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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"The Bible," the Bible, and the Word of God

Last night my wife and I finally sat down to watch the fourth episode of The Bible on the History Channel. We had enjoyed the first episode (I reacted to it here) and looked forward to the remainder of the series. The second episode, with its ridiculous Samson portrayal, cooled us to the program, though. The third episode was somewhat redeeming, although the dust-up over Satan resemblingPresident Obama stole much of its effect.

This fourth episode, in which Jesus’ ministry goes from the calling of Simon Peter to Jesus’ arrest and nighttime trial before the Sanhedrin, was spectacular. Yes, the effects of Jesus’ walking on water looked fake and low-budget, but the way in which the producers and writers wove the narratives of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels into one story was well done.

Jonathan Merritt has written about 10 things that The Bible got wrong, many of which I, too, have found unnecessarily unfaithful to the narrative of the Scriptures.

But here’s what I find tantalizingly interesting about Merritt’s analysis, and that of others: everyone I talk to and read about this miniseries offer a mixture of interpretation and “literalness” in their explanations of why they like or don’t like the series.
            Merritt lists 10 ways in which The Bible “deviates” from the Biblical text. He laments the opening scene of Episode 1 in which Noah tells the creation story from Genesis 1. What “sticks out” in Merritt’s mind in this case is that good Biblical scholarship locates the origin of both the creation story and the flood story in the era of Moses. He tries to moderate his objection, saying, “Noah recounts the creation narrative as it appears in Genesis, but there’s one problem: the story was not written until later. Conservative Christian scholars believe this story was drafted by Moses many centuries after Noah’s flood; more liberal scholars claim it was penned even later.” So both “conservatives” and “liberals” have a problem with this double-story because one story in the narrative of the other is too much turducken for either to stomach.
            Here’s what I find painfully ironic about his objection: Merritt relies of Biblical scholarship to support his objection to a non-literalist interpretation of the Genesis account while at the same time such scholarship presupposes that such events cannot be taken literally. This is the same as complaining that Once Upon a Time blends the stories of Pinocchio and Snow White in the same episode!
            Be careful here – I’m NOT saying that the stories of Genesis or any others of the Scriptures are at the same historical or literary level of fairy tales. I’m not interested in debating the word “myth” or other terms used in describing the early narratives of Genesis in this entry; perhaps later. What I want to highlight is the idea that placing the creation and flood accounts in the mouth of Moses presupposes a lot in Biblical scholarship that biblical literalists would certainly find objectionable.

            While Merritt’s analysis is more robust than many of the anecdotal conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues about The Bible the same ironic nature of their interpretations is present. In a conversation this morning with a co-worker about the show I was reminded just how murky our interpretations are. I asked her whether or not she had seen any of The Bible, and she responded that she had only seen it in passing. Further, she offered that the brief scene she did see caused her to instruct her son, who was curious about the story being portrayed, that he should “read it for himself,” and not trust the images on the screen.
            I happen to know that this friend is a member at a very conservative SBC church and that her theology of Scripture is in line with that denomination’s teaching. What was interesting to me is the way in which her distrust of anything on television led her to “protect” her son from The Bible’s interpretation of the story of Moses by telling him to read and interpret that story for himself.

Here’s the point of this brief and hopefully rational post: interpreting the nature of the Scriptures is as unavoidable as interpreting the individual stories that constitute the Scriptures. What has been exposed through the massive popularity of The Bible is that our interpretations of the Scripture do not always line up with our theology of Scripture. If nothing else is accomplished by the production of The Bible I pray that it will cause viewers to examine what they find to be “inaccuracies” in the narrative of the show and that such an examination will cause our families and churches to consider their theology of Scripture afresh.

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