It Ain't Necessarily So

by Rev. Dr. Edward A. Frost

Presented 2012 June 24 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellijay GA.

I grew up with a Bible close at hand. The Bible I remember most particularly was my grandmother's. As I recall, it had belonged to her parents: No doubt the product of those long gone traveling Bible salesmen. It was one of those one by two foot monsters, about six inches thick, weighing about ten pounds, with a carved-relief cover of red leather darkened from years of reverent handling. Its front pages were filled with the entrances and exits of a century or more of our clan.

I was read stories from this massive tome: Moses being fished out of the river by Pharoah's daughter; Joseph and his coat of many colors; food falling out of the sky during the flight from Egypt; water gushing out of a rock, the sea, parting for the Israelites, closing in again on the wicked Egyptians. How could that be? "God did it. It was God's work, Edward, and this is the Word of God. Everything written here is true.

Well Why not? I believed in Santa Claus. I believed in gnomes and elves. I believed in the tooth fairy. Why not talking snakes, angels and an ocean parting in the middle? The Bible, particularly that Bible, held many fascinations for the child. Those who are younger must keep in mind that there was a time where the only place a child could see pictures of naked men and women was in the illustrated family Bible.

There were also things in the Bible to giggle about with one's friends – things like "cleaving," and seed-dropping and, "knowing" this person and that. It was clear, after awhile, that one "begat" a baby after having been "lain with" or "known," and that something out-of-the-ordinary had happened in the case of Mary and the baby Jesus.

Of course, the pages with the most jam on them were the pages of the Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Scriptures. "While the king was on his couch," so it is written, "My nard gave forth its fragrance." One can imagine the ruminations of young boys about what a fragrant "nard" might be. In later years, when it occurred to me to look it up, It turned out to be a Himalayan plant. Then there were the two breasts, like two fawns, it says, twin gazelles. And legs like alabaster columns. We would try to imagine what this Shulamite woman might have looked like whose nose was described as being like the tower of Lebanon looking out over Damascus. I mean, that's got to be a big nose. Years later, in the Baptist college I attended, I was told that all this was allegory, that all this erotic talk was actually about the relationship between Christ and his church. They believed things like that at that college. They would read what was written, and believe something else.

I thought about all this after reading while ago about another school board's plan to introduce a course into the public school curriculum which would supposedly teach the Bible as history. The news account was significant in reporting that "After opening with a prayer...the board permit the course." As I recall, that was a Florida county and only one of ten other Florida counties where the course was being considered – destined to fall at the feet of the Supreme Court. Schools in North Carolina, Iowa and California also considered Bible study courses. Given the dominant faith of our southern states, I don't doubt that the matter will come around again.

About three hundred schools around the country, so far, are teaching the Bible as supposed history in public schools. The fact that the course is an elective is beside the point. It is being taught by public school teachers on public property during school hours, under the guise of "history." One of the members of the school board pressing the course says, "I don't apologize to anybody for being a Christian and conservative. It seems to me that if any place ought to be teaching history and truth," he says, "it should be the school system."

"History and truth."Well, the Bible contains precious little objective history and "What is truth?" was wisely asked by Pontius Pilate in one of the Bible's stories about Jesus of Nazareth. For whatever truth and history the Bible contains, it also contains falsehoods, errors, contradictions and a mighty river of words which have nothing to do with either truth or falsehood. The Hebrew Scriptures, for example,contain a marvelously eclectic collection of eastern literature which spans almost a thousand years.

Not all the literature collected in the Hebrew scriptures was believed to be "religious" or "sacred," not even by the Hebrews. The books of Kings and Judges, for example, are just what they appear to be, long lists of Israel's rulers, lists from which one would be hard put to gain any useful information of inspiration. The Hebrew Scriptures also contain poetry. And, as has been said, a poem does not have to mean but simply be. That near-salacious Song of Solomon is not allegory. The ancient poet knew nothing of Christ and his church. He wrote an erotic poem. And a good one, too. He should be honored for that.

Much of the literature of the Hebrew scriptures was "borrowed" from other cultures. The Book of Genesis, for example, especially the story of creation, was taken from creation stories first told in Sumeria, Babylon and Assyria. The Book of Job, was adapted for the affirmation of Hebrew faith from an ancient fable from the land of Ur. Psalms 19 and 104 are Egyptian songs. Psalm 19 is a hymn to the Sun God – "In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber and, like a strong man, runs his course with joy." The ten commandments, Charlton Heston notwithstanding, are a distilled version of the forty-two commandments found in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

The Christian Scriptures, on the other hand, are quite different. These books contain literature having to do only with religion – the religion developed by the Christian church during the two centuries after the death of Jesus. But there is little or no consistency in this literature, either. It is a collection of documents, written by different authors, with different points of view, over a period of about one hundred and twenty years – beginning about two decades after the death of Jesus. There is no history here. No scribes, biographers or secretaries hovered at the fringes of the crowds as Jesus and his disciples spoke. All we know about what Jesus said and did is what the long-lost writers of these documents say he said and did. As Albert Schweitzer concluded in one of his doctoral theses (!), We cannot find an historical Jesus in the Christian Scriptures, only the Jesus of faith.

In most cases, the early Christian church and its councils had already developed certain myths about Jesus – such as his virgin birth and resurrection – before any of the literature was set down. When the story was set down, it reflected the doctrines of the developing church perhaps more than it did the message and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. We'll never know.

