A feature of the culture wars now raging in the Anglican Communion is the readiness of one side, but not all of the other, to deploy a familiar weapon of seemingly awesome power: the Bible.
Reverence for scripture has been a defining characteristic of the Evangelical wing of the church since the great Protestant Reformation and particularly William Tyndale’s translation in the 1520s. The Bible is, let us immediately concede, a classic of world civilisation. It is part of the foundation on which much of Western culture and shared imagination is based and the source of much of our vocabulary and canonical literature. We have to respect the fact that so many of our fellow Christians revere the Bible and base their values and daily lives and struggle on its teachings. For many of its proponents, the Bible’s rulings are, because they are Holy Writ, the ultimate truth, categorically unanswerable.
Not all Christians have quite the same attitude. Many would agree with Marcus Borg that stories like the Nativity are at once literally incredible and wonderfully true. That much of the scriptures are written not in factual reportage but in metaphor was first noticed in the first two centuries of the church’s life. Even the great Jean Calvin himself described the Genesis account of creation as a story for children.
It does not help that the Bible – a compendium of dramatic history, psychological insight, ethical guidance and sublime poetry – is in some places a pitiless, even disgusting document. Besides giving advice on how to sell one’s daughter (Exodus 21:7) it prescribes death for disobeying parents (Deuteronomy 21:18) of for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:15) and commends him who “taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones (Psalm 137:9)” It is a familiar depressing charge sheet dominated, in our eyes at least, bythe Bible’s clear failure to condemn slavery.
The fact is, however, that many on the fundamentalist wing of the Church are prepared to treat the Bible as inerrant, an indivisible declaration by God, at whatever cost in logic or for understanding ancient cultures and their world view. Those of us who do not hold this position are left with the question, why do they believe this?
Because they think that the alternative is awful: a dark and threatening world without God; how can society be ethical, moral, above all safe, without the word of God as transmitted by the Bible? The key factor, surely, is fear:
“Evolution is running ramped [sic] in America. It is forcing God out of the nation as a whole. God is no longer wanted in the States and that is why we are having the troubles and problems we have. God’s hand of protection is lifted off the country.” (FSTDT quote 74479)
If this is typical it demonstrates a terrible, unreasoning fear born of ignorance. As writers on religion and politics have pointed out, this fear spreads far and wide wherever people feel powerless: frightened and then angered by change, because they cannot understand it. In a post-modern, cyber-linked, turbo-charged, irony-drenched world where change is a constant but at the same time is inexplicable and appears as if from nowhere, who would not fear?
This is why those who of us who have had the education and upbringing to ride this wave with confidence should have some understanding for those who have not, even those pitiable figures meeting the change-threat despairingly with explosives round their waist.
Love the Bible, with all its faults; just don’t ask us to think it that it is perfect.