The Bible: A Love Story

I gave this sermon in 2011. I post it here in response to a Twitter exchange with @Eugene_Debs.

Here is the secular reading I used in the service. I think it’s great background.

“What Is the Bible For?” The Rev. Paige Getty

In January 1604, King James I of England convened a conference where a new English version of the Christian Bible was conceived in response to the so-called “problems” that the Puritans (a faction within the Church of England) had detected in the two earlier English translations. King James gave the translators instructions that were intended to ensure that the new version would more adequately conform to the expectations of the Church of England and its beliefs about ordained clergy. The translation was conducted by 47 scholars, whose “mandate was to improve on the earlier English Bibles — ‘to make…out of many good ones, one principall good one.’” (Freeman) All of them were members of the Church of England, and they finished their work in 1611. (Wikipedia)

Because this translation was then “appointed to be read in Churches”(Crystal 9), and has been a very popular – if not the most popular – English translation of the Bible for the past 400 years, it gets credit for introducing the Bible into common usage.

Last year a writer (David Crystal) published a book about the way the King James Bible has influenced our English language – he counts 257 common idioms (“the expressions we use and modify freely with no reference to their origins”) that can be traced to the Bible, and were popularized because of the broad exposure that people have had to the King James Bible over time. (Freeman)

“Whenever you hear phrases such as the salt of the earth, a man after our own heart, let there be light, two-edged sword, how are the mighty fallen, rod of iron, wheels within wheels, get thee behind me, Satan, new wine in old bottles, a voice crying in the wilderness, a fly in the ointment, you are hearing echoes of the prose of the KJV.” (Shaw)

THE SERMON

The Bible: A Love Story

The Rev. Dr . Victoria Weinstein

 

Suppose you sat down with some friends and brought out cherished photo albums from your family’s past. There’s great-grandmother, with her handmade gown and veil, your beautiful great-grandma and her proud groom, circa 1893. Later photos show your grandfather, their son, riding a Model-T. It was the first in the family. In the photo, relatives are gathered around, beaming; some looking nervous. A guy rides a horse and cart by and the rider looks skeptically at the locomotive. You can almost hear him saying, “It will never catch on.”

Your friends, sitting next to you on the couch, give you strained smiles.

“Wouldn’t it be better if you put this all on-line?” one asks. “Then you could e-mail them to us and we could see them on the screen. It would be so much easier.” You agree that it would be, and you’ll think about it. But you love the closeness of sitting together and looking through the album in person, on the couch.

Another friend points at great-grandmother’s wedding dress. “Good God, is that handmade? What a nightmare. It’s so awful that they didn’t have the technology back then that would have spared whoever made that gown the hours of backbreaking work over those buttonholes! Women were so oppressed. It’s so sad, an arranged marriage.”

The first friend pipes up again. “Look at that old car. They were all so excited about it, but of course they had no way of knowing that the Model-T would be the beginning of the suburbanization of America and the awful, soul-killing labor of working on an assembly line. Henry Ford was such a tyrant.”

Thoroughly wounded now, your joy ruined, the images you will always find beautiful obviously not respected by these critical eyes, you put the photo album back on the shelf. You know that you will never again share them with these friends, or anyone like them.

The four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible this year gives me an opportunity to share with you my own feelings about this grand work of Western religion, literature and culture. As you may have guessed, the analogy of the photo album is my attempt to express to you how I feel the Good Book has been treated by too many of my best religious friends, that is, the Unitarian Universalists and other free-thinkers who cannot read it without judging it by today’s standards.

The Bible is a collection of stories, teachings, visions, recipes, love letters, declarations of despair, warnings, and blessings —  from our great-great-great and going back many many generations great grandmothers and grandfathers. It is the family album of the Western world, the lore, the poetry — the cherished artifact that shows us how our ancestors saw the world, what sense they made of it, how they saw God, how they saw their place in the cosmos — and it chronicles how that understanding changed over time.  The evolution of human understanding is in there, too. Yes, the snapshots in the Bible show a world unsophisticated, where everything is roughly hewn by human hands — including the concept of God. The images are primitive, the covenants and conflicts and concepts hard to relate to, the sociology disturbing, the psychology woefully dysfunctional.  And yet it is shot through with threads of pure gold. And the King James Version is particularly full of gold:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

My cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

We still say that in funerals today because people still request it.  For most people, there is no other version that evokes the beauty of the desire for eternal peace the way the KJV translation of the 23rd psalm does.

