Thoughts on the Bible

Haden Clark over at Help Me Believe shared an article by Jeffrey Poor of Rethink concerning the relationship between the Old and New Testament. I wrote a comment that criticized the original article on the premise that it suggested that there was a difference in how God work in each Testament. I’ve decided to expand on that comment in this post and explore a little deeper into the relationship between the Old and New Testaments and reading and understanding the Bible in general.

I encourage you to read the original post on Rethink and I’ve posted my full comment here:

I am not sure if I agree that God seems mean in the OT because he is “operating under a different set of rules” and that “when Jesus entered the picture he changed everything.” Everything that is contained with the NT is hidden in the OT. The reason for this is because the core message of the OT the covenant between God and humanity is revealed in the NT through the Body of Christ and His sacrifice for our salvation. I think that the problem with this post is that it starts from a premise that the OT and NT are different, unique and distinct which they are not, both are a unifying force of each other. I like to think of the OT as a giant forest with trees, and rocks and small streams and uneven pathways. We walk through this forest without the NT and without Christ in the dark. Our foot hits something hard on the ground and we can reason and suppose it to be a rock. Walk into something wet, and assume it is a stream. By the end of walking through this forest we get a pretty good idea of what the whole area is like (little stream here, big tree there, hike up a hill over there) but it is not the full and complete picture because we did it in the dark. Christ is like a giant flashlight, now we know that the wet thing we walk through was a stream, but that hard thing our foot hit was actually a stump and not a rock (close before, but now we know for certain what it is). The OT is like a facet dripping slowly overnight and the NT is the sink that is filled with water at the end, and if I want to beat this analogy to death, Christ would be plug in the drain keeping the water held together.

I think that the first place to start when we talk about the Bible as a whole to is to understand that the Bible is not entirely a Christian object. It is a collection of books that stretch over 3000 years, through many different eras from the perspective of many different people with many different faiths and written originally in many different languages (many of which do not even exist today). There is a tendency among Christians to ascribe a singularly Christian (and I’ll even add modern western) perspective on the entire Bible which has no historical or theological support.

When we start from the premise that the Bible is in fact a collection of many books with many perspectives, interpretations, translations, understandings, themes, lessons and imagery we can automatically understand why there are entire faculties of learning dedicated to the study of this wonderful book. From viewing the Bible holistically, splitting it in two by the Old and New Testament or deep into each book and letter individually, we gain a better understanding of the deposit of faith through the Word of God present in the Bible. We can even understand why some strains of Christianity, especially those more catholic oriented, insisted upon the interpretation of the Word of God falling to a formal magestrium that brings together the whole of the Deposit of Faith. We can also gain a better understanding why some Christians reel at the thought of the Word of God being capable of being read and understood by any single person at any single point in time– I would wager that this concept is one of the great failings of the protestant wing of Christianity. It fundamentally undermines the realities of the Bible as a sacred text that spans thousands of years. It immaturely presupposes that a person brought up in a western world removed completely from the world present in the Bible can somehow pick up the book and simply “get it.” If that was honestly the case we wouldn’t need Jesus, and we wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit because from the moment the Israelites were brought out of Egypt they would have “got it” and everything would have been fine.

When we pick up the Bible there is a temptation to want to open the cover and start reading. Doing so is certainly one way to take in the Word of God but doing so will also generate confusion. Genesis was certainly not the first book written in the Bible, it actually has two creation stories and is hard to understand if read literally without an understanding of Jewish literary techniques. For example, in the OT we are told that Abraham lived to be 175. No human has actually lived to be 175. We can watch some Christian bend and twist in order to provide “reasoning” why this is the case for Abraham, but there is a simple explanation albeit one with profound implications for how to interpret the Bible as a whole. It is in fact a common Jewish literary device to ascribe a long life to being in favour with God. This comes from the Jewish understanding of sin which supposed that the cause of sin and death in general was being unfavorable with God (for whatever reason). Thus, the flip side of this is to promote the fact that a person is in favour with God by adding years on to his life in the story. A Jew living in the desert hundreds of years before Christ would not have read that part of Genesis and thought, “oh my Abraham lived for a long time” he would have thought, “Abraham had great favour with God.” It is for that reason that Abraham’s age is even mentioned in the Bible.

Another good example of the dangers of jumping into the Bible without any sort background is when we talk about dinosaurs. I have heard some pretty amazingly irrational arguments as to why the Bible never mentioned dinosaurs. We have their bones plain as day before us today. We can use technology from the brains that God gave us to even date the bones in order to better understand our world. From undermining the very legitimate science (without any reason evidence other than the Bible) to claiming that dinosaurs and man lived on earth together (insane with absolutely no science to back it up) to even claiming that Satan put the bones in the earth to make us question God (probably with the assistance of Darwin himself somehow), Christians the world over have bent over backwards to explain the dearth of something so real and so present before us today in the Bible. And yet there is a simple explanation. The Jews in the desert didn’t have time to sit around and dig up dinosaurs (especially while in exile which is when most of the best parts of the OT were written down), they never even had a concept or understanding of their existence. So of course they do not make their way into the Bible. They also have no relevance on any stories or lessons within the OT. The whole purpose of the creation stories in Genesis are not about how God made the world (we will never know that while here on earth, even with the Bible) but that He made it and it was good and pleasing to Him and even more so it is about Him creating mankind in His image and marking us uniquely among His other creations. So we have to ask ourselves, when we dive into the creation story and take the seven days literally or the listing of animals created in the process literally are we really taking away from the story what we are supposed to take away? I say no absolutely not, we miss the mark when we undermine the Biblical teaching and focus on the wrong aspects of the story.

