In one form or another Scripture Wars seem always to be with us. True, Christians no longer literally kill one another over interpretations of scripture, but there are acrimonious divisions. For instance, consider the bitterness with which some fundamentalists defend their view of the inerrancy of scripture against the historical scepticism of the Jesus Seminar. Yet beyond the intensity of such hermeneutical feuds is a wider society in which knowledge of scripture is poor and often muddled by what are seen as its inconsistencies: as a correspondent in the ODT recently complained, 'Why are preachers like Dr James remaining silent? Why do they not expose the many shortcomings of the Bible to the whole world?'
Virtually all acts of reading involve our anticipation and expectation: so we anticipate finding a friend’s number in a phone book because our expectation of phone books tells us that is where we look for such things. We get miffed or muddled if our expectations seem betrayed. For instance, I might buy a book with the title To Cast a Fly expecting it to be about trout fishing but on reading find it is a political thriller. I might still enjoy it but my anticipation of its reading must change because my expectations were askew.
Something like this is an underlying problem when we try to read the bible, or even, just the gospels. What do we expect of the gospels? It is it is not at all clear what sort of books the gospels are; what we should expect of them, or how we should then read them. They are neither histories nor biographies, though aspects of those genres can be found in them; they are neither dogmatic texts nor systematic theology; still less are they works of fiction, but in each a shaping purpose, narrative sense and imagination are clearly present. How do we read these books? What are they?
A reader who approaches the bible with an expectation of a definitive account of Christ finds four gospels, not one; and, remember, none of them biography or history. Over the centuries countless scholars have explored the complex textual connections between the gospels and the different traditions and contexts that lie behind each of them. The general experience of the church has been that the differences between the gospels have proven to be not a shortcoming but richness. The gospels are a web of story that taps into a common well of memory and experience but in each case speak with a distinctive voice and theological slant that indicate particular authorial sources and contexts. So, when detractors of the Christian faith cite differences between the gospels as evidence of their unreliability or proof against Christian faith, they repeatedly fail to grasp the unique character of these texts.
The mystery about which each gospel turns remains enigmatic and irreducible. One image for each Gospel, indeed each section within a gospel, could be to think of it as a window through we may glimpse something of the mystery of God. The multiplicity of windows or points of entry to the mystery on which they give some access allows a greater range of vision, a different perspective – rather frustrating for readers who seek a single vision. The view is never complete, always an invitation to enter to see further; always, an invitation to faith. I like to think that St Paul had something similar in mind when he spoke of seeing ‘through a glass darkly’.
The enigmatic nature of the gospels is underlined if we reflect on what is probably their most memorable form of discourse, the parable. Many of the parables parallel or echo one another across the synoptic gospels; some are particular; some have so-called interpretations attached to them and others do not. Readers have become familiar with parables – the simplicity of the memorable story form encourages that – and typically have tended to understand the parables in fairly consistent ways as if such interpretations were a foregone conclusion. Some theological positions and critical traditions have done something similar, tending to limit the scope of some parables as if wanting to foreclose on any alternative readings. In such environments one consequence has been that scripture tends to be treated as dogma and the sense of surprise or discovery that most truly characterises its reading is lost. So, for instance, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) is most commonly read with the focus on the prodigal; but the parable is more about the nature of the father who has to contend with both the waywardness of the prodigal and the bitterness of the elder brother. Although one can read this as a moral tale of wayward humanity, it holds a powerful element of the unexpected that undermines easy readings and invites us to reconsider our assumptions. It extends and challenges our understanding of what it means to live as authentic human beings – after all there is certainly something amiss with the elder brother. This parable hints at a God who is much more than we may imagine; unknowable and mysterious.
We are not dismayed by this: we can trust the parables because we trust their source, Christ. That faith encounter remains the foundation for enduring and enjoying the struggle with scripture. Of course, I understand this must be an exasperating opinion for those who don’t share that faith.