Tuesday, September 29, 2009



The Art of Reading and Interpreting Scripture Faithfully

One of the many books that I want to have is ‘The Art of Reading Scripture’ by Richard B. Hays and Ellen F. Davis. The book is too costly and it is not published in India. But I’m glad to have an MP3 lecture by Hays on the book and here’s a summary (or dictation:-)) of the main points in the MP3 with a few personal inputs. To read and interpret the Bible faithfully is important because: i. It is not possible to read Scripture without interpreting it. Consciously or unconsciously, we are always interpreting the Bible as we read. It is important that we learn to do it and do it well because our interpretation tends to be influenced by our social and cultural baggage, educational background, denomination we belong to, etc. ii. The nature of the Scripture itself: that it is both human and divine. The error is more towards treating the Bible as a book fallen from the sky, unpolluted by human hands, thoughts or language. He made a list of inadequate approaches in reading/interpreting Scripture. All of these have some grain of truth but it becomes inappropriate when a point/some points are taken in isolation.  

1.Reading the Bible as an advice column. The Bible of course has lots of sound advices to live our lives. Hays talked of his experience of being directed to ‘self-help’ section in a book store when he asked for the ‘religion section’.  

2.Reading Scripture as a roadmap to heaven or how to be saved. Life is a journey to heaven (like the Pilgrim’s Progress), and the Bible is a guide map to get you there. Or the Bible provides the way to escape (saved from) this evil world which is like a sinking ship going down or a garbage heap waiting to be burnt.

3.Reading the Bible as a script full of predictions of the end time events. Left Behind series comes to mind: that one day, Israelites will return to their homeland, Antichrist (a political leader named Nicolae in LB)defeated, temple worship restarted and Yahweh will rule from Zion.

4.Reading the Bible as a purely historical source of facts. This approach is helpful as counter-balance to the first three points. However, this approach leaves no room for faith based approach which is so vital for any believer of the Bible. A believer is not an outsider, but a participant in the Bible story. The supernatural/divine elements if rationalised and naturalised for the modern mind will miss what the Bible has to say. This approach is prevalent in universities (e.g., one engaged in archeology who is always in Assyria or somewhere in the holy land).

5. Reading the Bible as having a massive cover up or a great conspiracy to conceal the truth about early Christianity and the truth about Jesus. The Dan Brown books come to mind: that the Vatican is trying to cover up some affairs Jesus had and his family line which continues to this day.

6. Reading the Bible in the popular post-modern way of thinking: that everything is relative and all meaning is constructed by the reader and the texts do not have any determinant meanings in their own rights. Suspicion of authority and objective interpretation is oppresive.

7. Reading the Bible as a book fallen straight from heaven, dictated by God word for word. This was the approach of the 16th century fundamentalists to counter liberal exegeses. The idea is that each and every verse is free from historical/theological error and can stand on its own like an individual proverb. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language by human authors with limited capabilities and resources. It fails to pay attention to the process extending over long periods bearing marks of diverse historical situations. It confuses religious teachings which uses a lot of symbolic metaphors with hard scientific data. It ignores and denies the problems presented by the biblical texts in its original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek forms. It invites people to commit a kind of intellectual suicide.  

Ways of interpreting the Bible effectively

The Bible tells a story within which we live. The God of Israel, the Creator of the Universe (since man has rebelled and disobeyed God and disordered the created order) has acted to save the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The full extend of that rescue is something we haven't seen yet. While we wait, the Church (the community Christ has established to be his witness) is called to re-enact the pattern of the loving obedience of Jesus Christ; to be a sign to the world of God's redeeming purposes.

1. It is about God. The Bible is not primarily about me: 'What is it going to do for me?' 'What is relevant in this passage for me?' It is about God and his universe.

2. It is a coherent dramatic narrative. The Bible moves from the creation of the universe to the fall, selection of Israel, Exile, Restoration, Jesus Christ- his Life, Teachings, Death and Resurrection, Community of believers, Redemption of the world in the New Creation.....

3. The Old Testament and the New Testament must be read together. It must be read from back to front and front to back. See exercise below.  

4. A text must be interpreted both in relation to its immediate historical world and finally to the shape of the cannon Hos. 11:1 and Mt. 2:15 Isa. 7:14 and Mt. 1 :23 Gen. 13:16 and Gal. 3:16  

5. Texts in Scripture have multiple senses. This is hard because we want it to be like solving a simple equation. But the texts have layers and layers of meanings which also requires imaginative perception. The Jews knew it, pre-enlightenment christians knew it, and we need to recover it. For example, the good Samaritan story teaches that my neighbor is anyone who is in need. It also has profound things to say about racial/ethnic/class discrimination. The Samaritan is here proclaimed as a hero.

6. The four cannonical gospels of the NT narrate the truth about Jesus. All of them are essential to understand who Jesus is.  

7. The reader has to be a participant in the Church. Many may say, I'm a spiritual person. I can encounter God in a lot of ways and I don't need to go to church. No. The Church provides the community in which we read the Bible. Like a polyphonic music score against a monophonic tone inorder to trully appreciate music.  

