- Published: 20 April 2016
So Why Do we Read the Bible as Stories from Our Ancestors in the Faith
Anxious to justify himself, a lawyer asked Jesus “who is my neighbour?” Jesus replied, “a man was once on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers. The robbers beat him, took all that he had, and left him half-dead. Now a priest happened to be travelling down the same road, but when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite who came to the place, saw the man, and passed on the other side. But a Samaritan traveller who came upon the man was moved with compassion when he saw him. The Samaritan went up, poured oil and wine on the man’s wounds and bandaged them. The Samaritan then lifted the man on his own donkey, escorted him to an inn and looked after him. The next day, the Samaritan took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper saying “look after him and on my way back I will make good any extra expense you have”. Jesus then asked the lawyer, “which of these three do you think proved himself a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer responded, “the one who took pity on him.” Jesus said, “go and do likewise.”
A story from our ancestors in the faith.
So why do we read the Bible as “stories from our ancestors in the faith”.
This question is a part of our ongoing effort to deepen our understanding and experience of our spirit practices here at First United. This effort is one that respects our diversity while at the same time honours our collective story as a community of faith.
This Sunday, we reflect on the practice we just experienced when Tara read the story of the Good Samaritan. This story comes from the Bible, and most every Sunday, we have a reading from the Bible and at the end of the reading we add the words, “a story from our ancestors in the faith”.
Why do we do this? The response this morning requires a three step dance. First, I am going to say something about ancestors in the faith, and then I am going to talk about the Bible and then I will pull the two together.
The Christian faith is grounded on the experience of the “Christ energy” that danced with Jesus of Nazareth, an energy not limited to Jesus for it is an energy which existed before Jesus, an energy awakened in those who encountered Jesus, and an energy that still vibrates with us today.
The Christ energy present in the historical Jesus began a spirit movement, a spirit movement never intended to be a separate religion. It was a movement within the Jewish tradition and culture of Jesus as Jesus called himself and his followers to live the depth of his own sacred tradition. Jesus was concerned, in fact was downright exercised, that the practice of his religion was not connected with its spiritual roots. While concerned about laws that burdened the people, Jesus was also alarmed that leaders of his faith were creating barriers between people rather than drawing them together, was failing to recognize that sacred spirit is with all peoples.
So the teachings and actions of Jesus challenged these barrier creating attitudes. He told stories like the Good Samaritan where the religious leaders failed to be “neighbour” while one who was actually despised by those very religious leaders, one whom Jesus and his compatriots were taught to despise, this one, this Samaritan, was “neighbour”. The story is provocative and transparent.
This story breaks down barriers, and the early Christian movement was infused with this same energy. The emerging community not only attracted but embraced many people beyond the Jewish tradition. This eclectic diversity created challenges, but the challenges were confronted with an unrelenting commitment to inclusion such that the mystic Paul, an early spokesperson for this spirit movement wrote “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
Through the vagrancies of history where there was a collapsing religious imagination combined with conflict within the tradition of Jesus, conditions were created for the emergence of a new religion as this barrier breaking, inclusionary, transformative, healing, and liberating “Christ” energy spread like wildfire.
Wildfire may not be the right metaphor, but I will use it recognizing its limit and recognizing that a wildfire has some good aspects and some not so good aspects. A natural wildfire can bring genuine renewal. It is amazing how the earth renews itself in natural and profound ways. Equally, a wildfire can also be destructive.
As Christianity formalized, there were two paradoxical energies. On the one hand, the Christ energy was deepened and nourished, and I reflected last week how much I love the Christ energy because the Christ energy is about love.
On the other hand, the community took on the trappings of religion, and for some strange reason became characterized by that "weird" energy that appears within institutionalized religion where religion starts to worry about survival rather than just dancing with the energy. Barriers are created leading to discussions about who is in and out. This "weird" energy tries to control and define the mystery of sacred energy. Christianity, ironically became exactly what the "Christ energy" in Jesus challenged.
The wildfire of Christianity spread. My ancestry is Celtic. My ancestral lineage comes from Scotland and Ireland where there was a Celtic religious tradition, which was overtaken by the wildfire of Christianity. Practitioners went underground while others fused Celtic tradition with Christian practice. Celtic Christianity gives evidence to the depth of the Celtic tradition.
