“Born again, again,” by Bob Melone, Chapter 3, part 1 of 3

3 04 2016

As I reflect on my spiritual journey, my understanding of prayer and original sin are only two of the concepts that have been . . . born again, again . . . over the years. Because much of what I believe and how I attempt to live my life are rooted and grounded in the Bible, and because the Hebrew and Christian Testaments remain foundational to my faith, I am unable to speak about the changes in my walk with God without also speaking about the changes in the way I read and interpret the Bible.

Several years ago my wife and visited the National Gallery in Washington, DC for a Rembrandt exhibit; and his piece, “The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel,” painted in 1661, had a powerful impact on me. The evangelist is seated in thoughtful repose, while apparently listening to the voice of a curly blonde haired woman who looks as if she is seductively speaking into this right ear.

Really? I remember thinking! Is this how it happened? Because somehow, the visual image of what I had been taught for years, seemed grossly simplistic and naïve.

Rembrandt’s work prompted me to consider how many artists, musicians, and writers I believe to have been “inspired” by God – meaning that they were able to capture accurately, although incompletely, some facet of the character and nature of the Divine in their work. Somehow, their paintings, music, or poetry offered us a glimpse into the beauty of holiness – that which is at that same time both transcendent and immanent. They were able to give witness through their work, to that which is beyond us, and inspired to transport us to a place where we might have an experience of God. And that is what Scripture does – it points us to the Divine. It is a human account of how the faith community has understood God to be working in the world, and thus has the capacity to move us to consider God’s ways in the world in every day and age. The words and phrases are not in and of themselves sacred, or holy, but rather they point us toward that which IS sacred, and holy.

And this is where the “Doctrine of Inspiration” is so often misunderstood. It’s where the phrase ‘inspired word of God’ becomes somewhat problematic. You see the Doctrine of Inspiration is meant to affirm that the authors and editors of the Bible were inspired by God, NOT the actual words that they wrote and edited! And the difference is important; for God, however understood, does not inspire things. God inspires people! God did not inspire the work that is found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; God inspired Michelangelo to create such a masterpiece. God did not inspire “Ode to Joy”; God inspired Beethoven to write his classic 9th symphony. And God did not inspire “Hamlet”; rather, God inspired Shakespeare to pen the story of the fictional Prince of Denmark.

Now when the Church realizes that God inspires people and not things, it becomes easier to grasp the idea that Scripture is a product of the culture it which it was written. Evidence abounds that the Bible was written and assembled NOT by individuals (Moses, Matthew, or Paul) but by groups of people, with agendas, and cultural biases, and limited scientific medical and knowledge. This is why the book of Genesis speaks of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son — NOT because God would ever play that kind of game with a father, but because that is was the people practicing Canaanite religions understood faithfulness. The writers were products of their culture, and so the point of that passage is NOT that we need to be willing to sacrifice our children to God, but that that is NOT what faithfulness to God is all about. The point of the passage is that sometimes, peoples’ religion may call us to things that are in fact far from God, and so we need to be discerning as to what we embrace as faithfulness and obedience.

And when the book of Joshua speaks about the sun standing still, and the moon stopping in the heavens, it is revealing itself to be a book bound to a culture with an incomplete understanding of science. Similarly, when speaking about dietary regulations, demon possession, or homosexuality, it should be clear to any honest and informed interpreter that the Bible that such passages were penned in an age when knowledge of issues related to health, mental illness, and sexuality were extremely limited.

Further, the discrepancies that are found in Scripture are also evidence that the Word was never meant to be read literally! Bart Ehrman, in his book “Misquoting Jesus” writes, “Mark says Jesus was crucified the day after the Passover meal was eaten (Mark 14:12; 15:25) and John says he died the day before it was eaten (John 19:14) . . . Luke indicates in his account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth just over a month after they had come to Bethlehem, whereas Matthew indicates they instead fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:19-22) . . . Or when Paul says that after he converted on the way to Damascus he did not go to Jerusalem to see those who were aposted before him (Gal. 1:16-17), whereas the book of Acts says that that was the first thing he did after leaving Damascus (Acts 9:26).”

To Biblical Literalists these issues, and countess others, are extremely problematic, posing questions for which they have no answers. But when we read the Bible through a slightly different lens, such contradictions are simply unimportant. We all have different ways of telling stories, and more often than not the meaning is not found in the minute details.

All of this is to say that for me, my ‘born again, again’ experience has been one that has helped me find Scripture’s deeper meaning; for that is what can occur when we learn to let go of reading God’s word as a scientific textbook , a manual for daily living, or an ‘inerrant’ historical account of things that happened thousands of years ago. Genres do exist: history, poetry, letters . . . but like any good pieces of literature, we hold to the factual nature of the words loosely and gently.

God did not give us the Bible. People did! And it needs to be read accordingly.


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