The book of the people


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The book of the people

By Bobby Neal Winters


When I was in my adolescence, after the hormones hit, I was forever falling in love with this girl or the other girl. The feelings were real. No troubadour beneath a damsel’s window ever had stronger feelings towards a lady more that I did the objects of my affection.

My trouble was that I didn’t really love these girls. I loved my image of them. True love is what is left after the flames of that sort of passion have died. A man only truly loves a woman after coming to know her. For some this requires years of pantyhose in the shower and razors borrowed to shave legs, years of watching her clean up vomit from a child’s bed, years of learning about every flaw and shortcoming.

We have to get passed our image of the woman and discover her reality.
Then—and only then—can real love arrive.

There are many who profess to love the Bible. I am one of them. I love the intricately woven stories of Genesis, the blood soaked poetry of Psalms, and the multidimensional genius of the Gospel of John. This love has been a long time coming because I’ve had to overcome my image of the Bible and learn its reality.

As I was growing up, there were those among my people who believed in curing nosebleeds by reading certain Bible verses. There were also those who got rid of warts by rubbing them with a penny while mumbling a bit of scripture.

One might call this superstition, and one would be right. There was an idea there was a certain power to the words beyond the wisdom they contained, beyond the knowledge of human nature they conveyed.

I will take the risk of confusing the reader by saying I have actually seen nosebleeds cured in this fashion. One must never doubt the power of faith from either the religious or the secular point of view. However, I don’t advocate the practice. It is possible to use a computer hard drive to drive nails into a wall, but a hammer will do a better job, and there are better uses to which a hard drive can be put.

There are those whose reverence of the Bible ascends to the level of superstition while not doing it in such an obvious way.

I will speak now as a devout (I hope) Christian and say that I understand the reason for the reverence. Many Christians believe they have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the Bible. I believe they are in error here. They have come to a saving knowledge of him by encountering him in their fellow Christians. While there undoubtedly are people who were prepared for this encounter by reading scripture, much like the Ethiopian eunuch in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, they, like him, have the need of a disciple of Christ to meet them face to face.

How the Bible was produced

There were people long before there were books, and the stories they told were passed by word of mouth long before they were put on paper. Today the story telling tradition has fallen on hard times, but we might have some understanding of this process from the practice of the telling of jokes.

The most important observation of joke telling is that we don’t tell jokes that we don’t like. If a joke has been passed around a lot, it is because people like it. There is something about it they find funny and wish to repeat. Consequently, there is a filtering process that goes on. Jokes that aren’t good enough to be passed on do not survive. And among a specific good of people, only a certain type of joke is passed around. One might imagine that a collection of jokes told by a group of teachers, for example, might have a certain academic flavor to it.

It might also be noted there are certain people who are better at telling jokes than others. These people add or subtract details in order to heighten its affect. The details added that made the joke better, funnier, would tend to remain in when told by the next person in line even if he were not as talented.
The same is true in the telling of stories. The good stories get passed around, and they tend to be improved in the telling. This is not just with fish stories where the fish gets larger and larger with each telling, but there is also improvement in mechanics, entertainment value, and meaning.

I think for a long time many of the stories that are in the Bible were handed down in just this way. After the invention of writing, these stories were written down, at least the ones that were deemed worthy of it. In the age of the word processor, we forget that writing was once something of an ordeal. “Step one: Make the paper...”

After being written down, much the same process of modification and improvement continued that had gone on when they were being told. Touches were added, transitions smoothed out, meaning solidified. Even in a single book like Genesis, for example, the scholars find evidence of many hands at work.

However, we need to note there were a particular people with their own set of values and their own unique traditions that were implementing the changes. To put this into religious language, one might say there was a particular spirit at work here.

For a long time, there was no such thing as a Bible in the sense we know it today. The Scriptures consisted of scrolls that had been produced and refined in a manner like that described above. The scrolls went through a filtering process as well because just as people don’t tell a joke that they don’t think is worth repeating, they don’t copy a scroll—or pay to have one copied—that they believe is worthless.

This filtering process accounts for what I would call the eternal value of the contents of the Bible. These were stories that were found to be of value generation after generation and preserving them came at a cost.
The details of how the contents of the book we now know as the Bible was set are more complicated than I am about to tell you, but what I am about to say captures the general idea.

The Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, wanted to pay for having some good copies of the Christian Holy Scriptures made. It was then it had to be decided what those scriptures were. There was some give and take over this, but after that point the contents of the Bible was more or less set.
The fact a politician was involved at all is in some sense unfortunate because it leads some to believe the choice in contents was politically motivated. However, there had been lists of popular books floating around for some time, and there is not too much variation among those.

