Sunday, May 11, 2014

Whose Bible. . .

I well recall sitting in class with the now sainted Kurt Marquart and hearing him say that the Bible was not the Christian's book but the Church's book; the hymnal and the catechism were the Christian's books.  It was shocking to me -- not because I disbelieved his words but because it startled me to hear it said like this, out loud, before God and everyone.  Nearly all of us grew up with just the opposite understanding.  The Bible was ours and the hymnal and catechism the Church's books.  We have turned the tables on history and a copy or two or twelve of the Bible is regularly found in our homes but we are not sure what we did with the catechism and we don't recall if we ever had a hymnal.  It was not always this way.

The rank individualism of our modern day culture has stolen the Scriptures from the Church and with it any real sense that interpretation is anything but one person's best guess or reasoned opinion.  So the Bible and what it says have no real boundaries.  Even within the churches we find people all across the spectrum of belief and opinion about the Word of the Lord (or the words of man intermingled with some words from the Lord as some would put it).  What is shocking to us is that it was not always this way.

Prior to the seventh century there were no spaces between words in nearly all books and certainly in the Bible.  This meant that even those who read did not have an easy time reading outside the community which was the custodian of those written works and the guardian of their meaning.  Well after the printing press and even the translation of Scripture into English and later German (the vernacular), people in the pews still thought of the Word of God largely as the spoken or preached Word.  The availability of these books did not immediately translate into their accessibility for the average Christian.

Though the printing press hastened and distanced the idea of the Scriptures as something independent of the Church and outside the dialogue of faith (preaching and teaching), it did not happen overnight.  Where the printing press enabled Scripture to begin a private conversation outside the realms of the Church, worship, catechesis, and even the university, it remained largely a public conversation within the greater community of faith for a long time.

Though the printing press made it easy and less expensive to sell and to own books, especially the Bible, the economic realities of the day and the bare beginning of general literacy meant that the Church would retain its role as the custodian of the Word of God and the one who set the boundaries of its meaning and application for some time.  The Roman Catholics exercised strict control and outright censorship in the wake of Trent and the Reformers (of various persuasions) The Reformers used assorted means such as confessionalism, catechisms, and the jurisdictions of church and state to mitigate the theological free for all we have today.

From the Middle Ages  until well into the 18th century, people read intensively but what they read was largely limited to few actual texts.  They may have owned the Bible, some sort of almanac or generic encyclopedia of knowledge, a catechism, and one or two devotional books.  These were their libraries and they read them over and over again until they became very conversant with these books.  Just as these works impressed their knowledge upon the readers, the lectionary in worship repeated the same lessons year after year on their appointed Sundays.  The people were not widely read but what they read they knew well.

By the end of the 19th century, people had all sorts and kinds of reading materials -- from the ever present newspapers which fed them the information of the day to great works of literature to the popular works of the moment to scientific and theological books, people read many things.  But, they did not know them as well as they once knew the few books of their libraries.  Progress another hundred years or and people scanned books they once read and knew snippets from many more works than they had ever read.  This was also true of the Bible now largely absent from the lessons of the public school and the decline of family life as people moved from rural to urban areas and their incomes generated by factory work.

Jump ahead to the internet and we find ourselves in a digital age where information is vast and flowing but, like the Platte River in Nebraska, it may be very wide but it is not very deep.  We possess this information but it is passive and we seldom actually use all the things we have read.  We are more likely than ever to depend upon secondary sources more than primary sources and, when it comes to the Bible, we are more likely to know salacious and scintillating details over the timelines and larger subjects and stories of the Scriptures.  The Church long ago unwillingly ceded to the individual the book that was once their own domain and struggles simply to combat the vast diversity of opinion and interpretation that threatens the very unity and unanimity of every theological tradition and confessional identity.

Digital reading of the computer screen or e-reader or smart phone or tablet seems to finally be threatening the once dominant character of the printed word and this is no less true for copies of the Bible and theological and devotional works.  Not all of these changes are negative.  In fact, those with reading or visual disabilities have access to all sorts and kinds of works (especially the Bible) that once were well beyond the reach of someone not conversant with braille or with the financial resources to purchase braille books.  Yet the challenge of the individual dominion over the Word of God and the free reign of every informed and crackpot opinion means that the Bible is, for all practical purposes, no longer the Church's book as it once was.  This is a mixed blessing at best and at worst means that it is harder than ever for any community of faith to say "we believe, confess, and teach" and for those words to have integrity for the entire congregation or church body.


Anonymous said...

These are, indeed, very interesting observations about the Bible, the Catechism, and the Hymnal. I have several copies of each in my home, but I realize that my taste in books and other things is not that of most folks.

I think that perhaps this has to do in part with the authority given to the Bible. The Catechism and the Hymnal are at most authoritative only to those who belong to the denomination that put them out. To all others, they are simply "more books." The Bible has a degree of universal authority (although it is declining), and this is why everyone feels free to take a shot at it.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Faithful believers in days past were martyred so others could have a personal copy of the Bible, rather than have it filtered through the church alone. The Bible is supposed to be available to all, and we rely on the teaching of the Holy Spirit to explain it.