One of my all-time favorite works of literature is The Master and Margarita by the great 20th century Russian author Michael Bulgakov. This work, which was first recommended to me by my Russian language professor in college, is a masterpiece on multiple levels: it is a scathing critique of the Stalinist regime, cloaked in a fantastical metaphor involving the Devil visiting Moscow. It contains brilliant insights into the human condition. And it’s just a really cool story.
So here’s the question: what makes the Bible any different than this – or any -great work of literature? This is the question that was posed in response to my last post. As the commenter put it:
…why not just accept it (the Bible) as literature like we do with every other book and move along? Why not just take the good stories and lessons, study the history, delight in the Myth, and discard the mean ugly bits? Why not treat it the same way we do the ancient stories and mythologies of a dozen other faiths that were, once upon a time, heartfelt religions to millions?
It’s funny because I am actually struggling with these same questions. Although my view is evolving, I would say that I agree with this commenter in one sense and not in some others. First, the area of agreement:
I do in fact strongly believe that the Bible ought to be viewed as one among a number of sacred texts, including the Bhagavad gita, the Quran, Buddhist writings, etc. I believe that all of these sacred texts represent the witness of people in different cultures and times to experiences of the Divine – and what’s amazing is how many of the core insights of these texts are remarkably similar (as I recently discovered for myself in hearing about a Muslim woman’s faith). Just looking at this on the most practical level: if we truly believe that God is omnipresent – why would such a universal presence have only revealed himself to one group of people during the entire history of humankind? That just makes no sense.
However, once we’ve placed the Bible within the context of other sacred texts – I do think there is something different about these sacred texts versus other literature, no matter how brilliant or insightful that literature might be. Here are the ways in which sacred texts seem different to me:
- The source of inspiration is believed to be divine. A great author may feel like his writing is a gift from God, or that he is writing about profound truths – but the inspirational source is still just the author. Shakespeare did not feel that God was speaking to him when he wrote Hamlet – rather he wrote what he did in his own human struggle with these issues. In contrast, authors of spiritual texts are trying to communicate insights that they feel come from some higher source than themselves – that represent not just their personal insights but divine ultimate insight.
- Sacred texts represent the ‘narrative’ of a given faith tradition. If you’re Jewish, you need to know the story of Abraham, Moses and David. If you’re Christian, you need to know theses Jewish narratives, and then the story of Jesus. If you’re Muslim, you need to know the story of Mohammed. These are the stories of how God revealed himself in these different times and cultures. To provide a crunchy granola metaphor: it’s kind of like hiking up a mountain. There may be several different paths to the top, but off-trail bush-whacking isn’t recommended (unless you are a hound dog who has just found a partially decayed raccoon to roll in like my naughty dog did today).
- Powerful ritual and spiritual practices have developed based on these texts. There are many manifestations of this – from Bible studies, to Lectio Divina, to just simply reciting memorized prayer on a regular basis. But the bottom line is that people interact with sacred texts in a way that they just don’t with other literature. I don’t know anyone who has memorized key passages from The Catcher in the Rye in order to repeat them on a daily basis as a way of connecting to a higher power. But when I say The Lord’s Prayer, or the Mourner’s Kaddish, there is something powerful about simply saying these words – something that goes beyond the meaning of the words themselves.
This leads me to my final point: that these sacred texts (at least the ones I’ve referred to) are all part of living religions. Which means that although these texts are of great importance in their respective traditions, there is a related and continually growing body of writings that build off the original text but create a new divinely-inspired message to address the realities of contemporary life. For example, the other day I watched footage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s I have a dream speech. He spoke the way he spoke and did what he did because of his faith – because he knew that the unequal treatment of his people represented a complete violation of Christ’s vision of justice for the oppressed. The power and conviction behind his words is to me one of the great examples of divinely inspired text in the modern era.
I am also currently reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, in which she talks about the Jewish midrash tradition – in which rabbis analyzed and commented on the Torah to determine how to apply the scriptures to contemporary society. Armstrong writes:
Rabbinic midrash was not interested in the original meaning of the biblical author; far from sticking slavishly to the literal sense of the ancient scriptures, the rabbis sought a radically new interpretation for a drastically altered world.(p. 56)
Perhaps there is an opportunity for us today to follow in the footsteps of the rabbis, Dr. King and even of Jesus himself: rather than slavishly following our sacred texts, we can turn to them for inspiration to try to discern what God’s will is for us in a ‘drastically altered world’.