue piece recounting a conversation I had with an acquaintance on science and climate change that unexpectedly detoured into scripture. I’ll be coming back to science more heavily in this present piece, but the particular misreading I mention in that prologue shows the danger of misreading scripture even to those who want nothing to do with scripture. So far I’ve discussed two other major methods of misreading scripture common in the US today: (I.) Scripture divorced from history and more broadly, (II.) Scripture read flatly–texts divorced from their neighboring texts, scriptures divorced from their primary audience, and scriptural concepts isolated from their cultural contexts. Now I want to revisit science, but much more detailed than previously. This is a big one, because for many conservative religious communities science is the enemy of religion, and even for the mainline and liberal religious communities who claim to have made peace with all aspects of science (from Darwinism to Quantum Physics), there is rarely a creative embrace and incorporation of that science into a holistic religious worldview informing even the way Scripture itself is approached. But before we go there, I need to take the first excursion into a broader theme that this entire exercise is ultimately aiming at–asking and proffering possible answers as to “what is scripture?”

Exc.1: What, ontologically, even is “scripture?”

I believe that most misreadings, misunderstandings, misconceptions, ignorance, and the majority of problems caused by scripture by all followers, believers, doubters, or deniers of any religious text-based tradition are caused by confusion over what scripture itself even is. Earlier this year I participated in a study with a group of graduate students into an investigation of the question “what is scripture” in a manner aimed at answering this question as purely as possible. Our quest was not to understand what a particular text assumed by a group to be scripture was nor to extrapolate on why a particular text (i.e. the Qur’an) was scripture, but to investigate the concept of scripture itself behind the texts–what is scripture and how is it that these examples (Bible, Qur’an, Bhagavad Gita) function as it? This is a broader question than what I aim to tackle in this particular entry, but it bears posing now as introduction as we move into discussing the mistake of situating Scripture in opposition to Science. Because if “Scripture” is something that one does rather than something that is (verb rather than noun)–as can certainly be argued, and argued well–then “doing science” can be scripture. Science has a language of its own, it has texts which form its groundwork, it has a history behind it, it is constantly up for reform and revision in the light of further “revelation,” and it certainly aims at “communing” with something more than the lab or classroom in which it may find itself. If this sounds like stretching to you, consider the standard Protestant Bible with an open mind. It is a collection of 66 books which were written in vastly different times, contexts, and styles, consisting of letters, poetry, legal codes, parables, fables, proverbs, gospels, apologetics, and apocalyptic writings to name a few of its genres. It forms the groundwork from which many a church began and it is (in most communities) open to fresh interpretation in light of new knowledge, context and experience. It “becomes” scripture in conversation, consultation, enactment and practice. “Science” and “the Bible” function in many similar ways but usually in very different decision-making processes. So allow us to at least consider that “science” is not wholly different from “scripture” as we move toward considering if science itself can be holistically incorporated into a scriptural worldview.

Back to the matter at hand…

The great twentieth century philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce who best bridged the age of modern and postmodern philosophy in his work and (at least in his posthumous legacy) developed semiotics into a major field of philosophy for those who would follow, was a Christian enamored with science–and all other fields of knowledge. He took the maxim of “and you will know them by their fruits” to be relevant to knowledge. That truth was of God, and that it was the duty of all true followers of Christ to seek truth wherever it may be found.  If science represents the best of our knowledge about the world (and the universe) around us and if it seeks truth through rational means, how can it be in opposition to any genuine truth one might glean from “scripture?” To disregard truth when found in favor of dogmatic fixed and “acceptable” principles already held would be heresy of the highest order.  Sadly far too many today in varying religious communities overlook this truth.

So in what ways is scripture popularly misread to oppose science? There are many examples I could present, but the most notable one has to be evolution. The Catholic church condemned Galileo when he helped trumpet the work of Copernicus and firmly established heliocentrism as truth in opposition to the earth-centered geocentric view preferred by mainstream Christianity. Much later the Church apologized and cleared his “heretic” label and the Catholic church itself has since also made peace with Darwinism, at least officially. Most mainline churches have ceased any opposition to science in this realm for decades, though not everyone in the pew may be on board and thus the problem for many of these institutions is sheer silence on such matters.