In defending the Unitarian Christianity of the nineteen century, the Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, said, "Our leading principle in interpreting scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for [human beings],in the language of human beings],and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books." "The Bible," Channing said, treats of subjects on which we receive ideas from other sources besides itself, such subjects as the nature, passions, relations and duties of humankind; and it expects us to restrain and modify its language by the known truths which observation and experience furnish on these subjects."There, in those few words, was laid the path by which the Unitarians departed from their fellow Christians of the nineteenth century. Whereas other Christian faiths demanded unswerving belief in every biblical word as divinely dictated, the Unitarians were urged to" restrain and modify" the language of the Bible by the known truths which observation and experience furnish on these topics. In short, if the Bible says one thing and one's natural reason combined with present knowledge dictates something else – one is to go with reason and knowledge. Thus, if the Bible claims the earth and everything in it was created in seven days and carbon dating indicates otherwise, we go with carbon dating.

The Genesis story can then be appreciated for what it is – an ancient and universal myth and a myth which, like all myths, contains one dimension of multi-faceted truth. The stories may speak to us about our human nature with a voice which pure reason may not hear. If it is not true – by reason's truth – that the "red sea" was parted for the Hebrews or that manna fell from heaven to feed the fleeing Hebrews, there is another truth which the spirit perceives. Stories tell us truths which have to do with spiritual quests, with trials and tribulations, with gifts unearned, gifts of grace like manna from heaven, with truths received as if from mountain-tops. If we apply the test of reason and say that people are not born of virgins and do not rise from the dead to live again, still we can experience that those who love without reservation and be convinced, beyond all reason,that such a love for which one might lay down one's life ,is deathless.The language of the Bible, as Channing said, must be restrained and modified by our own experience, knowledge and observation. One hopes that our own experience is not always so lifeless and methodical that there is no story in it, no poetry, no ways of knowing or understanding that hold and preserve a different kind of truth. For religious liberals, the Bible is not a "sacred" book; at least, it is no more sacred, no more inviolable by reason, that any of the literature of the human spirit might be. It is said that the Psalms rank with poetry of Wordsworth. That the story of Job is as masterful as the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare. The Prophecies of Isaiah and the Book of Romans might be models for our contemporary prophets who declare "Thus saith the Lord," commanding the people to hear the truth and to do it. In its Elizabethan translation, the Bible has molded the beauty of the English language and structured English literature as perhaps no other classical work has done or could do.

It can also be said that the Bible occupies a more central place in European and American civilization and culture than any other collection of books. The art of ages since the Greco-Roman period, for example, has had to do with great Biblical themes.The story of Genesis comes to life and lives on with power in the long reach of God's hand to human kind on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. That collection of literature, letters and odd bits that is called the Bible, reflects the traditions the poetry, stories, songs creeds and aspirations of a people seeking spiritual truth across twelve centuries.

The literature records the religious development of the people of Israel from primitive ideas of God, worship and morality to the lofty ethical and moral teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," is recorded at one place in the religious journey and, further along the way, becomes "But I say unto you, love your enemies,bless them that persecute you." In the beginning, the primitive tribal god, Yahweh, is a warrior king, jealous of other gods, demanding blood sacrifice and slaughter of enemies. As the religious journey continues, it is said, "What does the lord require of you but to love mercy and do justice?"

When the Bible is misused – and it is misused more than any other literature – it is because it is misunderstood – and it is misunderstood more than any other literature. When one flips through its pages, as if it were a contemporary book of laws, and quotes without regard for centuries of place and culture, one engages in more ignorance than faith. It is the ignorance with which it is used that causes us too often not to be able to find a Bible in our homes or even, sometimes in our Unitarian Universalist churches.

When I was a young Methodist preacher, I often preached from a sermon manuscript which, regardless of the church in which I preached, usually rested on the open pages of a massive pulpit Bible – much like my grandmother's Bible – symbolizing that my words rested on the Word of God. My manuscripts no longer rest on the pages of "the Word of God." Still, I have the feeling that the sermons, whatever the topic, whatever the congregation – and with, I hope, humble intent – come essentially from the same ground, not from the word of God but from the Word about God – That is, the Word about what is Absolute, Essential and Ultimate.That Word, which every preacher seeks to hear and relate is as ancient as the lands of Sumeria, Ur and Babylon.

The Word about God is the word about the human journey in the quest of what "God" might mean,of what it might mean to be human, of what truth might be and where it might lie. The Bible is not the end of revelation – not the end of all there is to be revealed to our understanding. It is not, for the religious seeker, the end of truth. But, to a considerable extent, wanderers far-afield though we may be, it is the story of the beginning of what has bee our epoch journey.

I recommend that you scan your bookshelves or poke around in the attic boxes where you think you might have seen one last, and recover a Bible. If you don't have one, they aren't hard to come by.You have my permission to skip over all the kings and all the begats. I promise you there are no hidden secrets there. But stop at the stories. Read them as if you were hearing them for the first time. Wonder at the marvel of it – that such ancient stories remain with us. And wonder at the marvel of it, that they remain stories about us.

There is precious little history in the Bible. Any attempt to teach it to public school children as truth is thinly-disguised proselytizing. But let us not let the religious right have the Bible. It is the literature of the far reaches of the human soul. It's stories reach behind us into the desert lands of our origins and press far within us into the realms of our spirits.

"Finally [friends], whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." (Phillipians)