Human Community and Holy Texts

A sermon offered at the Foothills Unitarian Church, January 31, 2016

 Listen to the audio of this sermon here.  (contains quite a bit of extra text not included here…) 


It is the last Sunday of January, which means it is our last service exploring our theme of Resistance.  Doesn’t that seem perfect for a sermon about the Bible in a UU Church? Particularly a UU Church in the western United States? 
While many in our community would not mind an occasional quote from Jewish or Christian scripture, or even the retelling of a story or two – this is far from imagining the bible- as Leonard said, as a tool to shape our spiritual journey and our lives, integrated in with all those other possible books.

In truth, when it comes to the bible, many of us live somewhere on a spectrum between ho-hum apathy and violent resistance. There are, of course, a healthy minority who love and truly appreciate the Bible – for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways, but it is a minority.

After many years living on the apathetic-resistance spectrum, I count myself now among this bible-loving crowd, and my hope today is to at least open a dialogue among these two orientations, and invite those of you who have a degree of resistance to the bible, to release your defensive posture, even a little, and instead consider how reading the bible can in and of itself be an act of resistance.   We’ll see by the end how I do.

First, a little history – before we were bible-resisters, our Unitarian and Universalist religious ancestors were bible-thumpers.

It was the bible that led proto-Unitarian Miguel Servetus in the 16th century to reject the concept of the trinity, as in – there is no mention of any such thing in the bible and therefore it couldn’t be true.

Leading Universalist Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement in the the early 19th century also used a biblical argument to arrive at the heretical idea that salvation was for everyone.

The trajectory away from the bible took an especially strong turn in the late 19th century with the radical Unitarians known as the Transcendentalists. Rather than look externally for truth, Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and other Transcendentalists advocated that we look internally, to our own hearts and souls, and to hear the wisdom of God as it speaks from within our own minds.

The Transcendentalists also brought a suspicion of the past and its tyranny over the decisions of today. As Emerson said in his 1838 address to the Harvard Divinity School, “The assumption that the age of inspiration is past, that the Bible is closed;
indicate with sufficient clearness the falsehood of our theology. It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.”

Scientific and historical discoveries in the twentieth century, especially the Scopes trial in 1925 drew a cultural line between those who used and read the bible, and those who used and read science – as if the two were mutually exclusive, or really, as if the two were even trying to address the same questions…in any case, Unitarian Universalists clearly landed on the side of science and evolution.

The dividing line between bible readers and liberal religionists grew even firmer with the rise of the religious right in the 1980s, so that our congregations often became refuge from all that the politicized Christian Right held up as good. Without totally realizing the implications of doing so, we became the anti-religion religion, which included being the anti-bible religion – and given the biblical roots of our historical origins -you might even say we were the anti-bible biblicists.

This was my experience of Unitarian Universalism when I first encountered it in the late 90s, and I was relieved – and grateful. Feminism and a queer identity had brought me to conceive of scripture primarily as what Phyllis Trible calls a “Text of Terror,” particularly given the tendency of conservative politicians and television evangelists to employ what I later learned to call the “clobber texts.” The bible as far as I could tell was a tool of the oppressor, and as our reading imagines, it seemed perfectly reasonable that it should sit on a shelf and fade into obscurity.

This was basically my thinking when I started seminary.
When in my first quarter I realized I would have to take Introduction to the Hebrew Bible for both my degree and fellowship as a UU minister, I was quite confident that I would be suffering through it.

My professor – a Presbyterian Hebrew Bible specialist married to a Jewish New Testament scholar – described himself half-kiddingly as a biblical literalist – because he said that too often people argued about the bible without ever actually reading the bible. He said, our task will be to literally read the bible. To see not what our memories recall as the text, or what has been passed to us through culture or tradition, but to see what the text actually says, and to wrestle with the text as it is.

Over the course of 10 weeks, we literally read the Bible, starting with Genesis. Right off the bat, we realized there was not just one story of creation in the Bible, but two – quite differently told, with significantly different implications. Also, in one of the tellings, there is a mention not just of God singular, but also the gods, plural. Woh.

This was just one of a thousand discoveries of discrepancies between popular re-telling of scripture and the actual text. Another example, the bible was filled with stories of what conservative Christians today would call non-traditional marriages – blended families, multiple wives, women making lives together, love between men. And that text so often referenced to demonize gay people – about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? It actually had nothing to do with homosexual behavior and was instead an admonishment about failing to extend hospitality to the stranger.

I was appalled. How could they get away with telling such total lies about what the bible actually even says? And how could those lies end up having such a direct impact on my life? on so many people’s lives?

Along the way, I learned how the text was written, compiled, edited, and eventually codified into this thing we know as the bible. I learned about the problem of translation – not just ancient Hebrew to American English, but also across cultures and millennia.
I learned the crazy likelihood that as our reading says, nearly none of it was historical – but was a story retold by a people trying to make sense of where they had been, where they were going, and why.  Or really it was many stories, often contradictory, often with unclear meanings. Those folks who say the bible is a good and simple rule book for living, I’m guessing have never actually read the bible.

About half way through the course, I was at a coffee shop, and something new happened.
Rather than taking my bible out of my bag like it was pornography – I pulled it out easily, enthusiastically, like it was the most regular thing in the world. From that point on, I was a person who read the bible.

Yet, I still wasn’t clear what it was I was doing when I was reading the bible. My Jewish and Christian counterparts knew they were reading it so that they could teach or preach from it; they understood it to carry a special kind of authority – a way to understand Ultimate Truth. But what was I doing when I was reading it – was it just satisfying my intellectual curiosity and the requirements for graduation and ordination? How was it different than when I read Shakespeare or Chekov or other literature?

