Monday, October 14, 2013

Bible Study

For the past couple months, I've been doing a Bible study with my parents.  It was my mom's idea.  If she had asked me a couple years ago, I would probably have said "no."  My parents are Christians who regularly attend church.  I am more of an agnostic who does not.  But, over the past couple years, my relationship with my parents has become a very open and honest thing.  Whereas in the past I would have been afraid to truly speak my mind about Christianity with my parents, now we talk openly about our different views.  So when my mom asked to read and study the Bible together, I said "yes."  It's a very slow process.  Every other week or so, we read one chapter and discuss it.  I suggested we start at the very beginning, with Genesis.  So far, we have read and discussed seven chapters.

At the outset of the study, I made clear that I would approach this academically.  I use my New Interpreters Study Bible, which is full of current scholarly commentary.  I also use the book Who Wrote the Bible? to situate the various authors in their social/cultural/historical contexts.  The prevailing scholarly view of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is a variation on the Documetary Hypothesis, which posits that these five books traditionally attributed to Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) had a least four different authors and at least one redactor (editor), who wrote in different times, places, and from different perspectives.  

When I first learned about this way of studying the Bible (academically), it excited me, and then it destroyed my faith.  The Bible became, for me, an essentially human document.  I still think it is, but recently I read Who Wrote the Bible?, and I began to see the Torah as not JUST a human document, but as an important literary way for the ancient Israelites, who experienced waves of destruction, to hold onto their culture, identity, and spirituality in the midst of unspeakable suffering.  Divine inspiration notwithstanding, I am increasingly coming to see the Bible as a tremendously important, even inspiring, document.  

And so, my parents and I have been studying Genesis, and it has been an amazing experience so far.  There's too much to sum up in one blog post.  I've actually been thinking about recording our conversations, because they are so rich and interesting.  Let me give one example.  Recently, we read the story of the flood, a narrative that is an ingenious blend of two accounts written from different perspectives.  Both my parents and I come from an evangelical background that tends to view the flood story, and basically the whole Bible, as literal history.  I suggested that the flood, while probably not a real historical event, was a common and important myth in the Middle East.  The Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh also has a flood story.  We pondered, together, what the flood story might mean, for the ancient Israelites, it's intended audience.

In one sense, the flood story gives us a portrait of a ruthless God whose solution to creation-gone-bad is total genocide.  This is, of course, pretty gnarly and hard to reconcile with the God of mercy depicted elsewhere in the Bible.  I suggested that, for the Israelites in exile in Babylon, whose land had been conquered and destroyed, the flood story might also be a source of hope, an example of life enduring in the midst of apocalyptic devastation.

A year ago, I would have been unable to say to my parents, "I think the flood is a myth."  But now i am unafraid, because I do not equate myth with "false."  I regard cultural myths as fundamental and important sources of identity and spiritual nourishment.  

Sometimes, my parents and I argue.  Often, we disagree.  And here's the great insight of our Bible Study so far…this is OKAY!  At least we are reading, and discussing, and engaging together.  We have a long road ahead.  At our current pace, we'll finish our Bible study in 10-15 years.  I'm totally down!  I'm in this for the long haul, and I can't wait for the conversations to come.

This is a panel from celebrated comic artist Robert Crumb's Illustrated Book of Genesis.

1 comment:

  1. On of my favorite blog posts so far Jesse. I love that you are doing this with your parents! I have never been well versed in the bible. I wish I had the discipline to take a book that has caused so much history (both tragic & good) and conduct a deep study and academic analysis. Bravo to you and your parents.