It might seem like I have digressed a little from my point but I am going to bring it all home now. Reading the OT and NT is a lot like how we approach the Bible as a whole. The law contained with the OT makes no sense if we do not have the teachings of Christ to back it up. Just the same as reading the OT requires us to have a broad understanding of Jewish theology, culture and literacy, so too does it require us to have a deep understanding of the NT. And in typically God fashion, it all hangs together (to steal a C.S. Lewis line) and comes back full circle. We cannot understand or grasp the importance of the NT without the messages and the coding in the OT. Together each book forms the yin and the yang and each have an eye within each other. Amazing how even the composition of the Bible itself is a fingerprint of the nature of God and man here on earth!

In closing, I firmly believe that it is fallacy and a vector for Satan to do his most effective work to attempt to interpret the Bible on a personal basis. We need the Church, we need our history, we need the history of the authors and we need a broad understanding of the cultures at play. We also need the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. It is amazing that we are able to hold this book in our hands and that it has been compiled and bound over two thousands years plus and counting.

God be praised!

Friday Week III, Office of the Readings

The first part of psalm 69 that is read in today during the Friday Week III of the Office of the Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours (using the Christian Prayer breviary) really jumped out at me today during my prayer. I would like to share the psalm extract with you here as well as some Lenten flavoured reflections.

Antiphon: I am worn out with crying, with longing for my God.

They offered me a mixture of wine and gall (Matthew 27:34)

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen to my neck.

I have sunk into the mud of the deep
and there is no foothold.
I have entered the waters of the deep
and the waves overwhelm me.

I am wearied with all my crying,
my throat is parched.
My eyes are wasted away
from looking for my God.

More numerous than the hairs on my head
are those who hate me without cause.
Those who attack me with lies
are too much for my strength.

How can I restore
what I have never stolen?
O God, you know my sinful folly;
my sins you can see.

Let those who hope in your not be put to shame
through me, Lord of hosts;
let not those who seek you be dismayed
through me, God of Israel.

It is for you that I suffer taunts,
that shame covers my face,
that I have become a stranger to my brothers,
an alien to my own mother’s sons.
I burn with zeal for your house
and taunts against you fall on me.

When I afflict my soul with fasting
they make it a taunt against me.
When I put on sackcloth in mourning
then they make a byword,
the gossip of men at the gates,
the subject of drunkards’ songs.

What an amazing psalm to read in the middle of the Lenten season! What an insightful and powerful Spirit guided the hand that ordered the Hours in such a way.

Part of my Lenten obligation for this season was a commitment to begin praying the Liturgy of the Hours more completely and in order to do that I reasoned that it was about time to get the prayers off of my phone and into my hands in physical book form. Last week, my Christian Prayer book came in and since that time I have been that busy Catholic with book tabs and prayer cards marking the various points of prayer through out the day. Having the large book and making a real attempt to pray the Hours entirely means that I have to lug the thing around with me wherever I go– including work. Right now the book sits on my desk with me and I have had some people ask about it. A few times I’ve walked around my work with it in my arms (usually headed toward a quiet spot to pray a particular hour) and I’ve heard some sneering. A big thick red book with gilded pages, coloured cloth book tabs and gold lettered “CHRISTIAN PRAYER” in the front, it becomes pretty obvious that I am carrying some sort of religious book around. The prayers themselves have caused me to “burn for zeal for [God’s] house” as we say in the psalm but they have also caused “taunts against [God] to fall on me.” This psalm speaks to me on such a deep level, it actually gave me a little shiver after I read it this morning.

Reflecting on the Way of the Cross this Lent (which is something I try and do each Wednesday after Low Mass in the evening), Jesus calls us to take up the cross and pick up the yoke. He assures us that “my burden is light” but the devil is literally in the details here, because the Evil One is the reason Christ has to remind us that the burden is light. Satan is always there to make things far worse, or rather seem far worse than they really are. But this psalm put that reluctance and that struggle into context and by context I mean it puts it right at the feet of Christ Himself. This is more than just a poem complaining about life, this is a person reaching up toward the Heavens and calling out to God, placing their burden and their own struggle at the feet of God. What a powerful and moving sentiment. What a perfect image for the middle of Lent when our obligations and our own temptations are beginning to mount.

During this Lenten season there is no doubt in my mind that when you fast you will be taunted. When you wear sackcloth and mourn and deny yourself certain pleasures in the face of those who take no issue indulging during the Lent season, you will be taunted and call out. You will be made to feel small and worthless and made to feel as if the waters are indeed rising all around you. Your throat will become red and raw from crying out to God but this is what we are meant to do, this is how we deal with struggle in our faith. We lift up, we reach up and we lay our struggles at the feet of the Lord.

I feel that it is appropriate to end this reflection with the prayer from Morning Prayer (Friday, Third Week of Lent), which also the prayer I used today to close out the Office of the Readings.

Merciful Father,
fill our hearts with your love
and keep us faithful to the gospel of Christ.
Give us the grace to rise above our human weakness.
Grant this thought our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.