The myth of the pristine original text

Somewhere along the way a myth has taken root in the understanding of the Bible which I will call it the myth of the pristine original text. This is the idea there is one inspired text from which all subsequent versions of the Bible have been copied. It is believed deviations from that pristine original are not only wrong, they are dangerous.

In the culture in which I grew up, this was most apparent among those who revere the King James Version of the Bible. It is inspired, inerrant, and deviations from it are not to be tolerated. Among those who revere the KJV, there are those who accept only the 1610 version of it, and so on. There are no limits to how careful one must be, it seems.

While most of those who cling to the King James Version would admit that it is not the original text, their reasons for revering it would include a belief that it is the best translation available of the pristine original text to which I referred. As you see, this would be in tension with the idea that perhaps the original text was in need of editing for either form or content. Rather the reverse. It betrays the attitude that the community of belief is a product of the book rather than the book being a product of the community of belief.

The world has been turned upside down.

Bible Idolatry

For those who view the Bible in this way, it turns the Bible into the only window to God. The authority of the community in which the Bible was created has been removed. The Bible itself is now the lone authority. This is like one of those old science fiction movies in which the computer takes over from its inventor or the monster kills its creator.

The churches in which the Bible represents the sole authority tend to be very anti-Catholic and anti-Mailine. Among those who cultivate an antipathy toward the Church of Rome, anything remotely Catholic is suspect, and consequently, the ancient creeds have been rejected as being too Catholic.

These churches loudly proclaim, “No creeds, just the Bible.” In other words, they reject relatively simple to understand statements of faith in favor of one that is much longer and more difficult to interpret. In addition, and for similar reasons, tradition is deprecated and abandoned to much the same affect.

Idolatry is defined by some to be worship of the creature rather then the creator. Elevating the Bible to a level above the community that created it and divorcing it from that living tradition leaves the door open for idolatry.

The Bible itself is in these traditions the final authority. Reality itself is ignored in favor the idiosyncratic interpretations of a particular community in some cases.

It is there the Bible has become God.

Propagation of error
Those for whom the Bible has become God have a problem. There are many cases in which the Bible contradicts itself, or seems to, when read in a naïve

One way in which these contradictions are dealt with is through ignorance.
Those who worship the Bible are unaware of the contradictions because, in spite of the fact they are proud of believing the whole Bible, they rarely venture from certain parts of it. There are certain texts which are read to the exclusion of other and the contradictions are never met.

However, sometimes ignorance is difficult because the contradictions are within a quarter inch of one another on the page. In cases such as these, denial is a popular option. This often takes the form of the person confronted with the contraction simply saying he has faith there is some answer. It is important to note these people’s faith is in the Bible rather than in God.

This is ironic because in most cases, these seeming contradictions disappear if one simply takes the Bible as what it is—the product of a community—rather than forcing it into the roll of being the final authority of the community.

The opposite of an error
Sometimes there are individuals with intellectual integrity from Bible-worshiping traditions who meet these difficulties head on. When they do, there is often a crisis. The problem lies in that, how ever badly the tradition might be at understanding the Bible for what it is, they have done a very good job at demonizing every other Christian religious tradition which hasn’t similarly misunderstood it.

This people often become bitter atheists. They hate the Bible-worshiping tradition they come from, but they do not recognize any tradition as Christian which doesn’t worship the Bible. Often these people are very good, moral people of the highest integrity. However, the have been betrayed. That which was held up before them as being without flaw has been shown to be flawed.

In The Man Who Would Be King, a couple of con artists come upon an isolated locale in Afghanistan where the populace is awaiting the return of Alexander the Great whom they believe to be a god. Sensing opportunity, one of them pretends to be Alexander. When he is scratched and bleeds as in their eyes a god should not, he is killed.

When people feel they’ve been betrayed, they react violently. Similarly, when people who’ve had a certain overly elevated image of the Bible feel betrayed, they also react violently. The leave their version of Christianity and will accept no other.

What does one do about this problem? In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable.

The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also.

So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, “Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares?”
He said unto them, “An enemy hath done this.”

The servants said unto him, “Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?”
But he said, “Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”

One might be tempted to uproot those with a skewed view of the Bible as was suggested be done to the tares above. Indeed, in discussions with some of these groups, one may long wistfully for the days when they could have been remanded to the secular arm.

However, this parable advises against that. It seems to indicate this problem will be worked out in time.

In the meantime, we are left with the task of simply telling our truth quietly to anyone will listen.