One of the most fascinating parts of my job as a teacher of religious education is when I get to have conversations with pupils about sacred texts. We get to explore all sorts of different ideas, about how believers turn to them as sources of authority, and how believers within one religious tradition can encounter and interpret the text in vey different ways.
We often end up on the issue of truth – how we assess the claims made within the scriptures as being ‘believable’ or not, whether the events described happened at all, and as a result, whether they have any use for us today. This is especially interesting in a time when we’re coming to terms with the idea of ‘fake news’, when it appears like we can make outrageous claims without needing to evidence them at all.
I try to introduce my pupils to the idea of truth within literature, asking them if a story has to be literally ‘true’ for it to be full of ‘truth’. By this I mean whether we can learn something about ourselves and our world as a result of engaging with a piece of fiction, in a way that perhaps a work of factual writing isn’t able to achieve. We talk about books we’ve read, and what we’ve learnt from them – and whether the ‘moral’ is undermined if the characters are a figment of the authors imagination.
Resoundingly we arrive at the conclusion that ‘truth’ is a much broader concept than ‘fact’, and that there is something special about the kind of truth we can access through story.
All of this is really to try to help explain further where I have journeyed to in my view of the scriptures. No longer am I concerned with the historical veracity and claims of the text – especially with regard to the older parts, but instead I am much more interested in what the story might be that lies beneath the surface.
Increasingly I view the Bible as a narrative of the experience of a group of people trying to work out their world and make sense of what the seeing and doing. It’s a text that is comfortable borrowing from other traditions, perhaps redeeming them (in the eyes of a faithful YAHWEH follower) to help explain their particular understanding of the universe. It ducks and weaves, contradicts and confuses, legitimises the worst excesses of human depravity, is clearly edited and manipulated for political and religious purposes, and yet somehow, in the midst of this mess, it still speaks out to us today of the story of stories. Much ‘truth’ is found within it, especially in the very human stories it contains where people fail and yet somehow manage to succeed. We’re enjoined to get our priorities right – to join in covenental relationship with our Creator and Sustainer and to live in peace and generous love with our neighbours.
As we enter the Jesus part of the story, we’re still left with questions – the gospels tell similar stories, but with just enough difference to although a tremor of doubt to emerge. As for the rest, almost two-thirds of it is written by a man who clearly has a number of chips on his shoulders – many of which have been passed on and nurtured by succeeding generations. Somehow, though, the ‘truth’ outs – that love is at the heart of it all.
So, whether the text is truthful or not worries me not one jot. For the record, I think an awful lot of it is reasonably reliable (at least in ancient literature terms!). As I’ve posted previously, the Jesus story still draws me in, but to understand it I need to understand his world and his context, which is inextricably linked to the Jewish self understanding as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. That’s who Jesus is speaking to, not necessarily to a religion two millennia later. The remarkable thing is that it can speak to us today if we allow it to.
As we approach the text, therefore, we need to do do knowing that we will be constantly reinterpreting it, revising our understanding of what it has to say to us today. The God story is not set in stone, so neither should the text be. It every time I open its pages I bring to it my worldview, my reading of it, my education and my biases – but in recognising this I create space to engage with it honestly.
The final thing I wanted to explore was the idea that the book is not yet closed. The story of those who follow Jesus throughout the ages and today is the scripture. How we live, how we teach, how we love tells the world the ‘truth’ about who we are. It doesn’t matter what the book says if we can’t live out its core message of love.
I think this approach to the Bible gives us freedom rooted in our history. It provides us with a framework in which to play, a sense of understanding that others before us have wrestled with the self-same issues and concern and yet emerged to see something beautiful in the midst of the messiness of existence.
We are part of something much bigger than us – a grand, sweeping narrative or drama which is playing out in front of us, and to which we’re invited to be active participants in.
That’s an exciting thought to finish with, isn’t it?