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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

03 July 2008

The Bible: My Journey

Back in 1981 my parents gave Bibles as Christmas presents to all six of us kids. I was 26 at the time - I think I would have preferred the usual underwear and socks. It sat for years, pretty much unread. I still have it. (Friends will not say this odd; they know that I never throw anything away.)

As an adult I was all set to dismiss the Bible as a complete work of fiction…bizarre fiction at that. I mean, some of the chapters of the Old Testament just don’t make any sense, nor are they applicable in any way to life in the 21st Century. For instance, remember David of “David and Goliath” fame? Take a look at 1Samuel 18:22-27, the very disturbing tale of King Saul, David and the 100 (or 200) Philistines. I challenge you to read that story without going, “That is some pretty sick shit.” Because, let’s be honest, it is. The word “foreskin” meant the same thing then as it does now. But not only is it the product of a twisted mind, it simply did not happen. The hard part is getting to the point where you can admit that. At least, it was for me.

Before I summarily tossed my Bible into the trash, I decided to read more of it. I began in the beginning, which is always a good place. The Catholic Bible (New American Standard version) has pages and pages of instructions in the front. First there is the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Then there is a chapter called very simply, “How to Read Your Bible.” These were written by the bishops of the Vatican Council II under the Pope. What they say is very illuminating.

For one thing, the bishops tell us very clearly that the Old Testament contains things that are “incomplete and temporary.” They tell us that there are numerous different literary styles in the writings: Everything from poems to history to historical novels, beast fables, allegories, parables and fiction of a type called midrash (coyly described as “the edifying interpretation of events”). To fully understand the Bible, one must know what kind of story you’re reading; that way you can keep it in the proper context. Are you reading actual history or merely a historical novel? A poem or a parable?

Catholics are cautioned to not take the Bible too literally – that it is not scientific fact, nor does it purport to be. Two people (Adam and Eve) did not sire every subsequent man, woman and child that makes up the entire population of earth. Instead, the bishops call Genesis is a “beautiful poem on creation.” They repeatedly tell us that the Bible is not the direct Word of God, but rather the inspired (guided) word. Inspired, as an artist creates a painting from his inspiration. We are told to not think of the Bible as something dictated by God as a businessman would dictate a letter to his secretary. We are told to take the meaning and the point of the stories, not the words themselves.

As for the New Testament, the Catholic Church admits that the writers of the Gospels may not have actually known Christ! Here’s exactly what it says: ”What did the authors of the Gospels do? In the congregations, mainly in the cities around the Mediterranean, they found scores of narratives about Jesus, the beloved Founder of the Christian faith. The writers took those narratives and frequently even remolded and refashioned them to bring out the lesson they wanted to teach.” The Church also admits that it is hard to know whether the quotes attributed to Christ are exactly as he said them.

If I were still a teenager hearing all this news after only hearing the Scriptures quoted over and over with such absolute conviction, my reaction would be something along the lines of, “Gosh!” (As a pilot, the phrase I would use is “WTF, over.”)

Finally, we are told that in reading the Bible we must strike a balance between those who take it too literally and those who interpret it too loosely. This is where the Church comes in, providing the guidance necessary for a better understanding of this hodgepodge collection of books (which aren’t even in any kind of systematic order).

I’m fine with that. The Bible was not written in 2008 English. It wasn’t even written in the same consistent language. I could not pick up any such translated book written so long ago by any author (Shakespeare comes to mind) much less a whole array of different authors and expect to understand it without some guidance of people who know more than I.

Reading the preface and introduction to my Bible was revelatory. Instead of chucking the book, I decided to keep it. Because I realized that the Bible is about me and what it means to me and how it applies to my life. It’s a first-person kind of thing.

At its core, our faith is intensely personal. I cannot tell you what to believe, or vice-versa. I just hope you believe in something. As Christians we should not be judging others but be witnessing about our own personal experiences with our faith – what God and the Bible mean to us...to me, individually. And I can do that!

Where religions fail, I think, is that they force you to believe in and adhere to a specific set of rules. “THIS is what we believe…what we ALL believe. And you better believe it too if you want to remain a member of our congregation and stay out of eternal damnation in hell!”

Well, okay. But maybe not.

It is strange, in a way, that in challenging the authenticity and veracity of the Bible, I have become more attached to it and at the same time more reconnected with the Catholic Church. While I have had many adult opportunities to join other churches, I’ve always resisted for reasons I could not explain, even to myself. But now I understand. And I like how the living, changing Catholic Church uses the Bible more as a guidebook instead of a hammer or club.

I believe now that if you read the Bible, you must ultimately draw your own conclusions from it. I cannot tell you what the stories mean to you. By the same token, you can’t tell me what this or that Scripture means. No one can. It might not mean anything in today’s world, as hard as that may be for you to accept. Nor can you force me to live by your interpretation. And as for judging me and my relative “Christian-ness,” or “heavenworthiness,” well, I’ll let Someone Else be the final authority in that regard.


Redlefty said...

Great stuff, Bob.

