Sunday, April 23, 2006

Bible Squee

Translations and commentaries are important to me no matter what I'm reading, and I'm oh-so-picky.

Odyssy and Iliad: Robert Fagles.
Shakespeare: The Arden editions, period, and Harold Bloom commentary. (Harold Bloom commentary makes anything worth reading. It's like marinara sauce. Add it, and I'll eat anything).
Tao Te Ching: Witter Bynner or Stephen Mitchell (I also like Stephen Mitchell's Rumi)
Sherlock Holmes: I have the nine-volume hardcover annotated Oxford edition.
Darwin: still torn between the Wilson and Watson commentaries.

I get very excited about nifty editions of the Bible. Today I dug up a 1966 Jerusalem Bible at my parents' house, which they let me keep.

The Jerusalem Bible was translated by Dominican monks in the first half of the 20th century. They tried to be relatively literal, yet write in 'modern' English, yet stay true to the flavor of each book. Thus the Psalms read like songs, the Epistles read like letters, etc. It's a single-column Bible, which I prefer, and it's not a red-letter Bible (I hate red-letter Bibles). It's a Catholic Bible, which also pleases me, and the books of the Apocrypha are in their proper places, not squished between the Old and New Testaments. There's a fairly substantial essay of commentary before each book, as well as extensive discursive footnotes at the bottom of each right-hand page. The verse numbers are in the inside margins, not in the text, which makes everything flow better. Plus, just as the corners of a page in a dictionary reference the first and last words found therein, the chapter and verse are referenced here.

I'm most excited about the outside margins. They contain what is essentially a running concordance- alongside each line of text are the citations for verses which allude to/refer back to/are parallel to the verse in question. This is wonderful. When a verse is directly quoting another verse, it's placed in italics. Even better.

The language of this translation is spare and elegant. Yes, it's a modern translation, and the Psalms sound nothing like the KJV, but it's not flat and ugly like so many of the 'contemporary' Bibles out there. Yay.

And the icing on the cake? Well, I have an affection for the KJV because so many writers of the time came together to complete it, and it's suspected Shakespeare was among them. You know who was a major contributor to the Jerusalem Bible?

J.R.R. Tolkien.

Oh, yes. Oh yes indeed.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Leavened bread

Pondering the Resurrection this Easter, I find joy in the fact that it no longer throws me into agonies about my belief or lack thereof.

I guess I'm learning that belief is different from faith. I have faith in the people I love. When I am separated from them, I still have faith in their love for me, and mine for them, regardless of their absence. I don't need to believe that they are present in order to have faith in them.

What I found myself meditating on today during Meeting were the parables Jesus used to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven- the mustard seed, and the leavened bread.

I read a parable spoken by a desert father. His student asked him about the meaning of the Resurrection. In response, he took a lump of salt and dropped it in a vessel of water, then walked away. The next day, the father and the student came back. Can you see the salt? the father asked. No, replied the student. Taste the water, said the father. The student did; it was salty. And that, said the father, was the meaning of the Resurrection. The body dissolved, but now in every drop of water.

So with the bread and the yeast and the Kingdom of Heaven; the yeast vanishes into the bread and yet imparts its leaven upon the whole. This parable is all the more dear to me because it speaks of something so mundane. The Jews Jesus was speaking to would have viewed leavened bread as profane; it was unleavened bread that was sacred. The Resurrection and, thus, the Kingdom of Heaven seep into our mundane lives to transform them.

I might not be able to believe that Christ rose from the dead, but I have faith in it, just as I have faith that I am loved, that spring will come again, that bread will rise.

Monday, April 10, 2006

John 14:6

There is no verse in the Bible I struggle with so much as this one.

I am about to plot out my struggle for all of you. I'm not sure if this struggle is a particularly Quaker struggle. I feel like I should be able to either happily ignore all the verses in the Bible I don't like, because it's an error-filled historical document, or ignore my problems with various verses, because the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God, Amen, period. But neither of those approaches satisfies me either intellectually or spiritually.

After many years, I came back to Christianity because of Christ's gospel of love. Love for everyone, including the sinners and Samaritans and people we don't like. The God I worship is a God of inclusive love. A Christian friend perhaps a year ago, just about the time I was truly coming back to my faith, spent some time trying to convince me that I could not call myself a Christian and believe that there were other paths, and she cited this verse- 'no man comes to the Father except through me.' If she had convinced me that this was a true dichotomy, I would never have come back.

There are layers and layers of feeling I have about this verse. Part of the time I just say, "Argh, I can't deal with that verse. It sums up everything I hate about Christianity. Ugh." Part of the time I say, "Surely that was not in the original. Surely that was a later interpolation," and honestly, most of the scholarship I've read suggests that this is likely (the Gospel of John diverges widely from the other three, synoptic Gospels, and is widely regarded as the least accurate in regards to the specifics of Christ's life).

