Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Library of Questions

Timothy Beal, a Bible scholar and professor at Case Western Reserve University, has written a fine article in the Huffington Post on the extraordinary complexity of the Bible, as well as the problem of those who insist on a literal reading of the text yet seem to have little comprehension of its inconsistencies and multiple points of view.

To provide an example, Beal focuses on the creation, two versions of which are familiar stories to most of us: Chapter 1 of Genesis, in which God generates the universe through speech, and Chapter 2, in which he is a hands-on craftsman, planting a garden and fashioning animal life, including Adam and Eve, with his hands. Beal points out a number of other brief creation stories, in Job and in at least two Psalms.

Acknowledging and exploring these contradictions, he argues, is at the heart of a real understanding of the Bible and its importance:
"The Bible canonizes contradiction. It holds together a tense diversity of perspectives and voices, difference and argument -- even and especially when it comes to the profoundest questions of faith, questions that inevitably outlive all their answers.
"The Bible is not a book of answers but a library of questions. As such it opens up space for us to explore different voices and perspectives, to discuss, to disagree and, above all, to think. Too often, however, that's not what happens."
Most of us were introduced to the Bible as young children. We were told stories that match the general outline of biblical narrative, but which often leave out "adult" details that make the stories compelling, and relevant to our lives today. We learned about Jacob sleeping on a stone pillow and having the vision of the ladder to heaven, and about Joseph and his coat of many colors, and about Moses leading the Hebrews across the Red Sea to freedom, but not until much later in our lives -- if ever -- did we know about the psychologically complex characters who populate these stories, their motivations, fears, jealousies, mistakes and triumphs over, in most cases, their own weaknesses of character.

For many people, it seems, a child's version of the Bible suffices. And if this provides them sustenance and hope, I'm somewhat okay with that. But to limit one's vision in this way is to deny oneself the richness and challenge of the complete story. And I fear that failing to understand -- or at least acknowledge -- the complexity and contradiction in the Bible is one of those things that leads to intolerance and a general misunderstanding of what the Bible tells us about our relationship with God and with each other.

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