18 June 2020

The Biblical Library

(This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on May 1st)

There are certain things that I put into and take out of the Vice-Presidential cupboard regularly. In truth, my Bible, Methodist Worship Book and Singing the Faith have rarely been in the cupboard. That’s not because I’m particularly virtuous! I have simply needed them a lot. So they’ve been put on top of the cupboard for a day or two, or just a few hours, and then needed again quite quickly. In particular, no Bible should be in a cupboard for very long. If it isn’t in regular use then something has gone amiss. Even now that the face-to-face visits, workshops, sermons and talks have ended, I still need it both for my own spiritual purposes, and to prepare the Zoom or Skype encounters with which my Vice-Presidential year will come to an end.

The Bible and its use has been forming a prominent element in what I’ve been involved in during the VP year. In events I’ve been asked to lead I’ve been encouraging people to explore what it actually means to be ‘biblical’. And when Barbara and I have been asked to do sessions connected with our book, So What’s the Story…?, I’ve sometimes focused on the Bible-related material from our book simply because I was the main drafter of those chapters. The sessions have been fun to lead and seem to have gone down well.

Let’s be clear: every Christian has to be biblical. There would be no Christianity without the Bible even if Christianity is not based on it. (Just to clarify: Christianity is rooted in God, as we know God in Christ.)  But all Christians relate to the Bible in some way. The only issue is how.

Strange though it may sound Christians do not, in practice, connect their faith with the whole of the Bible. For what it’s worth, one of the exercises I get people to do is to identify honestly what they lean on in practice within the biblical canon. The quick (not very scientific) poll I have conducted shows that British Methodists depend on about a third of the content of the 66 books of the Protestant canon. I’d love to risk an exercise which asks people to own up to biblical books they’ve never even read!

Leaning on just some of the canon is scarcely surprising. For the Bible is not a single book but a library. Whatever claims we might make for an ‘essential unity’ or ‘red/silver thread’ running through the collection of books, an argument for complete unity and the absence of any loose ends is hard to sustain. You only need to try and get any group of Christians to agree precisely what the unifying thread is, and a lively debate ensues. (I’ve tried that as an exercise too…more good fun!)

In one of the settings in which I led my ‘what does it mean to be biblical?’ session I didn’t really have enough time. Some in the group therefore thought I was being destructive, leaving the group in hopeless disarray, with the sense that the Bible is a messy mishmash of materials, some of it rather dodgy, which isn’t of much value. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible is a profound, irritating, provocative, challenging, potentially life-enhancing collection of texts. We just have to accept that whatever flashes of insight and inspiration it may present to a first-time reader (and sometimes it can), for the most part it is a tough collection of writings of different types (letters, poems, story books, history books, prophetic outbursts), which needs a lot of work to understand. It generates multiple interesting meanings, but has to be grappled with. It is also best to engage in the task in the company of others. The church can even be defined as a community of interpretation, gathered round its scriptures.

One great book about the Bible which has appeared in paperback during this year is John Barton, A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths (Penguin 2020). It was reviewed enthusiastically by Neil Richardson in the Recorder earlier this year. Barton’s book highlights just how varied the contents of the Bible are, and how many different positions – on many issues – can be defended with recourse to the Bible. If it is felt that this is yet another example of a highfalutin’ academic making more complicated something which is, in fact, very simple, then let me say that the sessions I’ve been leading about the Bible during my Vice-Presidential year confirm what Barton writes. At the same time, the conversations have also confirmed what a rich collection of texts the Bible remains for a living faith now, even in all its messy complexity, and how willing contemporary Methodists are to discuss with each other these important matters.

In all that I have been doing I have wanted people to face up to what is actually in the Bible as a whole, as opposed simply to focusing on the bits which we deem particularly significant – something we all do all the time (yes, we really do!). The fact that we pick and choose is precisely why we need the church, so that others can ask awkward questions of us, pointing out bits we might not be reading very much.

Best, then, to respect the fact that we are a community of people with a range of sometimes conflicting, vexing, even contradictory, convictions – but still in Christ – than try and turn the collection of texts which make up the Bible into something it cannot possibly be.

Prof Clive Marsh



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