In a complete u-turn from the last post, this blog will examine the validity of non-academic, even counter-academic approaches to the bible. Because I affirm both academic and counter/non-academic, if you think the bible is contradictory then you can embrace your puzzlement by attempting to reason that people are like numbers who add up and all of their rational views are coherent. And though I haven’t been a Christian long, if I have a ‘background’, that is, a Christian background, then I can very proudly say it is Pentecostal. Pentecostals are awesome for counter-academic approaches. Maybe this has something to do with class: If the middle to upper classes were those who engaged in higher learning, back in the day when Pentecostalism was predominantly sweeping through the lower classes, then there would be understandable undervaluing of higher learning. Although my Pentecostal background is more of an educated middle-class one, I think in the Pentecostalism I have been exposed to that there is a healthy admixture of upholding higher learning as well as being suspicious of it. Suspicion is definitely more prevalent towards the theological quarter, rather than in something like say education, medicine, science, etc.
Modern Pentecostalism arose out of the Azusa St Revival. In the early days after Azusa, people all over America met at cheap-to-rent buildings throughout all hours of the night, in prayer, speaking, experiencing healing and coming back to their Lord. Healing evangelists travelled across the land of opportunity with their massive tents and held meetings. In one semi-regular meeting, an older woman attended who had the gift of discernment. She could tell if the Spirit moved someone to speak or whether that person thought something of their self enough to start preaching without the leading of the Holy Spirit. The principle is not whether you have the ability to be a preacher or not, but whether the Spirit leads you to do so. A person, if they believe they are created by God, can best glorify him when they do what he has made them for. I think someone else has said that before. It might’ve been C S Lewis, but I’m not sure.
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I read a book about two YWAM missionaries just over a year ago. It really affected me and reminded me how central a part of faith is following the Spirit. After a time of settling down and looking after the family, the husband was reading his bible when he came across God’s words to Abraham: “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1 NIV). And so his family packed up their stuff and went to do mission work in another country. This is such an affront to the context and real meaning of the text! Is it not just to indicate the story of Israel’s history through God’s actions with Abraham? There is no way that every Spirit-filled Christian who reads that verse should take it at face-value and accept it as a command from God to their self. Maybe we can look at Abraham’s example of faith and draw some guidance for our own faith in that. But, c’mon YWAM guy! If you can only see those things then you miss the point of the story. Of course we can’t take God’s commands to another as commands for ourselves; of course we need to build our theology on the context of the passage rather than its literal meaning. But, even so, can you discount the fact that God spoke through the Holy Spirit to this guy and his family, and that they were fruitful in their ministry as a result of their obedience?
One verse I have heard quoted a lot which I don’t think does too much justice to the original context is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God” (NIV). The psalm gives the impression of a city feeling the pressure from some outside sources: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v1); “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day” (v5). The psalmist then contrasts the threat of war with the power of God: “Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts” (v6); “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire” (v9). This is followed by the climax of the poem, the imperative to “Be still and know that I am God”, the God who has power over the nations. In an attractively lit church service with some nice worship music, what relevance does this God have for our first world troubles? How can quoting this verse do justice to its original purpose? Yet, if the Spirit leads, and we are unaware of the original purpose of the psalm, can not God use these words to bring comfort, even his purpose in the service, which is to draw people closer to him? Of course. Then I hear you say that this focus on individual experience is an injustice to all those who don’t have it half as good as us attending the church service. Yet if you draw close to God, and follow the Holy Spirit, who knows where he will lead you?
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In the last blog post I pointed out some holes in our conception of biblical canon, or at least I attempted to do so. But there is also value in having the bible as a closed canon where all books are seen as under one homogenous umbrella known as ‘scripture’, even considering the considerable differences in sources and content. This, ‘scripture’, is of course the modern-traditional and more widely accepted view among the vast number of churches and laity. This value is seen in such acts as opening your bible and the first verse you read is just what you need to read at that moment: It’s really comforting to know God knows how you feel. Other times the same verse may come up three times in one week from different friends, books, etc, giving you a sense that God is trying to speak to you through this verse¹. Sometimes you may read two completely unrelated books of the bible and find that God speaks to you on a similar theme from both, even though the writers have nothing to do with each other. I’m being very hypothetical and amn’t giving any clear examples because I can’t think of any… But anyway, the assumed connectedness that the idea of a unified the text, the so-called ‘bible’ gives way to is, as many other people have experienced more widely and deeply than I could ever hope to imagine or idealise, clearly a way that God speaks to us. Thoughts?
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¹I read a funny account of a similar approach where people would randomly select a bible verse and take it for God’s word for them at that moment. Some poor guy received a verse about Judas miserably hanging himself. Of course you could also come across some of the hardline denouncements of the Old Testament prophets or the fleshly suggestions of Ecclesiastes or Song of Songs. The important thing, I have learnt, is praying through something like this as well as looking for confirmation from other sources.
Image from http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/collections/ARIL/azusa.JPG