Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Big Bible Disconnect

I commented on a post about a new book Born Again on my friend’s blog, (John) Shuck and Jive.  I guess I was in a fightin’ mood so when Princeton Seminary was defined as “liberal” I wrote:   “Princeton isn't liberal. It and other mainline seminaries are confused. On the one hand they teach critical thinking and analytical study of scripture. On the other hand they promote belief in the supernatural. Someday maybe they will figure out that you can't have it both ways.

My seminary was McCormick in Chicago.  Among Presbyterians it used to have the reputation of “liberal” as opposed to Princeton, which was considered “conservative.”  McCormick did encourage a free search for knowledge and truth.  Later I lived near Princeton for eight years and quoted Bultmann to a New Testament professor from Princeton Seminary.  He said “We have to be careful whom we read and quote.”  I was aghast.  (I allow that Lefferts Loetscher and Ed Dowey at Princeton WERE liberal and good guys.)

Another reader of Shuck and Jive asked about my comment.  He said “The Presbyterian denomination (PCUSA) well knows that the Bible is multi-author, multi-agenda, and yet their curriculum says ‘It’s one unified book.’  So I am fairly confused why they don’t proceed with the implications of what they know....maybe you have insight on this disconnect.”

I will try.  When I was in seminary in 1971, I bought and read a book new then by James D. Smart, a Bible professor at Union Seminary in New York.  The title was The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church.  My copy has underlining on nearly every page.  The blurb on the back cover says it all:

“The general growth of knowledge and of man’s understanding of himself and his history has created a gap between the language and concepts of the Bible and those of modern man. [This was a few years before feminism changed our language!] Yet the wealth of knowledge gained by Biblical scholars which would enable one to read the Bible intelligently, has been withheld from the membership of the church....  What is most urgently needed is for preacher and people together to face honestly what is in the Scriptures – and Dr. Smart tells how to do it.”

At the end he argues for pastors to have both faith and good scholarship and to teach the newer scholarship unapologetically to the congregation. A pastor can still be cast out for doing this in 2011 because generations of pastors didn't tell the truth!  Smart wanted us to read the Bible to learn about ourselves and the world, existentially and not literally.  I never found this possible in most congregations.  I don’t think he really challenges the supernatural foundation of the faith.  Demythologizing a la Bultmann is only a first step.

I went to work with Bob Funk and the Jesus Seminar in 2001 because Bob acted out of this same complaint about the church.  When I showed him the Smart book he was moderately surprised that he had not known this book.  Bob often said “Seminary graduates don’t use what we teach them when they go out into the churches.  So everyone remains a child in Sunday School.”  (Bob taught at Drew and left for Vanderbilt out of this frustration.)  This problem is described in detail in his much overlooked book, Honest to Jesus (1996).  Bob said there “I weep to think that I spent 35 years in the classroom, in concert with thousands of colleagues, to have so little lasting impact on students, ministerial candidates, and the American mind. In our time, religious literacy has reached a new low....” (p.5)

Bob and the fellows of the Jesus Seminar published The Five Gospels (which color coded what Jesus said, may have said, and didn’t say) in 1993 and hit the covers of Time, Newsweek, and US News.  (Dominic Crossan, one of the fellows, had the luck to hit the media hard with his book The Historical Jesus in 1992.)  Bob and Dom had acted when the culture was ready for a bit more truth.  For the past decade I have seen churches use The Five Gospels and the many books by Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong (and others).  Now many churches use a curriculum called Living the Questions where many scholars freely share with congregations what they are doing and what they have found.  So there is more openness to Biblical scholarship than there was, but not everywhere.

I think that the Presbyterian Church USA is breaking up over these issues.  They have argued about homosexuality and avoided the more basic Biblical and theological issues.  Leadership wants to show how traditional/ conservative they are and still talk about Jesus as divine man in pre-modern ways.  “Spirituality” has become the balm for all pain so that one need not think or speak theologically.  More and more people don’t care.  That is what concerned Bob Funk: “Will the younger generations even care about Jesus or what he taught?”  I have a thought about this that I will reveal later.

Presbyterians should realize that the Reformation unleashed a high value on free scholarship that turned around and bit them in the butt.  When that happens you should leap forward, not sit there and howl.  More leaping forward to follow.


Michael_SC said...

Thank you for these comments, and for the mention of the Smart book which I just ordered on Amazon. I'd still like to know more about exactly _why_ pastors don't teach this material... you'd think liberating people from the pre-modern baggage would be welcomed all around, but apparently, not.

Reverend Sax said...

If a pastor teaches this material many members will become unhappy because they want their religion to remain unchanged.

Michael_SC said...

Thanks, this is all becoming clearer. I now think that the term 'Christian Education' in many or most churches is a misnomer; there may be reinforcement or indoctrination, but not necessarily much education (which implies learning new things and even changing one's mind).

I'm halfway through Mr. Smart's book. Very interesting, though I think he may be a little over-optimistic about the effects of historical scholarship on the church's life. If the text is a literary construct and creation, then yes, one would reasonably expect that this would have some attenuating effect on its use in the modern world - how could it be otherwise.