I'm writing a post on another biblical text in the next few days. Your perspective helped remind me to strive for grace and openness as I share what I think the text may have meant to the original reader.

Hal Johnson said...

Great stuff indeed, Bob.

I was "raised" in the fold of Southern Baptist Church. Needless to say, the SBC ranks among the more "legalistic" of the Protestant denominations, and is even more so now than when I was a kid. (I like the terms "legalistic" and "deed-based" better than "conservative" and "liberal.") One of the things that turned me off to church-going was a vacation bible camp. In the evening, right after dinner, a pastor from another church would get up and lecture to us kids about how wrong the Catholic and Mormon faiths were. I grew up with a lot of Catholics and a good number of Mormons, so I was turned off by the whole experience.

From a Protestant boy's perspective, the Catholic Church can appear especially dogmatic because of the ultimate authority in place: the Pope. But I've long found Catholics in general to show more "intellectual integrity" when it comes to discussing faith and spirituality. If I had to choose a church today, it would probably be the Episcopal Church. Robin Williams describes it as "Catholic Lite": most of the liturgy, but only half the guilt.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Anonymous said...

Great post Bob! I wish more people could read this.

Bob Barbanes said...

Thanks guys, I appreciate the comments. There are many who take the Bible quite literally - that it is absolutely the WORD OF GOD...people who believe that the words and meanings in it today are EXACTLY the words and meanings that God intended, translated and transcribed down through the ages unerringly from God's lips to our ears...err, eyes. It is a somewhat immature view, in my opinion. Then again, I could be wrong (but I dearly hope not).

I too have had my problems with Catholic dogma. Is the Church perfect? Heavens, no. Is any religion? Again, no. All of my siblings have migrated away from the Catholic Church, and although I still call myself one, I must admit with some shame (guilt, Hal?) that I can hardly be considered a "good Catholic." But you know what? Every time I go into a Catholic church, I feel right at home in a way I haven't felt in the church of any other denomination. Is the feeling genuine or illusory? It's hard to know. Either way, I could never abandon my Catholic heritage even if I'm not exactly a candidate for the priesthood.

I like the fact that our Church has One Guy In Charge as our strong spiritual leader. I like the fact that this Pope can (arguably) trace his predecessors in the job right back to the Christ himself. Yes, there are a lot of things to dislike about the Catholic Church, but there are a lot of things to like about it as well.

But ultimately, no matter which church you are a member of, I believe the main point is that you have faith in a higher power, and moreover that you tap into this faith for the betterment of your life, both physical and emotional. The Bible is a good guidebook, and if people merely used it as such, what could it hurt?

David said...

Popa Bobinus Rotius I,

It's got a ring to it.

Sorry, read Hal's comment. Couldn't resist. But, I thought 'Guilt' was a Jewish thing?

I'll 'level off' now. I really enjoy your take on the topic of religion. After all, how many people can witness and use "WTF" in the same sentence?!

I have felt comfortable the few times I've been to Mass with friends. It was different when my second fiance wanted to get married in the Catholic church. (Those weddings take WAY too long anyway.)


Bob Koford said...

I enjoyed your article, Bob. I don't have quite the same take on it as you, but I like it that way. It is one of the same reasons I read Kevin Randle's blog. Knowledge is one thing, but accurate knowledge is another, and I prefer to read different people's takes on things before I decide.

For me, the Bible can be understood as a broad stroke of information dealing with our separation from the creator, the pre-telling of the coming "Savior" to re-unite us, and the telling of the life, death, and resurrection of the Savior (i.e. providing evidence to them that God really can bring us back). Then it shows us what's to come, regarding this Savior, once the King actually takes his throne.

This is the short-hand version, obviously, but it's how I view it...shortcomings and all.

As for the denominations, I'm afraid I've had many negative experiences with all of them.

And when I was a boy the Catholics were the most racist of the bunch (I did a lot of my early childhood growing up in the "south"). I realize its all different now, mind you, but back then, I got a really bad image of them because of it, and it stuck with me for a good part of my life.

Anyway, thanks for the nice read, and all the best to you and yours.

Bob Barbanes said...

As I've said, as long as people believe in God...believe that this universe was deliberately created by someone who we *will* see again...then I'm happy. Let's just start from there.

I'd like to see God used as a unifier of men, not a divider. We can sort out the details later - or not, for it really doesn't matter in this lifetime. It's what happens after we die that we should be concerned about.

It's very simple, I think: Believe in God; act in a way that respects and honors Him and your fellow man; love unconditionally and do not hate.

If you do that, and I should happen by some circumstance to beat you to the pearly gates, I'll put in my best recommendation for you with St. Peter.

Jeff said...

Did you know Thomas Jefferson made an attempt at retranslating the Bible?


Bob Barbanes said...

No Jeff, I heard he was going to have one of his slaves do it. OH! I can't believe I said that. But in all seriousness, I think I'd trust TJ's version just as much as anyone else's. Just so long as it didn't begin, "And on the first day, God created We, The People..."