We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Bible Gap

It is one of the realities of contemporary mainline church life that most theologically trained mainline pastors accept modern critical biblical scholarship and that most members of mainline churches don't have a clue what that means.  There is, then, a wide gap between the biblical understanding of many clergy and many in the pews.  When some mainline folks are introduced to contemporary biblical scholarship, some feel threatened and others liberated.  And on being told that critical approaches to the Bible are centuries old, a not uncommon reaction is, "Why are only hearing about this now?"

One's first inclination is to blame pastors for being timid, hypocritical, and even two-faced.  In the pulpit, they communicate a kind of "soft" literalism that doesn't overtly challenge literal readings of the Bible.  Closer to the mark, however, is the situation that most pastors face most of the time.  Mainline church goers, as a rule, are not all that interested in the Bible.  In most churches, Bible study groups are small and usually limited to the "same old faces," most of whom are among the more conservative members of the church.  Those members who might be most receptive to modern scholarship are also the ones who are least interested in hearing about it.  Mainline churches, furthermore, tend to emphasize doing over talking.  Committed members want to serve the world, and they consider Christian service to be the heart of their faith.  They don't have much patience with "just sitting around and talking."  Other members, again probably more conservative, want to emphasize personal spirituality, which means prayer groups more than study groups.  They are interested in the Bible primarily as a devotional aide, which is not the place for introducing critical approaches to scripture.  Beyond these constituencies in mainline churches is the 50-60% or more of the congregation that sits mostly on the fringes of church life.  Few if any of them are interested in the Bible at all.

This is not to say that mainline pastors can't share critical approaches to scripture with members of the churches they serve.  But, there are conditions required for them to do so successfully.  They themselves have to be willing, able, and committed to exposing their congregation to modern biblical scholarship.  There has to be an important segment of the congregation they serve that wants to know more about the Bible and is willing to listen to non-literal approaches to scripture.  And there needs to be a shared perception that a mature 21st century faith implies a knowledge of scripture that is both critical and faithful.  Such a perception sees literalism as an obstacle to faithful readings of scripture and is committed to using biblical scholarship as an antidote to literalism.  My sense is that there are only a minority of mainline churches today where these conditions exist.  Perhaps mainline pastors can sometimes be faulted for not working to create them.  Perhaps.