This family album is precious. It is yellowed with age but its wisdom has not expired. Its images and stories bind us to our past and can illuminate our present.  Job, the suffering man who cannot understand why he is so cursed.  Ruth, the immigrant worker and her immortal words to her mother-in-law as she expresses loyalty to her new land: “Entreat me not to leave thee, [or] to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people [shall be] my people, and thy God my God.” The passionate friendship of Jonathan and David. The book of Psalms, to which so many of us turned after 9/11 (I did that very day as soon as I saw the news, in fact) — the psalmist giving voice to our sense of dread and agony, our need to know that even if we were bombed that night (as those of us close to the attacks thought we might be), our souls could come to no harm:

“Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday…. Thou has made the LORD, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation. There shall no evil befall thee… For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.” (Psalm 91)

More images from the family album:

The man of Galilee, walking the lonesome road, eating a Last Supper in the upper room with his closest disciples:  “Henceforth I call you not servants, but I have called you friends.” The tripped-out apocalyptic vision of the Book of Revelation, whose images and symbolism of an empire destroyed by the wrath of God still captivates readers today, generating fodder for poets, scholars, historians, psychologists, artists, movie makers… and yes, a lot of nut jobs.

This book is old. It is archaic and cryptic and no easy read.  You should probably not go it alone if it is your first time. And yet, it is the one book I would choose to take with me to the proverbial desert island. It is my family photo album, my family being all of humankind.  It has within it the entire record of human nature — good and evil and everything in between – and of divine nature — benevolent, cruel and ultimately mysterious.  It is the most compelling, outrageous soap opera ever aired (have you ever read Genesis!?). It asks all the big questions that have ever been asked and starts the process of tackling them. The Bible is a fine companion in joy and sorrow, and it never abandons the reader who will not abandon it.  There is a character in there who is you, no matter what day or at what age you read it.  It is a treasure trove, a vast repository of human folly and wisdom.

I grew up thoroughly unacquainted with the Bible, except for those few stories that I heard in my UU Sunday School — things like Adam and Eve, and vague murmurings about Jesus now and then — and the stories that I soaked in through the wider culture: movies like “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “The Ten Commandments,” Monty Python’s “The Life Of Brian,” or the musical “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I sort of knew the Lord’s Prayer, and there was a disco version of it in 1973 that helped with that. [sings] My grandmother was outraged. If you asked me what the first phrase of the 23rd psalm was, I would have answered,  “Now I lay me down to sleep…?”

And so, ironically, by not knowing the content or the basic purpose of any of the library of books we refer to as the Bible,  I was literarily and intellectually impoverished. I could not go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or look through art books and understand the stories recounted by hundreds of my favorite paintings. Why was that woman holding a man’s head on a plate? Who was that woman in blue weeping at the feet of that dead man on the Cross? What was that bizarre plot twist in “Pinnochio” when he gets swallowed by a whale!? Where did that come from? What did it mean?

When we read Hemingway’s The Old Man And the Sea in junior year and our teacher spent most of one lecture discussing the Christian symbolism in the novel — — and most of my schoolmates nodded knowingly and took notes, I was humiliated and felt left out and ignorant. The same thing happened with the novels of John Steinbeck the next year: I had no reference point for understanding the primal struggle that went on between the two brothers, Aaron and Caleb (standing in for Cain and Abel).  I did not know that the title East of Eden came from the Bible.  Classical music was less meaningful for me because I refused to think about the lyrics to the many oratorios, cantatas, masses and choral works I sang and loved through all my high school years. I missed the point of thousands of lines of poetry, deprived of an entire vocabulary of references that a knowledge of the Bible would have given me.  All I heard was “LORD” and “Christ” and other things I didn’t believe in. And so I closed my ears, never believing that any part of that sacred story was my inheritance.  Ignorance kept me defiant and rejecting.

I am still profoundly sorry about that vast omission in my education, which was entirely the fault of modern adults in my life who thought the Bible too primitive, ridiculous, dangerous, hateful, destructive, anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-intellectual for me to know.  Also the fault of my Unitarian Universalist church, whose job it specifically was to acquaint me with our Biblical heritage.  I am still catching up, and I feel cheated of years of conversation and Bible study.