But mostly Celtic traditions were lost and forgotten, so that by the time I was born my family had no connection with those celtic traditions. I was never even taught the word. I, along with generations of my ancestors, were born Christian, not celtic.
So I talk about my two ancestral roots. There is my ancestral lineage with a lost religious tradition and there is my faith ancestry where Christianity, formed in the cradle of the Hebrew tradition, made the Bible stories the stories with which I am familiar. These stories are stories of my ancestors in the Christian faith, stories included in the Hebrew Scriptures and stories in the Christian Scriptures which are culturally located in the Middle East.
So now let’s talk about the Bible and then make the connection with our ancestries.
The Bible has a storytelling energy to it, a vibrant life-giving energy, which is marvelous and I love this energy complete with its vividness. The Bible also has another energy, a "weird" energy, an energy that tries to control and dominate the story telling energy by writing everything down, by concretizing, a concretization which limits stories or teaching to one form which have also undergone edits and so forth and so forth.
That is why there is this tension in the Bible, it is a tension between the story-telling energy and that "weird" energy. For me, it is key that we focus on releasing the story-telling energy that truly unleashes the “Christ energy”.
Unfortunately, the weird energy exerts itself which has allowed the Bible to become a tool of domination. This happens most when the Bible stops being understood as “stories of our ancestors in the faith” and is understood as “the word of God”.
As a boy, I was taught that the Bible is the word of God. As an adult, I can no longer say that, the words won’t come out of my mouth. Let me explain why.
Whenever I hear the word “Bible” I also hear another provocative statement made by Bishop John Spong in the opening line of his book “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” where he stated “sex drove me to the Bible”.
Well sex drove our United Church of Canada to the Bible as well. In the 1980’s there was discernment about the full inclusion of the queer community in the Christian community. That discernment, both good and painful, stumbled over varying approaches to understanding and interpreting the Bible, with some saying the Bible teaches us about love and inclusion while others looked at texts which condemned homosexuality as evidence that God condemns homosexuality after all the Bible is the “word of God”.
So the United Church authorized a study on the authority and interpretation of Scripture and in 1992 embraced principles for approaching the Bible.
I was transferring into the United Church at this very moment, and this document was foundational in my spirit journey. Most memorable for me personally were two stated principles, namely that the “Word of God, in every case, is larger than the text of the Bible,” and that “legitimate authority, in every case, enhances community.”
For me personally these principles were life giving and liberating. While I had an authentic experience of God in my boyhood church, I also had experiences that wounded me, wounds rooted in teachings that created barriers, teachings based on a literalist approaches to the Bible.
The irony is that the Canadian church of my birth and the United Church both began in and around 1925. As I researched the founding beliefs of these two spirit movements which birthed Canadian churches, I learned something very important. For the United Church, the first article of faith begins “we believe in God”; whereas, the church of my birth began “we believe the Holy Scriptures to be the divinely inbreathed, infallible, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God.”
Two pathways with different starting points, one pathway in my estimation opens one up to the mystery of god and another pathway elevates the Bible above the mystery of God where the Bible in fact becomes an idol.
When I read those two statements, it was an eye-opening moment, and I knew which pathway I had to follow, a pathway to unleash a story-telling energy that awakens and nurtures sacred voice.
From that day I have had the liberty to never ever call the Bible the “Word of God”, but rather to relish the freedom to look for the word of God that includes the Bible but is so much larger than the text of the Bible.
I will risk making a bold statement. I believe that teachings which encourage literalist approaches to the Bible are harmful, or for that matter any literalist approach to sacred text. This belief wounds, it leaves many bloodied andlying half-dead in the ditch because religion robs the spirit life of mystery and humility. These beliefs are not merely antiquated and quaint, they are destructive.
But let's be clear. Asserting that the Bible is not the "word of God" does not make the Bible irrelevant or unimportant or insignificant. In fact the opposite occurs, the Bible plays a more important role for me through a playful and imaginative role because I get to dance with the story-telling energy.
Now I can listen to the Bible in a more authentic way because there is a freedom to criticize the Bible and disagree. Believe you me, I love the Bible and I hate the Bible. There are many prejudicial, patriarchal, and warlike stories included between the covers that I find offensive. It is so freeing to say that. I don't have to defend it, simply acknowledge it and move to discover the story telling energy that speaks about an encounter with the sacred.
