So Long Ago the Garden, Part 6: Fully God, Fully Man

One small passage can yield a multitude of readings.

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges once wrote an essay entitled, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” Many people cite the publication of this dense, four-page story as the birth of the postmodern era. Although like many of Borges’ essays a work of pure fiction, it is a “true story” in the best sense of the word.

It is the story of a man, Pierre Menard, who dreamt up the idea of rewriting the novel Don Quixote, word for word and line for line, exactly as it had been written. Not wanting to be daunted by the scale of the task, he began with chapters nine and thirty-eight of the first volume. Yet, even then, the challenges that faced him were formidable. Writes Borges: “He dedicated his scruples and his sleepless nights to repeating an already extant book in an alien tongue. He multiplied draft upon draft, revised tenaciously, and tore up thousands of manuscript pages.”

The eventual result? Don Quixote, by Pierre Menard.

In irony, in depth, in richness of intention, this new work far outshone the original on which it was based. Borges cites a passage from Book I, Chapter 9 in Cervantes:

 

            . . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor…

 

before dismissing it as a mere rhetorical flourish, an antiquated relic of the vapid and flowery prose of the seventeenth century. Menard’s superiority is evident in every word of his reworking:

 

            . . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

 

Where the original suffers from stilted ornamentation, Menard’s novel excels with its philosophical ingenuity. “History, the mother of truth,” notes Borges: “the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin.”

Fundamentalism offers us a particular reading of the Bible. According to the fundamentalists, of course, it is the only reading. It is a reading that is colored—as in the case of the two Quixotes—by the literalist understanding of where the Bible came from and how it developed. It is a story that we fundies tell one another about God and the authority of Scripture, a story we give the term “verbal inspiration,” though the story makes it clear that we really mean “verbal dictation.”

According to this story, there were sixty-six moments in history when an incredible thing happened. A certain man was tending his sheep, or cooking a meal, or praying in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, when he heard a voice from heaven. This voice spontaneously uttered what we now call Jeremiah: Jeremiah 1, Jeremiah 2, Jeremiah 3… or, Luke 1, Luke 2, Luke 3… or Jonah… or John… or Acts…

Please understand that I’m not exaggerating the rigidity of the fundamentalist position. It is widely believed and contended in the more conservative circles of Christianity that the entire Bible was imposed on the world by an alien voice from on high. The author of the book, Most Christians Don’t Know (What Every Christian Should Know) actually makes the claim that Amos was herding his flocks when he heard a voice like thunder saying, “The words of Amos, who was of the herdsmen of Tekoa…”

I understand what they’re trying to do: they’re trying to protect the integrity of Scripture. Unfortunately, in doing so, they have destroyed the dignity of being human. Sometimes the effect is hilarious, as in the case of Amos; sometimes it can be spiritually and emotionally dangerous.

Put on your “verbal dictation” lenses and read the following passage from Psalm 25:

 

            [16] Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me,

for I am desolate, lonely, and afflicted.

[17] The troubles of my heart are enlarged;

Bring me out of my distresses!

[18-19] Look on my affliction and my pain,

and forgive all my sins.

Consider my enemies: for they are many,

and they hate me with cruel hatred. . .

[20] Take my soul into Your keeping, and deliver me;

Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in You.

[21] Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,

for I wait for You.

 

If you have grown up in a church whose foundational paradigm was the verbal dictation of Scripture, it is not hard to imagine David scrambling for parchment as the divine voice breaks in to give infallible language to the troubled thoughts of his heart. The ultimate effect, if you read enough of the Bible, is of being at a party where one person insists on doing all the talking, and who, when you try to express your frustrations with his endless monologuing, snaps his fingers cheerfully and says, “I know precisely how you feel…” before launching into an extended meditation on precisely how you feel.

David was anxious. David was filled with affliction and pain. God, of course, could not trust David to express those emotions on his own, so He expressed them instead—in the process taking care to include some Timeless, Universal Truths so the whole psalm could be edifying and uplifting and wholesome and bloodless, and the Tuesday night “Tea for Me and Tea for Thee” Bible study could talk about what a wonderful God God is—”Isn’t God good?” “Yes, quite good”—without having to engage those obnoxious, unhappy emotions.

The ultimate effect is peculiarly religious in the old-fashioned, scribes-and-Pharisees sense of the word. For the heart of the message of lunatic doctrines like verbal dictation is that people are evil and not to be trusted; the thoughts of their hearts are corrupt and their emotions altogether vile and the only Being true enough and pure enough to play any role in authoring the Bible is God Himself.

This goes beyond mere heresy. What it is, when you get right down to it, is idolatry. Idolatry of the Bible.

