The Bible as Conversation

There is a repost of a classic blog entry by Michael Spencer on the iMonk blog today which deserves to get widely read and discussed. I am reproducing the core of it below – click through to read the whole thing:

This idea, of a great conversation taking place over time and culture, and then selected and presented for my benefit, has become my dominant idea of what is the Bible. It has proven increasingly helpful in a number of ways.

The great conversation model has allowed me to jettison any defense of the Bible as single book whose human origins and methodologies present significant difficulties that must be explained. For instance, I view the Bible as a selection of purely human literary creations. I may lay aside my faith, as many critics do, and study the Biblical material purely in their historical and cultural settings. This eliminates the need to force the Bible to be divine in origin, and gives me the freedom to hear each Biblical writer saying what he/she had to say in the way he/she chose to say it.

Or I may read the Bible with my eyes, mind and heart alive to the faith that is at the center of the Biblical conversation. The humanity of the conversation is not an obstacle, but an invitation to understand the Bible even as we understand ourselves and our histories, experiences and cultures.

The rich diversity of the Bible is frequently lost in our fear that seeing a book as exactly what it appears to be will ruin the inspiration and divine authority of the book. Is God so small that the humanity of a text matters to His use of it? Further, the particular “voice” or style the text uses to talk about God may come to us in ways that are strange and uncomfortable to modern ideas of reality and truth. But if we are listening to a conversation and not predetermining what it must be, these factors are almost meaningless.

In the Great Books, the conversation took place in those common categories that were universal, even if greek dramatists and nineteenth century historians actually looked at the world in very different ways. The Great Conversation method says that the editor hears this conversation in his selection of the texts, and the reader experiences it for himself as he reads and listens.

Genesis isn’t twentieth century science. Leviticus is primitive, brutal and middle eastern. The Old Testament histories are not scholarly documentaries, but religious and tribal understandings of God and events. Proverbs comes from a mongrel wisdom tradition throughout the middle east. Song of Solomon is erotic poetry, and not much else. The prophets spoke to their own times, and not to our own. The scholars who help me understand these books as they are, are not enemies of truth, but friends. Call it criticism, paint it as hostile, but I want to know what the texts in front of me are saying!

The Old Testament and New Testament Canon are the selection of those parts of our spiritual literary heritage that make up the Great Conversation about the Judeo-Christian God. The Bible itself is a human book, created and complied by human choices. There may be other writings that contribute to the conversation, but those who know and experience the God of Jesus Christ hear the conversation most plainly in these writings. Canon is that human choice of what to listen to. Inspiration- the next section- is the validation and expounding of that choice.

The conversational model allows for a number of helpful ways of approaching scripture. For instance, it allows a variety of viewpoints on a single subject, such as the problem of evil. Job argues with Proverbs. It encourages us to hear all sides of the conversation as contributing something, and doesn’t say only one voice can be heard as right. Leviticus has something important to say that Psalms may not say. This approach sees the development of understanding as a natural part of the conversation, and isn’t disturbed when a subject appears to evolve and change over time. This model allows some parts of the conversation to be wrong, so that others can be right, and the Bible isn’t diminished as a result.

On a related note, Fred Clark shared a satirical rewriting of John 1:1-18 to reflect how most conservative Evangelicals view the Bible:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.

All things were taught by the Word; and without the Word was not any thing taught that was taught.

In the Word was life; and the life was the light of men.

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

And the Word was made text, and the text was bound among us, and we beheld its glory, the glory as of the only transcribed of the Father, full of inerrancy and truth.

And of its fulness have all we received, and inerrancy for inerrancy.

For the law was given by Moses, but inerrancy and truth came by the Word.

No man hath seen God at any time, the only transcribed text, which is from the bosom of the Father, it hath declared him.

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  • arcseconds

    On this sort of view, is there any particular reason to pick out the books of the Bible as being ‘the conversation’? Has the conversation stopped?

    • James F. McGrath

      I don’t see any reason to think that the conversation has stopped, and my view of the Bible is one of joining in the conversation. I engage the authors, and feel free to disagree with them, as they do with one another.

  • Jeff Carter

    I recently wrote about this same idea – specifically in the way the bible treats the prophet Balaam. If you just read the story of Balaam in Numbers, he comes across as a pretty decent follower of God (even if he wasn’t an Israelite) but if you read everything said about him in the rest of the books, he’s everything evil, despicable, and awful.