>In Thailand there is a site that is strange to Western eyes. They are called Spirit houses. They look like elaborate birdhouses (sometimes mansions) on the top of tall poles. They are set at the corners of properties. Then small bowls of food will be left at the base to appease the spirits so that they don’t harm the property or the family that lives there.
I bought a book while I was in Thailand that explains some of the cultural differences like this. It was a really insightful moment in the book when it focused on the Spirit House at the Mercedes-Benz dealership. It is quite a contrast between the steel and glass building of the 21st century that house and display creations of luxury and precision, marvels of human design and enlightenment production. While on the corner, There is a remnant of the eleventh century in order to ward off these sometime demonic entities in the spiritual realm.
It is a powerful and intriguing mix of ancient and future. I love these Ancient -Future paradoxes and pictures. ( For more on this see Robert Webber’s series on Ancient Future for the church : here)
I was reminded of this when I was looking into Jon Knox’s study of the last century of Marcion’s 2nd century view of reading the Bible. Marcion was ultimately condemned as a heretic but the problem he was trying to address continues to be a problem and in the end he did push the early church to have a Christian canon that became the New Testament because of this concern.
The main concern & area of contention were these 3 ways to read the Bible.
The predominant way was to read it was Allegorically. It cannot be overstated how pervasive this reading of the Bible was – especially the Old Testament. Because this is out of favor now, and has been really for the last couple of centuries, it is often completely off of people’s radar and frequently left out of the conversation. But this approach had a powerful effect for so many centuries of church history. It has radically impacted the way we read the Bible and the way we talk about God.
Marcion wanted to get away from that way of reading the Bible. But once you do that you run into a very serious problem. What do you do with the seeming discrepancies between the portrayal of God in the Old Testament and the New.
One way was to read it for Dissonance. When one looked at the disparity between testaments, it had to be accounted for. So theories were developed – some illustrated that God had changed. Some thought that Jehovah was not the same God that sent Jesus and whom he called ‘Abba’. Another had God stepping down from Heaven to become Jesus and then returning as a different sort of God. There were lots of theories and many of them were ultimately deemed unacceptable by those who came to power as Bishops in the third and fourth centuries. Which is understandable enough , but it still doesn’t reconcile the differences that even a cursory reading brings to the surface.
If one undertook this, folks like Marcion believed that one would either be left with a Bible you can’t believe or a God you can’t believe in.
This is unacceptable and untenable to most people of faith so we attempt to read for Congruence. This often gets generously labeled as a “literal” reading. The problem is that it requires one to simply ignore the differences that Marcion was addressing. This is what most choose to do and the exact situation that most evangelicals find themselves in trying to reconcile the differences.
People who are really into the Bible often say that they read it literally. But let’s be honest here: no one reads the Bible literally. We are fooling ourselves if we think that we do. It’s not even mostly meant to be read literally. No one actually thinks that a beast with 10 heads will rise up out of the sea. No one thinks that Jesus actually meant to cut off your body parts if they caused you temptation. We all know that there was not actual ‘good Samaritan’ – that story was not a newspaper style account or report, it was a parable. and no one actually thinks that God is a shepherd. It’s imagery – it’s poetry.
No one reads the Bible literally no matter how much they protest and insist that they do. When faced with this somebody might say ‘well, we read the parts literally that are meant to be read literally’. But that is different isn’t it. You can’t say ‘I read it literally’ and by that mean ‘I read half of it literally and the other half as poetry, allegory, prophecy, parable and apocalypse.’ That – by definition – is not literal. No one reads the Bible literally. It is not meant to be read literally. Those who insist that they do are fooling themselves.
So Marcion was dealing with this in the 2nd Century. Then we took it up a notch in the last 3 Centuries in an era called Modernity which introduced a whole new set of concerns and considerations. The past 300 years have seen massive shifts in the way that we read the Bible. This is why I find Ancient-Future so intriguing. It is really helpful where we are.
And now I am even moving on from that and trying to get ready for the next century. I want to participate in the Post-Modern conversation and I want to see what the Bible has to say to it and what it has to say to the Bible.
You can call the approach post-modern or progressive or whatever you want – but my 3 interest are as follows:
3 new Ways to read the Bible.
a) you can’t read it like a contract
b) what is hermeneutics ?
you have to factor in TheoPoetics
That will be our topic in Part 7: Three New Ways to Read the Bible