Faith Works 3-14-15
Why a Bible?
If you're reading this whether in print or online this Saturday, Happy Pi Day! If you're reading this at 9:26:53 a.m., well, that's very cool if you're into math and geometry.
In I Kings 7:23, echoed in the parallel account of II Chronicles 4:2, there's a detailed description of the "brazen sea," a giant cast metal basin for ritual washing just outside of the doors of the Jerusalem Temple.
Both tellings inform the reader that the vessel is thirty cubits in circumference, and ten cubits in diameter. Some of us would say that's close enough for narrative work, but those who find the place and meaning of the Bible in the modern world to be an antiquated intrusion like to point out that either the measurements, or the reporting, must be incorrect, because "pi" is not 3, but 3.141592653 (etc.). So, that line of logic goes, the Bible is not without error.
And I sigh wearily as I hear from some intent on protecting the good name and stature of the Bible by coming up with elaborate explanations for how the description implies a curved lip and that the reported circumference is not quite in correspondence with the diameter, so nyah nyah it is so a perfect record.
Peace be upon them all.
In this Lenten series on "why's" of Christian faith and practice, I've come to what is always contentious ground. The skeptic's question is "Why do any people in 2015 still look for guidance and grounding to a series of ancient texts, from at least three different languages and much of it filtered through a fourth to get to our English, complicated by an assortment of translations, all of which come from across a couple thousand years of writings, the most recent of which is nearly two thousand years old?"
Did I get that right, skeptics? Truly, I want to be fair.
It can get more complicated than that long question. Non-believers and the unchurched ask why we faithful choose certain passages for verbatim guidance, but give ourselves a pass for others, or how the whole is to be considered anything other than a collection of fragments, the unity imposed by power and authority from without.
It's a conversation I've had more than a few times.
And some people of faith put so much of it in the Holy Scriptures, King James' translation of 1611 or others, that they would insist on the stand-alone truth of any individual statement in all the 66 books of the standard canon (necessary note: the canon, or list of scriptural books, is slightly different in some communions, including books called the "Apocrypha" and some other materials like extra chapters or psalms).
I've been approached by people telling me they suspect I'm not a literalist, or an "inerrantist" on my reading of the Bible. That would be correct. I believe I hold a very high view of the significance of the Bible, and how it interacts with God's plan and purposes into our lives today, but you'll usually hear me saying "scripture and tradition" in church when I talk about how we interpret and apply the Bible, because they are two sides of a priceless coin. We carry assumptions and history of interpretation to the words and stories, and to be mindful of them is to let the larger story, the whole story I believe the Bible in sum does, in fact, tell – that awareness of the context gives the Bible more authority, not less. You the reader of this column can find Christians who would lean away from that position in any number of directions.
What I can tell you about the Bible, and what it means to me, takes the form of a story, a currency the Bible deals in richly. When my son and I and our crew were hiking in the mountains of Philmont two summers back, there was a mountain named Baldy that stood out on the landscape, higher than any other point in the surrounding terrain.
We might be near it or far, we climbed atop it, and we journeyed away from Baldy, but wherever we were, it was what you turned to look at to know where you were. You weren't always on the slopes of Baldy itself, but when you looked to where it was, it told us where we stood. The map read more clearly when we knew Baldy's location on our horizon, along with the compass bearing we sought.
The Bible, to me, is my everyday Baldy Mountain. It grounds me, and tells me where I am, and where I'm going.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him your horizon marker at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.