Sunday, March 19, 2006

Children of a Clever God

(Sunday afternoon, late winter. Al is at the copy machine in the teachers' work room. Enter Peg, also a teacher.)

Al: Well, well--this is a surprise. You usually finish your progress reports early. What brings you here?

Peg: Oh, I am finished with those things. I exported them Friday, or whatever you call that business. I came in because I've got these study packets on supply and demand for the econ classes and I didn't want to stand in the Monday morning copier line.

Al: Good choice, I'd say.

Peg: So, you're not finished with your reports? I won't say "as usual."

Al: Be prepared for a surprise, madam, for I am done with reports, and they're only due tomorrow. I'm just printing a set for my file.

Peg: I'm truly impressed.

Al: Yeah, yeah. Here, I'm done. The copier's all yours.

Peg: Is anyone else in the building?

Al: I know Shari's still here, and I saw light at the end of the hall in coach Byron's room. Ann and Delia were here earlier, but Delia was picking up Ann to go to Bible study.

Peg: Really? I thought Delia was Catholic.

Al: So?

Peg: So, I thought Catholics didn't do that sort of thing.

Al: What sort of thing--go to Church?

Peg: No, silly, Bible study.

Al: Once again, milady, be surprised. It happens in this modern world. In fact, the Church in this archdiocese has a model program for adult Scripture study.

Peg: You learn something every day, I guess. So, Catholics do read the Bible?

Al: I think we'd both be surprised at how many. I know among converts, there are lots of us. Back in the day, whatever day that was, there wasn't much encouragement for Catholics to read Scripture because there weren't good modern English editions. And at Sunday Mass and the other sacraments and rituals the Bible came to life. Even visual things like church architecture were called "the Gospel in stone." But now any bookstore sells editions of the Bible for Catholics to study or just read.

Peg: How do you know about all that?

Al: I led some Scripture studies in my parish after I was received into the Church.

Peg: Hmm. You know, my family is Methodist, but we didn't really go to church that much, and we certainly didn't sit around and read the Bible. I have an older one that I've picked up a few times and started reading, but I got frustrated and set it down.

Al: Let me guess: you stopped in Leviticus.

Peg: That book is slow reading, and kind of dull.

Al: It sure is: a lot of picky social laws and rules for worship and temple design. Not too many folks are building 10th-century B.C. temples these days.

Peg: I thought you'd disagree and try to convince me that it was the best stuff ever written.

Al: It is part of the greatest story, just not the most scintillating part for moderns like us to enjoy and appreciate.

Peg: So I could skip over those parts?

Al: Who ever said otherwise? At Sunday worship, we pick essential parts rather than read from beginning to end.

Peg: When I was growing up it was kind of a "don't touch" attitude--like you had to have some sort of procedure or training to get into the Bible.

Al: No more or less than it takes to get into any other mature sort of writing. Just like literature, or for that matter the newspaper, what you find there depends on what you bring with you.

Peg: Now that's news that's been hiding from me all these years.

Al: I think people are scared off because the Bible is a big book and some parts are definitely intimidating, and strange to us. It's not all the same kind of reading, either.

Peg: I figured that out when I got to Leviticus. Suddenly I was swimming at the deep end. What good are all those rules and building-design codes?

Al: This is where you have to bring something to the table. First of all, like a swimming instructor would say, don't swim at the deep end until you've accomplished a few other skills.

Peg: Like what?

Al: Well, let's see.... How about deciding how you're going to think about this big book in the first place? You could start by forgetting it's a book at all.

Peg: What do you mean by that? Of course, it's a book. Just look at it. It's not a hot-air balloon or a toaster.

Al: Calm down. What I mean is that it's a library of writings--an intentional one, like a very selective or specialized library, but still a library. Actually, its name means that. One commentary I looked in says the word "bible" means "the books" or "the book of the books." It's a collective term.

Peg: I suppose in the ancient world we'd be thinking of a group of scrolls.

Al: A whole wagon-load of them, and large ones at that.

Peg: So, really, a collective name that would describe them all, since they're obviously different, as I'm discovering, wouldn't be very specific.

Al: True enough. Sometimes you just can't say things real simply and be accurate. So that would be lesson one: the Bible is a library.

Peg: OK, what's lesson two?

Al: I'd say this: many of the books are anthologies themselves--skillfully edited collections of writings that cluster around important persons and themes.

Peg: That doesn't sound encouraging: not only a big book with many parts, but the parts have parts. What you're saying is that we're not dealing with a single writer even in each book.

Al: We've reached a grown-up sort of truth: It's not one writer, not one storyteller, not one tradition, not one editor, but a number of each, and probably a significant number.

Peg: Al, that's not any less intimidating than my original idea. I thought you were going to help me along, here.

Al: I think this is something that the literate adult believer has to understand. What we have in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is a theologically inspired, brilliantly edited archive of the oral and written wisdom representing all the complexities of a human culture over a span of 1500 years. That's a long time for things to evolve, so the whole is going to be a little bit complicated, even though many of the parts are very simple.

Peg: But cultures change over time. America today is different from America of the founders and America of the early colonial period.

Al: You're onto something there, but what about continuity also? Isn't there something recognizable as "American" even from the start?

Peg: Sure; beginning with the Mayflower Compact, we have the agreements that showed that these people had a special and unique way of shaping public life, a republic. That didn't happen anywhere else--not even France.

Al: Well, now...

Peg: Oh, oh. Al, you've done it again!

Al: Huh? What's that?

Peg: You've walked me to the edge of seeing something differently, then let me dive in head first.

Al: How so?

Peg: Don't be so coy. We started off with my thinking that Scripture is a single story that I'm supposed to be able to read like a novel. And I got stuck because of that idea., and wondered how anyone could see anything profound in this book. You used my disorientation to suggest a new idea, that the Bible is a library. This came as news to me, but it makes perfect sense how that I think about the books in the Old and New Testaments.

Al: Then?

Peg: Just when I begin worrying about how this vast collection can have any unity at all if it's not a novel, you slyly get me to be the one to say exactly what it is that brings this library together.

Al: Now, I couldn't possibly be that smart, but I am amused. Give yourself some credit.

Peg: OK, credit accepted--but it is the agreements, isn't it? Seems like I remember from pre-law that covenants are agreements, and so are testaments, in the legal sense.

Al: Sure.

Peg: So this Bible library is an archive relating to these two agreements, the Old and the New, between a human culture and God and the stories and traditions, including the picky rules, are evidence related to them.

Al: Perfect. It's a record of all sorts of dealings and events, positive and negative, over many centuries--but don't take that word "agreements" in too narrow a sense. Now give yourself a lot of credit: what you grasped in a few minutes of cognitive dissonance took me years. But it helps me to know that the enormous diversity of the Scriptures is the record of a wide variety of persons and groups taking the risk of living out a relationship with God.

Peg: So God is part of that unifying theme, too. That makes sense, since two parties make a covenant.

Al: I think that's what they mean by "inspired writing." The collectors and editors found and worked with those materials that spoke of the presence of God and the real struggle of God's people to deal with that presence.

Peg: Hmm. That's a lot to think about.

Al: Good. Let's quit there. I need to get a quiet evening in before school starts for the week.

Peg: Now that my copying job is done, I need to get home, too. I may thumb through that old Bible again. See you later, Al.

Al: See you in the morning.

No comments: