Is Scripture an OS?

Is Scripture an OS? September 19, 2014

BC_ClintSchnekloth_bioTwo books I’ve read recently have me thinking about Scripture as an operating system. All metaphors break-down at some point, so stretch this one as you will, but I find it helpful.

The first work is out of Baylor University Press (a university press, by the way, that regularly publishes wonderfully intriguing titles). Qur’an in Conversation, edited by Michael Birkel, is a collection of interviews with Muslim scholars in North America. As a Christian reader of these essays, I found it remarkable how the authors brought the text of the Qur’an, their sacred Scripture, into dialogue with contemporary topics. Although it would be too facile to say that they are often dealing with the “same” issues as Christians reading their own texts, there were resonances, enough so that as I was reading the essays, I was thinking to myself, “Hey, I can remember reading a difficult passage from the Bible in a way comparable to the way this author is interpreting their Scripture.”

In some ways, reading this book was like using Windows on an MS-DOS machine. I’m a lifelong Apple and Mac user, and have almost exclusively spent face-time on computers with the Apple OS. When I use Windows, I’m always struck by how similar it is to Apple while at the same time seeming completely foreign. However, if I take my time with Windows, and slow down, and exercise respect and patience, I start to “get” it.

The same is true of reading the Scripture of other faith traditions. It’s like looking under the hood at what drives those faith communities, and then realizing that although the OS is important, it is also how the end users use it, and what applications are run on it, that really makes as much a difference as the OS itself.

The other book is Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, out of Graywolf Press. This book surprises for another reason. I started reading the book thinking it was going to be all about code and coding. And indeed it starts out that way. But then half-way through the book, code disappears altogether, and instead Chandra invests considerable time analyzing Sanskrit poetry, especially by the eleventh century Kashmiri thinker Abhinavagupta. For multiple chapters, Chandra leaves computer code behind altogether and instead explores aesthetics in the Indian tradition.

As a reader, I was caught completely off-guard. I wondered where Chandra was taking the reader. Towards the end of the book he writes, “What programmers want to do in their investigations of the eloquence of code, I think, is analogous to what Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta tried to do with poetic language in the Sanskrit cosmopolis: to understand how the effects of a language can escape language itself.” Suddenly, I had a working definition of what “holy” Scripture is. Scripture is poetic language that to a certain extent escapes language itself.

Think of Paul’s notion in Romans, that the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words to express (8:26). Consider the ways Scripture makes demands on all readers as interpreters and hermeneuts that forces the bounds of culture, language, history, faith. Scripture in almost every tradition is so resonant with meaning, so white hot with implications that it is dangerous to handle.

Not only that, but Scripture, in most traditions, literally does things. Like computer code, which runs and acts, Scripture drives community, changes lives, is a word that creates. Think of Hebrews, “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (4:12). Like a code compiled and executed, Scripture when operating as a script for community literally does things, and this is part of what makes it holy.

Clint Schnekloth is lead pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has blogged for more than a decade as “Lutheran Confessions,” and consults widely on digital social media ministry. His recent book Mediating Faith is featured in the Patheos Book Club here.

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