Part of me, though- maybe the faithful part, and maybe the dishonest part- wants to find a way to reconcile my beliefs to this verse, or this verse to my beliefs. And this calls into violent tumult all my views about the Bible. I do believe that the Bible is Divinely inspired, just as I believe that most messages in Meeting are Divinely inspired. But I surely don't think that messages in Meeting are inerrant, and nor do I think the Bible is. Nevertheless, I learn a lot from my fundamentalist friends, and as they keep reminding me when I bring up my struggle with this verse or that (how can they NOT struggle?!), I am not meant to lean on my own understanding.

Well. I think I am meant to lean on my own understanding, in part. As I seem to mention at least once a post, I am a scientist, and I think our minds are meant my God to be used. If men didn't lean on their own understanding some, we'd still be praying for miraculous cures instead of using antibiotics. And as the death rates among religious communities which forswear medicine in exchange for prayer can attest, sometimes antibiotics are just what a body needs.

But if I leant on my own understanding entirely, I'd still be floating in a vague New-Age spirituality, on no real path. I chose to walk this road because I want that structure and guidance, and I am looking for a bit of a roadmap to the Divine will. My faith tradition says that's the Bible- fine. But I am looking for a consistent way to view the Bible. I believe it's inspired, I believe it's a historical document, I believe it's truthful, I believe it needs to be viewed in context, I don't believe it's inerrant, I do believe that it's holy, I don't believe that it's perfect, I do believe that it's God-breathed, I don't believe that it's meant literally . . .

But where does this get me? When I'm staring a difficult verse in the face, what do I do with it? I don't mean a 'difficult verse' like the silly ones about the mustard seed being the smallest seed (it isn't) or rabbits being unclean because they chew the cud (they don't). Because I don't think the Bible is inerrant and these are such minor errors, it doesn't take much shrugging to not be bothered by this. But what about John 14:6?

I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father except through me.

If there is one deep, religious insight I feel like I've ever gained in my life it is this: There is only one Truth, but no one has any bloody clue what it is. The job of religions is to get us as close to it as we possibly can, but only God knows the whole of it. I'm inclined to think that Truth is just plain unknowable by humans- after all, God is truth, and God is unknowable. And while this belief in the unknowability of Truth and God is a belief as deepset in me as beliefs come, my entire life is pretty much dedicated to getting as near to the unknowable as I can, and living in accordance with it as much as I can. And the Bible tells me a fair amount both about how to get there (love your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love thy neighbor as thyself), and how to sniff it out in other folks (by their fruits you shall know them).

I don't buy that the main message of the Gospels is "believe in Jesus and be saved." When someone actually asked Jesus about the most important thing, he quoted the verses I just did, about love. So that's what my Christianity is about- love. Not about my salvation, because that'd be a bit selfish of me. Love.

When I read that verse from John, I do reconcile it in my head. Here's how I do it:

Christ is, in fact, the way, the truth, and the life, and Christ is love. I truly don't think anyone can get to God except through love. I don't think that verse is commanding that we worship Jesus as Savior- I think it's commanding that we partake of the love of Christ. And as far as I can understand, there are a lots of ways to do that besides worshipping Jesus (and lots of people who worship Jesus that aren't following Christ at all . . . )

So that's my gloss for you. I even think it's a good gloss.

What I start to wonder is if I should be glossing at all. Not like everyone else isn't doing it. But in a way, when I use the Bible to justify a belief of mine, I'm being dishonest, because while the Bible informs many of beliefs and kicks me in the pants and reminds me to be honest and good and true, at the end of the day the Bible doesn't tell me what to believe; the still small voice does that. So I, and every bible-thumper in the country, can use the Bible to justify whatever beliefs I bloody well please, and I can make it sound all very nice and religious- 'of course I'm a good Christian! I believe in the Bible and everything!' when really I'm not sure if that's what the Bible is actually saying. I guess that's part of my lack of a handle on Truth.

And even then, I don't want to get caught in the trap of feeling that my beliefs must only come from the Bible . . . they don't, they never will, and I don't think they should. I'm a Quaker, blast it. Divine revelation is continually unfolding. What I want is a consistent view of the aggravating volume- some way to look at it that makes sense and helps me figure out when to gloss and when to not gloss and when to just ignore it. I have some nigglings in that direction, but nothing well fleshed-out.

And, argh, this is all part of the continual culture war inside of my head. The Quaker community here is wonderful and supportive and, like me, they view the Bible as inspired but not literal . . . but I often feel like I'm the only one agonizing over these things, because the other half of my faith community, in the form of my my dearly loved evangelical lowercase friends, do view the Bible as authoritative and I can't shrug off their influence . . . nor, I think, do I entirely want to. So here I am, groping towards a respectfully consistent view of the Bible. A Quaker view of the Bible, even. But I'm not there yet.