I wrote a three paragraph bio yesterday. The bio was for the families of the children in Tumbleweed House where I will begin a substitute teaching job next month. Before beginning to write, I reviewed previous bios I have written. I looked at the bio I had written for the online system at my seminary, which emphasized God’s call and claim on my life. I looked at the bio from my early childhood teacher training and consultant business. It emphasized the kind of person I am, the depth of my experience, and my approach to training. I looked at biographical material I created for the Commission on Ministry prior to my ordination and I looked at a short bio I wrote for the AERO Conference program. They, too, had their own emphases.
Each one of these narratives described an aspect of who I am. Each one of them also said something about the audience for whom they were intended and about the issues that concerned them. The families at the school are concerned about their child and my commitment to them. My seminary cohorts would be exploring the strange spiritual journeys which brought us all together and, so, my call to ministry was significant. The potential clients for my teacher training and consulting wanted to know why they should pay good money to listen to me.
Each one of them was significantly different and time-locked. That is, I wouldn’t write exactly the same thing today. Yet, each one of them was absolutely true. I simply emphasized the things important to my audience–and to me–at the time they were written.
The Christian canon is like this as well. Each segment of the scripture must be viewed in the context in which they were written. Knowing context, helps us to understand inconsistencies in the text. There is truth in the text but the different parts may literally contradict one another. This does not prevent truth from being discerned through the text. It does mean that we must consider to whom the texts were written, when they were written, who wrote them, and why they were written. In my bio for the new job, I wrote of the connections between my spirituality and the philosophy of the school. These are real and true but they are not how I described my spirituality to my seminary cohorts two years ago. This is because 1) I was writing to different people; 2) I am a different person than I was two years ago; 3) I have a different purpose in writing; and 4) Each of the audiences use a different vocabulary.
This is precisely why a literal, inerrant reading of the biblical text is a flawed approach. A literal, inerrant reading of the biblical text gives the written words a power and meaning for which they were never intended. A literalistic reading of the scriptures turns them into gods unto themselves. It is the Divine, the One I identify as God, who inspires those who wrote and read and heard the ancient texts. My bios were inspired by the events and feelings of my life and are my interpretation (meaning applied) of those experiences. The same is true of the scriptures: they are inspired by events, feelings, and experiences of the ancient peoples with the Divine. They are the meaning applied (interpretation, theology) by the authors to their experiences.
I am not suggesting that God did not, and does not, speak through the scriptures. God meets people where God finds them. Christians have imbued the canon with authority and meaning, so God meets us there. Some find the Divine in nature, God will meet people there, too. God also speaks through the lives of others. As we learn of the faith, theology, and experiences of our foremothers and forefathers through scripture we can use that to help us make meaning of our own experiences of the Divine.
The Christian canon is a tool for our spiritual growth. It is not God. It is inspired by, though not written by God. Sadly, when we take a literalistic approach we end up worshiping the text rather than the magnificent, loving One who is so much bigger than any one of us can possibly imagine.