On an aside, I have an honest admission, I don’t often recommend the Bible as inspirational reading because it is a complicated text that requires a lot of deconstruction in order to mine its treasures. These treasures are worth mining but not necessarily an easy task.
But that task is the task we wrestle with when we gather as a faith community. The 1992 document of the United Church calls those of us in the Christian tradition, to engage the Bible as foundational authority as we seek to live the Christian life. There was a big debate whether it was “the” foundational authority or “a” foundational authority, and the church settled on “as” foundational.
Authority is not a bad word when it is authority to enhance community. Foundational authority is just a complicated way to say "common story", the common story told down through the generations and the common story told around the globe, and this story knits us together. Mind you that “knitting” together doesn’t mean we all agree on how it is interpreted, there is still room for 'good old fIghts', yet these stories connect, are foundational allowing us to be community as we reflect on the encounter and experiences and stories of our ancestors in the faith.
This brings me to our final step, the bringing together of our ancestors in the faith with the Bible.
Over the years, as I have been trying to understand the storytelling energy within the Bible, I have been influenced by two writers, both aboriginal.
Thomas King in his book, “the truth about stories” writes “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are". In his book, each chapter begins with a story, but he tells the same story differently, quite fascinating. Thomas King also recognizes the power of stories when he writes “stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous…stories are medicine, told one way they can cure, told another can injure…” Stories demand spirit attention.
Steven Charleston, way back in 1990 wrote a provocative essay called “The Old Testament of Native America”. While playing with colonial words, Charleston grappled with the silencing of other religions in the wake of the Christian wildfire.
Ultimately his conviction is that for Aboriginal persons, if they are to benefit from the "Christ energy", they need to imagine their traditional stories as a “foundation” upon which the Christ energy might dialogue. Just as the early Christians, who were primarily Jewish, placed the Hebrew testament alongside the Christian story, so the aboriginal community needs to place its testament alongside the story of the Christ.
This is a conviction which encourages all of us to recover the stories of our ancestral lineage as a means to better hear the word of God, even to recover my Celtic stories because the voice of the sacred, the word of God, is heard when stories talk together.
This is the energy that breathes reconciliation as the truth of stories are liberated.
Two weeks ago, I was introduced to a new book for me. It is called “Stories from the Road Allowance”. I have ordered the book, but have not received it yet.
Maria Campbell, a Metis storyteller, has collected stories of the “Road Allowance People” because the Métis, stripped of their land rights, were forced to build homes and communities on crown land known as “road allowance”. "Road Allowance" was land set aside for a highway. On these lands, the Metis lived a precarious existence, welcome neither in white settlements nor allowed to live on Treaty land. This land could be appropriated at any time; Metis were often burned out of their homes and forced to move.
Maria Campell has also written a compelling memoir titled “Halfbreed”. Metis have mixed cultural heritage, “halfbreeds”.
Samaritans had mixed cultural heritage, “halfbreeds”. Jesus, who lived that story-telling energy, taught the meaning of “love your neighbour as yourself” through a story where the despised half-breed is the hero. This story becomes a word of God, a word so pertinent to our lived experience this week as the Supreme Court of Canada makes a landmark ruling acknowledges the rights of the Metis.
I heard one of those stories from Maria Campbell’s collection, it stirred my soul. I heard sacred voice. You see the word of God is always larger than the text of the Bible.
And we hear sacred voice in the story of the Good Samaritan, we are all there. We are all "half-breeds" in some way. All of us have had moments when we are wounded, lying in the ditch bleeding and dying. And we all recognize moments in life when our busyness or our prejudice keeps us from helping another. And we have all had moments of being Good Samaritan where we took time and spent money, footed the bill, for another’s healing just as we are doing in our refugee work.
The story of the Good Samaritan is a story of our ancestors in the faith that enables us to hear sacred voice, to hear the word of God, so that “Christ energy” can be unleashed, an energy that is a story-telling energy.
And the Hebrew tradition has stories that unleashes energy as well. The choir will come to sing in Hebrew, sing about a world sustained by three things, truth, justice and peace. This is a word from God. As they sing, let the sacred stories of your life and your people dance within your heart, for ultimately the "Word of God" as our prayer of intention and longing named, ultimatley the word of God is written on the heart.