And, like all idolatry, it ultimately kills the very spirit of the thing to which it gives its misplaced adoration.

Do you want to read a dry book? Do you want to read a dull book? Read the verbally-dictated Bible. It allows no dissension. It allows no disagreement. It is a heaven-sent, 2,000-page collection of inarguable truths. People who read the Bible with the frame of mind that it was wholly verbally inspired, eventually stop reading the Bible.

Though it can be hard to see when our lenses have blinded us, the Bible is the record of a conversation between man and God—a conversation which occasionally threatens to become a knock-down argument. There are passages in the Scriptures which if quoted without explanation in a church today would threaten to endanger the membership of the one reading. The author of Ecclesiastes believed death to be the end of all men: there is not one line, not a word about life after death in the entire book. Amos makes the shocking claim that God led the Philistines out of Crete just as He led the Hebrews out of Egypt (Amos 9:7)—an offensive suggestion even today for some on the hard right! Jeremiah protests that he has been “deceived” and “prevailed” upon by God (Jeremiah 20:7; the actual Hebrew is stronger, suggesting rape). There is a mesmerizing passage in Psalm 89 where the psalmist, after recounting God’s covenant with David—”His seed shall endure for ever, and his throne as the sun before me”—inverts the traditional emotional arc of the psalm by collapsing into despair: “How long, Lord, wilt thou hide thyself? For ever? Shall thy wrath burn like fire? Remember how short my time is: wherefore hast thou made all men in vain?” David at one point begs God to turn away His face, “that I may regain strength, before I go away and am no more” (Ps. 39:18). Job yearns for a sorcerer to cast a spell upon the day of his birth (Job 3:8-9). The book of Job itself amounts to a pointed critique of the commonly-accepted interpretation of much of the rest of the Old Testament!

And the reason we have so much trouble accepting the fact that God would choose to give His Word to us in such a way is because we have a phony view of perfection. Reformed theologians are fond of making the following statement: “The Bible is among books what Christ is among men.” But to listen to some of them talk, it would appear that what they mean is that the Bible is high, lofty, proud, and inhuman, just as Christ was. The problem, we come to find out, is in our view of Christ, the living Word of God. The fact is that Jesus would simply not be accepted by many of the Guardians of our Moral Tradition if they saw Him as He was during the years of His earthly ministry. We’re talking about a God whose first miracle was providing the wine for a party; who was repeatedly accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, and not without reason; who not only suffered prostitutes to wash His feet, but—what is much worse—declared them completely forgiven, not a single word of reprimand being uttered; who was more at home in the houses of sinners than in the dens of religion; whose final agonizing act was the shame of a criminal’s death. A God who was carried in the womb, who had to be cleansed and fed, who was hungry, thirsty, weary, who avoided the crowds when He needed time to pray, who was unable to perform healings if the people lacked faith, who was frequently taken by surprise, who apparently didn’t know the identity of the woman who touched Him until she confessed. A God who hung suspended, naked, bleeding, from a beam of wood. This is our God—a God who veils Himself behind the humble stuff of earth. Religion has never acknowledged this God. Religion spits in the face of this God. Religion killed this God.

But God He remains. And the Bible is His Word. And rather than dreaming up some highfaluting concept of ontological perfection and then projecting that onto the Bible, maybe it would be better if we read the Bible as it actually is, in all of its grittiness and ambiguity and diversity and humanity, till we’re able to reach the place where we can finally acknowledge that this is what perfection looks like: not a universal message, superimposed by an alien voice, but a story that accommodates itself to the myths and beliefs of its time by a God who condescends to visit His people and loves it when they put up a fight. A book that is somehow, at one and the same time, fully God and fully human. Just like Jesus.

Now go back and read those verses again—the verses from Psalm 25:

 

            [16] Turn Yourself to me, and have mercy on me,

for I am desolate, lonely, and afflicted.

[17] The troubles of my heart are enlarged;

Bring me out of my distresses!

[18-19] Look on my affliction and my pain,

and forgive all my sins.

Consider my enemies: for they are many,

and they hate me with cruel hatred. . .

[20] Take my soul into Your keeping, and deliver me;

Let me not be put to shame, for I take refuge in You.

[21] Let integrity and uprightness preserve me,

for I wait for You.

 

Sometimes it’s the way you read a passage that makes all the difference.

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5 thoughts on “So Long Ago the Garden, Part 6: Fully God, Fully Man

  1. Pingback: My 51 Favorite Books (1995 – 2013) | thetalkingllama

  2. Pingback: Five Warning Signs of Dangerous Religion | thetalkingllama

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