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Bible?

Apparently, many of us. The way religious liberals too often treat the Bible and it reminds me of that great moment in the musical “1776” when Rhode Island’s founding father Stephen Hopkins, in regards to debating the subject of independence from England, says, “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.”

Biblical fundamentalism has ruined the Bible for many. And I understand why. To create another analogy to go along with the photo album analogy, let’s think of the Bible as a sumptuous meal. It is filling. It is flavorful. It is spicy, and also sweet. It is ancestral food, the kind we call “soul food.” It’s mom’s best cooking. But say you go to someone’s house and they put a plate of this food down done all wrong. It’s over-cooked, dry as can be, it chokes going down your throat but they don’t allow any beverages at the dinner table. Eating becomes a form of torture. You don’t know what you did to deserve this, but your hosts keep saying, “EAT MORE! IT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”  Your eyes water, and you simply cannot eat more. It is making you seriously ill. This is not comfort food, it’s punishment food. Who can blame you for never wanting to see it on your plate again?

I cannot. So I understand those who want to avoid the Bible, but encourage them to take it up and study it within a context of liberal religious interpretation. The whole foundation of liberal religion is the freedom to interpret, and the responsibility to do so from a learned place!  So for us, that means that the Bible should be taken seriously if not literally, that it can and should be discussed, looked at in historical context, and viewed through the lens of critical (not rejecting and criticizing but critical) analysis.

It is so important that you understand our religious heritage:  I want you to know that the whole project of translating the Bible from the Latin (and the earlier Greek) into English was specifically so that it could be read by everyone, not just the clergy. So that it could be discussed, debated, taught, studied, pored over in each household and not just in the church. The whole point of the King James Bible was to make the book accessible to lay people! To think that we have, in this era, voluntarily abdicated the right to speak with authority from the Bible to the fundamentalists just breaks my heart.  When we do that, we are truly dishonoring the memory of the men and women who founded this congregation, for whom personal knowledge of Scripture was one of the absolute highest responsibilities and privileges in their lives. We are also cheating ourselves and our children of a glorious literary and spiritual inheritance.

But I don’t want you ever to read the Bible as an ammunition-gathering exercise.  The Bible is not a weapon.  Some use it that way, but that does not mean that we should.  There is no integrity in memorizing a few Bible quotes to use only as a rebuttal to the stupid, abusive uses of the Bible.  We can either refute Scriptural interpretation from a knowledgeable place or I it’s also fine to say, “I don’t agree with you, but I’m not going to argue with you.”  Pulling the sentence one likes out of the Bible to prove a point is called “proof-texting,” and it is a cheap exercise that is beneath any thinking person. You cannot win an argument with a proof-texting Biblical literalist, so I advise you to walk away if you can.

Nor is the Bible an archeological artifact to be analyzed under a microscope as if it had no deeper use than to establish whether or not the events and people recorded in it are historically real before its stories can be deemed worthy of reading and taking seriously. That is the surest way to kill the imaginative power of the Bible, and I neither respect nor encourage that method  of Bible study — which I consider not so much study as vivisection.  The Good Book will never yield up its wisdom to the reader who examines it clinically with scalpel in hand.

The Bible is a scrapbook of letters and photos compiled by the generations, including some photographs of immoral, hateful relatives you don’t want to know, and some letters from grandfathers and grandmothers whose house you would never want to visit.  True to its comprehensive nature, the book is embraced by all different kinds of members of the family, and for different reasons. There’s no reason to let the mean, hateful aunts and uncles have total possession of it, and we have let them hog it for way too long in this generation. I think we need to march over to their house and take it back so that our own children can see the pictures and know the stories, and we can help them understand what it means and how we see it, and they can grow to love the whole of it and feel that it belongs to them.

“Did this stuff really happen?” your children will ask as you sit on the couch and turns its pages together. And you can respond, “That actually doesn’t matter in the least. What matters is that people a long time ago cared enough about this story that they were willing to make huge sacrifices and even die so that you could hear it. They wanted so much for you to hear it, not to wonder whether these things actually happened or not, but so that these stories would change your heart. So let’s take a look at them, and see what we can find together.”

As great-great-great-great-great-and-going-back many generations great-uncle Paul wrote to the community at Philippi, according to the King James Version of this beloved letter,

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

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