Good evening. I'd like to tell you a story you might have heard before.
One night I had a dream. I was walking along a beach - on the wet sand by the gently lapping waves. As I looked back, I could see a line of footsteps stretching back to where my walk began. Suddenly, I became aware that my walk was in fact my life. I saw that the tracks were for two people. Then I heard God telling me that the footprints were a record of our walk together throughout my life.
As I looked back, I was puzzled. At certain times in my life, there were not two tracks but just one. Angrily I asked God what had happened.
"That is where we played hopscotch" said God.
Until that last sentence, I am sure that most of you thought you knew the story. Many of you had probably stopped listening. Some of you might have fallen asleep entirely. Yet the story probably did not end quite as you expected.
I want to suggest to you that this is how we - who have the uncomfortable burden of having been in church for much of our lives - often hear bible stories. We become so tied to what we think the bible says that we stopped listening to it a long time ago, and have a rather twisted memory of what it actually says. Sometimes what we think it says is just plain wrong.
One approach to tackling this biblical illiteracy is called sola scripta
- whereby scripture is only ever interpreted by scripture and everything else is assumed to be unhelpful or ungodly. I don't want to get wrapped into a long discussion about this approach, except to say that I don't think it works. Scripture is always filtered through the minds of people, so it is not possible to read the text entirely objectively. At it's worst, this approach leads to a mindset that ultimately says 'I believe in sola scripta, and I can justify my theology using lots of bible passages therefore what I say is biblical. Therefore, I am on God's side. Therefore as you are saying something different you are not. Therefore I am going to heaven and you are not. Loser.'
Still others have rejected the bible almost entirely as unusable and useless. These people, I'd suggest, can justifiably be criticised for a sweet-shop approach to theology whereby any behaviour, idea or action can be labelled as godly as long as it feels right to me.
I believe there is a third approach - albeit not an entirely novel one, but one that has largely been untried. Of course, there are some assumptions to this approach, which I will lay out first.
- God is at work in the world, sometimes outside of the church.
- God can use all things to speak to us, not limited to the bible.
- God has put his spirit to live inside us and has written his word on our hearts.
- However difficult we find it to use, the bible is from God and we have much to learn from it.
- We want to experience spiritual growth in our own lives and see it expand to others.
- We aknowledge our own weakness and our ability to get things completely wrong at times.
- Ultimately a deity that is love is the only source of meaning in the universe. Therefore any theology which ascribes qualities to God which are not more loving, more upright, more just and more humane than we are is likely to be wrong.
- The response to the outpouring of love by God in the person of Christ is a lifestyle of humility and sacrifice.
Based on these assumptions, I believe that we cannot necessarily conclude that all 'worldly' things are necessarily evil and ungodly and that in fact we can learn something about the sacrificial way of Christ from them.
Generally, there are three kinds of worldly things. First those which are destructive. Secondly those things which are constructive. Third those things which can be constructive and can be destructive. The problem is how to identify and avoid those things which are destructive, how to use those things which are ambivilent and those things which are constructive. Of course this is a major problem, particularly as every person has a different tolerance of different things and so it is possible to fool yourself to believe that something destructive or ambivilent is actually constructive.
With this in mind, I would like to suggest a couple of ideas about how to read the bible and make sense of it in a way that actually means something to me in the here-and-now.
First, I think trying to read the bible as others read it from other cultures is useful and might help to bring some freshness by looking at the passages from a different angle.
Second, I think there is value in engaging biblical narrative with other forms of storytelling - for example cinema and novels. In that respect, the purpose of the engagement is a seeking of further understanding about the biblical passage from the film and further understanding of the experiences detailed in the film from the bible - and perhaps most critically how that understanding informs our sacrificial lifestyle in the footsteps of Christ.
Finally, I would like to suggest an example of this engagement. I have been re-reading Dostoyevsky's book The Idiot.
Dostoyevsky had a varied and fairly messy life including being sent to Siberia as a political prisoner and being subjected to a mock execution, gambling, womanising and so on. Not really a particularly strong candidate for biblical engagement one would think.
Yet, so the story goes, when communism fell outsiders were surprised to find so many active churches throughout Russia despite the soviet system abhorring religion. The kremlin had done two things: first, dismissed the power of old women to hold firm and pass on the gospel; and second forgotten to ban the works of Dostoyevsky and other great Russian authors.
Set in mid nineteenth century Petersberg the novel is the story of Prince Myshkin, a young man who returns to the city penniless after years abroad. His character has been shaped by a long-term illness and expresses itself in absolute humility, good humour and gentleness, incapable of telling an untruth or of thinking of himself over others. He moves through down-at-heel middle-class society and when others first meet him, they think him to be an idiot but he slowly changes their whole outlook on life.
In one particularly memorable passage, the Prince is recalling incidents from his younger life.
A young woman with called Marie lived with her old mother. She had an advanced form of tuberculosis yet worked hard scrubbing floors and cleaning in neighbouring houses. Then Marie was seduced and subsequently rejected by a man and returned to the village in disgrace. Turned out of the house and left with no food, she was spat upon and the children would throw mud at her when they saw her. Eventually she could find no other work than to run with the cows for a few scraps of food. When her mother died, the whole village held her up to ridicule.
The Prince met her in secret and gave her a few coins, which was all he had. However the village children saw him treating the woman with kindness, and as a result increased their tirade against her. However, the Prince was friends with the children and over time talked to them about Marie and how unhappy she was. Eventually they stopped abusing her and began greeting her affectionately. The adults forbade them to see her, but they would find ways to hide from them and to meet her.
Soon her illness was so bad that she could not move, yet the children and the Prince still came to visit her. Although she mostly slept, she brightened when she saw the children and their love compelled the adults to treat the dying woman with respect.
It is The Idiot and the children who know the true meaning of loving the unlovable.
I hope that this might encourage you also to think and struggle with this idea.
Labels: dostoyevsky, engage, sacrificial living