I want to poke some more at something I quoted a couple of days ago: Leslie Keeney’s wise and funny statement that the Bible is more like The Lord of the Rings than The Collected Sayings of Gandalf. Evangelicals, she says, have a lot of trouble with that. Having been raised Anglican and not Evangelical, I don’t have trouble with it. It’s just the way things are.
Christianity inherited a body of texts from Judaism. The two religions soon distinguished themselves from one another by what texts they considered authoritative; Protestants later distinguished themselves from Catholics by rejecting some of the texts that had been accepted as authoritative for over a thousand years. The texts that Christians call the Old Testament and Jews call the Tanakh include prose and poetry. The Psalms, the Proverbs, and much of the writings of the Prophets is poetry, along with that little erotic poem that somehow sneaked in, the Song of Songs. Ecclesiastes is a pessimistic prose reflection on the brevity of life and the futility of human endeavor. Pretty much all the rest of those texts, from Genesis through Chronicles, then the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, of Ruth and Esther and Jonah, are narrative.
They are stories.
The four Gospels of the New Testament are stories. So is the Acts of the Apostles. So is the book of Revelation, albeit a rather trippy story. The remainder of the New Testament consists of letters, many of them written by one identifiable person (that guy Paul) to identifiable communities in different locations around the Mediterranean world. While Paul probably did not write everything that has his name on it, he did write quite a few of those letters, in each one addressing a different, specific congregation of believers.
We have these stories.
The closest the Bible comes to ethical precept is Ecclesiastes and the book of Proverbs. Those two books, known as wisdom literature because their main thrust is “Do what is wise” more than “Do what is right” have much in common with the wisdom literature of Egypt, Canaan, ancient Sumer, and other cultures contemporary with ancient Israel. The closest the Bible gets to a how-to manual of behavior is the book of Leviticus, which is about ninety percent directions on ritual, ritual propriety, ritual purity, how to build a portable sanctuary in a tent and how it is to be attended, and what to do if mold or mildew appears in your home. It is full of instructions that Christians have routinely ignored at least since the debates recorded in the Acts of the Apostles: don’t wear clothes of blended wool and linen, don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk (or eat meat and dairy products together, as the laws of kosher still proscribe), don’t eat shellfish, men get circumcised, women take ritual baths after their menses.
The rest of it is stories.
I grew up with a religion of stories. The stories of Jesus and his disciples, of Paul and his journeys, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, of Ruth and Naomi, Esther and the king, Daniel and the lions, David and Goliath. Alongside the Bible stories, there were stories of Christian writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, Dorothy Sayers. And there were stories about other gods, gods of Egypt and Greece, of the Norse and the Celts. As I read about other religions and other gods, I had no inclination to think they were evil or demonic or even untrue; they just weren’t mine. People used to worship Odin and Thor, Zeus and Apollo and Athena (I loved Athena), and now they didn’t. People in India still worshipped Shiva and Vishnu, but somehow that was okay. It was my own tradition’s sacred stories that taught me to pay attention to all story; a story was worth paying attention to no matter where it came from.
Along with the stories came the poetry. Not just the Psalms but the hymns we sang in church were poetry (not always good poetry, but poetry). I still remember finding the Song of Songs in the Bible and poring over it furtively with exactly the same frisson I later got from my father’s badly hidden copy of Anais Nin‘s Delta of Venus; even as a precocious nine-year-old, I knew it was a poem about sex. What was it doing in the Bible? What were breasts doing in the Bible?
As a teenager I discovered not only Anais Nin’s erotica, but the poetry of John Donne, about equally obsessed with sex and with God; the Divine Comedy of Dante, about equally obsessed with God, romantic love, and politics; and Julian of Norwich, and T.S. Eliot, and a lot of other things that the poetry of the liturgy and the Bible had somehow prepared me for. If I wanted to write about God (and sex, romantic love, and creativity), I had models to follow.
Religion, for me, was never about ideas, or propositions. Even the great doctrines like Creation, Incarnation, the Trinity were not abstract concepts, but rather abstracts in the literary sense, shorthand summaries of longer descriptions, references to stories. That God created humans, gave us the divine power to name, and then actually became human and lived with us, was, and is, the most fascinating story I could imagine.
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