8. The Bible has to be performed to be understood. The saints provide models to read Scripture faithfully. Saints are those who are recognised in the Christian traditions, or our role models in the faith-fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, or friends-who read and embody the Scripture well.  

9. Reading the Bible is often done fruithfully in the company of outsiders: particularly with the Jewish community who claim the same Scripture (OT). E.g. the new perspective on Paul.  

10. We can never attain a final closure being inside the story. Living in the in-between, we are called to humility realising that what we say isn't the last word.  

Exercise: Here's a very interesting exercise from Acts 15:1-21. This portion contains references to Amos 9:11,12, Isa.45:21 and Lev. 17,18 (plus christian tradition). Some Jews were upset by mission to the gentiles and they wanted the gentile converts to be circumcised. How did the Council of Jerusalem come to a conclusion that the gentile converts need to only abstain from eating blood, certain foods, avoid idolatry and fornication? Refer to the references. Quite bizzare that this passage of accepting gentiles as they are is used for homosexual rights. That's for another day though.  

Note: lay people need not be frightened ( as in a century ago) by advocates of higher criticisms by giving the impression that a great deal of prelimanry learning is essential before one can understand the Bible properly. Prayer (pleading for light), meditation (hard thought) and temptation resisted(to be passive, refuse to confess, and obey the truth one knows) will lead to the spiritual understanding that theology exists to safegaurd.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some points to consider in the Evolutionary Creation vs. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) debate

  • Evolution and Theology operates at different levels: The first talks about our chronological origin while the later about our ontological origin. The two talks of different things and cannot be contested. Therefore creation vs. evolution is a non-debate. But yes, Evolution and YEC is the issue in contention.
  • To take the Bible as a science textbook believing in its inerrancy runs into problems within the text itself, e.g. genealogical precision (Genesis 11:12 cf. Luke 3:35).
  • Nature of science is such that a theory’s in place until refuted by another which better explains the phenomenon under study. No better theory has come up to refute evolution than the criticism of its loopholes.
  • The above point doesn’t mean the acceptance of evolution in spite of its weakness just for want of a better theory. The ever growing evidence and the landslide consensus among scientists testify to it being a theory and not a hypothesis.
  • The proportion of Bible scholars vouching for a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 is a tiny figure.
  • Coherence: that Astronomy, Geology, Biology, Archeology, etc all agree to and require an old universe/earth negates the possibility of the earth being 6000-10000 years old.
  • Credentials of the proponents of evolution and YEC and publishing of materials in reputed journals need to be considered.
  • Is adopting a stand for a young earth out of scientific proofs or faithfulness to a style of scripture interpretation?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Guest Lecture: Meera Nanda's State-Temple-Corporate complex

Here's bits from a guest lecture by prof. Meera Nanda that I attended in our centre. She talked of the 'Sate-Temple-Corporate complex' that she drew from her new book 'The God Market'. I haven't read it yet, so how do I know? Well, she was reading out from the book.

Here's how the nexus works. Anybody (profit/non profit) can set up educational institutions and get approved by the UGC. Therefore there is this mad rush for universities to get the 'deemed' status. Once you get the recognition, you can hire and fire at will, give your own degrees, fix your own fee structure, and no reservation is necessary. Other than the UGC, the State can also say to a university, 'we recognise you'. Once the university gets recognised, the corporate sector jumps in knowing that now, it is profitable for investment. The religious institutions benefit from this nexus and the business has grown. The use of public money (as all deemed universities get from the government) by hindu religious institutions to train priests, astrologers, vedic sciences began to emerge in a big way with the NDA government. Until 2000, there were only 21 such institutions. It rose to 50 in 2005 and now in 2009, we have 127. This excludes those recognised by the state; only UGC recognised figure here. The government gave Rs. 4000 million to Ramdev, 90 acres of land to Shri Shri ravi Shankar to set up their centre, and so on. 'Pujari' has become a good middle class profession and the demand for qualified (scientific) religion men is more than the supply. Why so much demand when with time, importance of religion seems to be on the wane? Not so, the resurgence of spiritualism is evident in most parts of the developed as well as the developing world. She (Prof Nanda) said that Indians are becoming more religious while the opposite seems to be happening in the west. But I don't think that's correct because even in the west, the increase in interest particularly in old eastern religions has been reported by many. She pointed out that in India, it is the middle and the upper class who are more religious. We have to look at the class, caste, education and equality in the society when looking at religion. The elites ostentatiously express their religiosity. The conclusion was not very clear. Maybe I wasn't attentive. However, as her topic was on privatisation of higher education, there's this good connection of the problem of diverting huge public money to educate priests. I have an assignment coming up; a term paper on communalisation and population. After that, maybe I'll make more sense.

 “The God Market: How Globalization is making India more Hindu” Random House (in 2009) It is the thesis of this book that the growing liberalization and globalization of the Indian economy is not only compatible with, but is actually contributing to the growth of a virulent form of political Hinduism which is as wedded to the project of politicizing and universalizing a Hindu (or “Vedic”) worldview, as the Islamists and Christian fundamentalists are to maximizing the influence of their own respective faith traditions. Meera Nanda