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Disregarding the Bible’s Full Context Carries Risks

Colin Harris, professor of religion at Mercer University, sent me a very helpful and encouraging email following my previous column on the subject of the narrative structure of the Bible versus the non-narrative nature of the Quran.
With Colin’s permission, I quote from his email:

“Students sometimes discover that how people can use the Bible in a “non-narrative” way (similar to the divine dictates of the Quran) and they are struck by how similar fundamentalists can be to what they perceive Muslims to be. Occasionally I get to see the liberation of one making the change from seeing the Bible as a set of propositions to be believed and obeyed to seeing it as a story to embrace and join, as you put it so well.”

This is intriguing. Not only is the non-narrative style of the Quran arguably a weakness that impairs engagement for today’s Muslims, but Colin suggests that if Christians interpret the Bible in a similar way, that is, extracted from its narrative context and used as a set of dictates, we run the risk of slipping into a Christian version of fundamentalism ourselves.

 

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As I was mulling this over, I came across a similar sentiment expressed by Jonathan Sacks, ChiefRabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, contained in a comment piece by Christopher Howse writing in The Tablet (June 25). Howse quotes from an interview Sacks gave in The Times on June 18 and says:

“In a remark that might also be made on behalf of Catholic exegetes, Lord Sacks declared that there was no contradiction between science and the book of Genesis: ‘No rabbi ever read Genesis literally until modern times!’ This complements [Sacks’] definition of fundamentalism as ‘the attempt to move from text to application without interpretation.'”

Drawing these strands together is fascinating. As I commented in the previous post, the narrative style of Scripture allows us to engage with the story of what God is doing through history – redemption history. Without a narrative, other religious texts or secular ideologies fail to help us find a meaningful narrative.

Two risks then emerge:

As Harris then points out, the first is the risk of a Christian fundamentalism that is every bit as imprisoning as the fundamentalism we reject in others. We end up with a dogma-driven or rules-based approach to faith, pharisaical in nature and, at its worst, life-quenching rather than life-giving.

Much of the Catholicism of my youth bore this characteristic, and I see it still today in mission work where outside missionaries import their doctrinal distinctives and impose them on others. 

The second risk is the one that Sacks refers to, namely that because texts do not live in a vacuum, once detached from their context (or story) they will demand another to give an alternative meaning as we leap clumsily from text to application without giving sufficient attention to context.

So, for example, the breathtaking story of the God who creates the cosmos and all living things and of humankind, whose maleness and femaleness echoes something hidden deep in the heart of the Trinity, becomes reduced to the impoverished concept of a six-day burst of activity, with God presumably checking his wristwatch!

No, we will not walk that road. Thank God for the captivating story of the Bible. Let us never take it for granted. Let us be ready in season and out of season to commend it to others. 

And may we never, ever reduce it to a lifeless collection of propositions.

DavidKerrigan is general director of BMSWorldMission. This column first appeared on his blog, ThinkingMission, and is used by permission. BMS World Mission was founded in 1792 in Britain as the Baptist Missionary Society.