The major scriptural error one makes regarding evolution is when a person reads one of the two creation stories from the book of Genesis (or conflates the two into one as is probably most common)  and treats them as a science lesson on how humanity came to be, thus missing the entire point of the story. Natural selection and biological evolution is rejected out of hand because it contradicts a flat, conflated, misreading of an ancient holy myth concerning the prehistory of humankind. This is common for many other religious traditions as well, but notably not for most oral religious communities–I can’t imagine too many Native Americans who would launch into an apologetics lesson when pressed on just how it could scientifically be that any of their various creation stories are “true.” We could spend days discussing the various ways the entire book of Genesis has been misread and misused on the wrong side of dozens of issues simply because far too many people have no idea how to read such a book, but creation is certainly a big one. The two creation stories in the opening chapters of Genesis are ripe with material that can lead to discussions and debates over family, ecology, the environment, humanity’s changing perception of self, responsibility, psychology, art, language, nature, truth, fable, fact, fiction, epic, etc and on for days. Yet when a group misreads “holy myth” as “science class,” they miss the boat on all of this and open themselves up to complete loss of relevance with their surrounding society. Yet the problem is not one just facing those groups that still hold to “literal” interpretations of “everything” in the Bible, it is also one facing most other groups who still interact with the Bible yet also claim to have made peace with science. The average clergy person from a mainline Christian congregation likely knows a great deal about the Hebrew origins of the words used in the creation stories and the multitude of interpretations these stories are capable of proffering. They may introduce “Adam” as universal man and “Eve” as universal woman in a bible study class and briefly discuss the link between words meaning earth, human, man, Adam, mud, etc. They may do all of this and a great deal more, and they are likely familiar enough with science, evolution, and natural selection to personally have no conflict with science and “faith.” They can teach science as the “how things came to be” and faith as the “why” counterpart of the equation. That is good, and that’s a start. But it’s really not enough.

In my lifetime I have heard my share of sermons. I’ve heard practically every type of Christian denominational sermon as well as sermons (or their equivalent) in Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh congregations; and although I’ve heard many religious leaders of these varying traditions deal seriously with science in classroom and academic settings, I’ve heard all of one sermon incorporating such concepts into a Sunday morning sermon (which happened to be a UU sermon). The one I did hear was done very well, though admittedly in a way that would not suffice in every type of congregation. But that’s the problem–that is one of the symptoms of misreading scripture and the damage thus caused. Knowledge becomes fractured and ways of knowing isolated. Truth is truth–and truth, even of the scriptural sort, should be holistic. It is not enough to posit one source of knowledge as the how and another as the why–perhaps there needs to be a level of tension, but there needs to be an on-going conversation nonetheless. If science is the best way we know about the how of the world in which we live, the universe beyond, and the origins of both, then it needs to be incorporated into a genuine scriptural approach even if only in the background as a prompt to ask fresh questions. The inspiration and knowledge to be gained from opening up to truth wherever it may be found can only add and never truly negate. Evolution by natural selection reveals the inter-connectedness of all life–not just human life, though the idea that we are one large human family with deep and shared ancestral roots is certainly a big deal with more than a little potential religious impetus–but all of life, which has large ramifications on duty, responsibility, ecology, and the role of “caretaker” in which the creation stories began in the first place. What science has revealed in DNA, biology, paleontology, etc. about the intertwining of life, and in Physics and Astronomy about the expansion and sheer beauty of the universe itself proves that Creation is an on-going process. If such truths expand your idea of what “God” truly may be, if your theism grows, shakes, or transforms from a narrow concept of deity to something much larger, then there may be room to grow in all other aspects of spirituality and religiosity. Yet this doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of scripture itself. This just means you begin to treat scripture more like scripture than like some other narrower boxed-in field. We’ll explore more of what that might mean as we progress through this series.