In his introduction to the recently published collection reflecting on stories from the bible, New Yorker contributor and sometimes Unitarian Adam Gopnik, asks a very similar question: how is it that we might read this text today? He doesn’t bother with “should we read it?” but rather, how will we? As he and many other scholars have correctly assessed, even if we are not always fully biblically literate, the texts of Christian and Jewish scriptures continue to influence our lives – our justice system, our notions of family life, and the political process. It is the water we swim in. Which means, we can no more easily set the bible on the shelf and hope it goes away than we can set global capitalism on the shelf. We may wish it otherwise, but this system and “gospel” to some, impacts us at nearly every level, and it isn’t going anywhere by us ignoring it.

A few years ago I testified at the Colorado legislature as the sole clergy voice representing the need to pass marriage equality for same sex partnership. I may have wished that the argument was being made on some other grounds than “the bible tells me so,” but given that there aren’t really any other substantive arguments to be made, the opposition dug in specifically on all those clobber texts. In that moment I could not have been more grateful for my biblical literacy.

Gopnik calls this way of reading the bible an “antagonistic” or “frankly hostile manner of reading.” We read the bible so we can speak up about the way it is being misread, with often terrible consequences. “We read,” as he says, “to fight back.”

This approach is not merely deconstructive, but has also yielded rich and constructive interpretation of and engagement with the text. As Gopnik says, “much classic Talmudic reading, though not heretical, is often best described as antagonistic in this sense: fed up with the stolid apparent meaning of the verse, it searches for a meaning that wiser men can live with.”

This “antagonistic” approach is the way I came to read the book of Joshua – which is filled with terrible acts of violence and war upon the people who were occupying the land that the Israelites believed God had promised them. Many groups of people – for example the European settlers as they headed west in the 19th century – have pointed to the book of Joshua as justification for their dismissal and destruction of other people. My subversive reading, however, started to think about this text as a cautionary tale of our human tendency to repeat the violence done to us because we believe that we are now in the right. I wondered why the Hebrew people told their history this way? What was the generational pain that made this their core story? What can we learn that would be helpful here so that we can actually stop the cycle from repeating once again?

This way of reading the bible puts life as it is today in explicit dialogue with the text and its influence on society and culture over time. It makes visible the ways that particular interpretations and uses of scripture have created our world, and in turn interrogates and problematizes that creation – the cycles of violence it has perpetuated, the systems and patterns of patriarchy and oppression. And in turn it often explores new and equally valid ways to interpret these same texts that are liberating and transforming – that are actually helpful for life today.

This framework for reading the bible – understanding that it could be read with this political, antagonistic, or what you might call “resistance” lens – helped me better understand what I was up to when I was reading it, what it meant to read the bible as a Unitarian Universalists. This was a relief, because I kept signing up for more bible classes.

And yet, it wasn’t enough. I knew there was something more that I was up to beyond just just looking for new interpretations, or critique of the way it’s been used. I wasn’t just looking to be better prepared for the next legislative hearing, or my next family reunion.
Although – again – that was, is, huge.  But it wasn’t enough of an explanation because I enjoyed the text too much.  I fell in love with the stories, and the people.  I hoped they would finally come to peace in their own land, even while knowing the ending would bring no such thing.  When my son arrived unexpectedly in March that year, I suggested we name him Josef, after the Josef in Genesis – the wise, humble and generous brother who forgave his family after they did the seemingly unforgivable.  I felt a particular grief when Moses died before making it to the promised land, and I wondered why Hollywood hadn’t taken up the story of King David, it was so dramatic, even soap-opera-y. I loved the stories, but I also loved the complications, the contradictions, and I loved imagining ancient peoples telling these same stories, trying to make sense of life and their place in it all.

The bible became holy to me, again.  Not because because I affirmed it was a text divinely made or inspired, but because it was human made, human inspired.

Former UUA President, John Buehrens calls this approach “biblical humanism,” which is not to make any claims about God or to deny God, but rather to approach the bible as a document describing human experience of God, and what it means to live and die on this earth – human experience over centuries, and when we also read the commentaries and scholarship, the poetry and artwork – all of those things that respond to the bible, then we can imagine engaging this text as being a part of an over two-millenium-long conversation about life and life’s biggest questions, dilemmas and joys.

It brings me some comfort, to imagine all these humans across millenia, to think of them something like us. Which is to say, they were likely more often wrong than they knew or were willing to admit, more confused than they were clear, and more lost than they were confident. There’s something beautiful, and holy, in being a part of this struggle of trying to figure it all out.  Like this great big free and responsible search for truth and meaning – across nearly 3,000 years.

Especially for those of us who have been on the receiving end of the clobber texts, it is perfectly understandable that we’d like not to read the bible, but run the other direction.
Yet when we are able to re-meet this text with new knowledge, a new lens, within a community of practice that holds liberal religious values and who still maintains that God speaketh not spake – or maybe isn’t sure about God at all – a community of practice that honors the beauty in this idea that these words are a human account of human experience….this sort of bible reading can be profoundly transformative, healing, and liberating, and it can be fun.

And perhaps most importantly, we cede biblical literacy to the anti-science fundamentalists to all of our and our planet’s peril.

My hope and vision is that we Unitarian Universalists will make that journey from resisting the bible to reading the bible as an act of resistance.

And maybe – just maybe – we might even begin to imagine that we too could be a reader of the bible, the holy text made and re-made by human hands, and human lives.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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