Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Struggling with the Bible

At this year's meeting of the InterMountain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends there was a workshop entitled “Top 10 Quaker Bible Verses.” The purpose of the workshop was to enable Friends to explore their attitudes toward the Bible to become more aware of just how large a role the Bible played in the journals and epistles of George Fox (1624–1691) and other early Quakers. Among the resources available for this kind of study are on-line annotated versions of the letters of George Fox at Earlham College. Scholars have gone through the journals and epistles of Fox and noted the many direct quotes from and allusions to the Bible. A look at a randomly chosen letter will show how extensive Fox's use of the Bible was. Every paragraph has several quotations; indeed, nearly every sentence has at least an oblique reference to the Bible. There is no doubt that George Fox knew his scriptures very well.

Many of the people of the seventeenth century, including most Quakers, followed a lectionary in their Bible studies. A typical lectionary suggests one psalm, one passage from the old testament, one passage from a gospel and one passage from an epistle for every day of the year. Some lectionaries are designed to guide the reader through the entire Bible every year, while others are designed to take three years to read the entire text. Anyone wishing to experiment with a lectionary can find one on the web site of the Presbyterian Church of the USA .Never having approached the Bible through a lectionary, I chose one a few weeks ago and plunged in. I also began reading the Bible from the very first page, just to see how far I could get. So far I have made it through the five books of the Torah, Joshua, Judges, Ruth and most of 1 Samuel. My bookmark seems barely to have moved from the front cover. Clearly reading the entire Bible is going to take a good deal of time, and there's a good chance I'll lay the task down for periods of time, making it take even longer.

Reading the Bible has been quite a struggle for me. I have not yet found much that I like or find in any way inspiring (except for the heartwarming book of Ruth), and I have found a great deal that I strongly dislike and find disgusting. As I read, I find myself growing increasingly curious about how the early Quakers reacted to what they read in the so-called Good Book. For example, given that most of the early Quakers were committed to some version of the peace testimony, which is based on these well-known lines in George Fox's journal:

I told [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars and I knew from whence all wars did rise, from the lust, according to James's doctrine... I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strifes were. (See the Wikipedia article on the Quaker Peace Testimony.)

Early Quakers fashioned a testimony that included the phrase “we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight any war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.” So the question that has begun to rumble in my mind is how the people who testified that they would wage no war against anyone with outward weapons understood all the passages of the Torah and the books of Joshua and Judges in which the Israelites are slaughtering tens of thousands of men, women and children belonging to the peoples who inhabited Moab and Canaan before the Israelites waged what can only be described as a genocidal campaign against them. Not only do we read that YHWH did not disapprove of the slaughter, but we read that he encouraged it, even demanded it. Not only were all the people residing in those lands to be killed (with an occasional exception made for women who had not yet slept with a man, whose lives were spared so that they might be forced to become the wives and concubines of Israelites), but often their animals were to be mutilated, and all their holy places were to be demolished and scattered to the winds. How did Quakers square this bloodthirsty deity, who commanded brutally aggressive actions against people who had never done harm to the Israelites, and who ordained the death penalty for Israelites who failed to honor the sabbath, or who committed adultery, or who disobeyed their fathers and mothers, or whose eyes fell upon the sacred objects around the altar on which countless animals were burned after their blood was poured on the floor–how did they square this deity with the observation in the gospel of John that God is love?

One approach to this problem might be to say that YHWH, who plays such a central role in the lives of the descendants of Israel, is just a different character from the God who inspired the Jews at the time of Jesus of Nazareth. After all, there is such an apparent different in “personality” of the YHWH of the Torah and the God of the gospels that one might as well say they are not identical to one another, perhaps do not even have the same essence. A modern reader of the Bible might well approach scriptures as a phenomenologist of religions and say that the deity of the early descendants of Israel is just plain a different character than the deity of the gospels and the letters of Paul, and one might say the angry, jealous, almost petty YHWH of Exodus makes a comeback in the Book of Revelations, where once again there is no shortage of smiting promised for the enemies of God and Christ. This strategy, however, would clearly not have worked for the early Quakers, who were strongly committed to the story told in the Bible itself, a story in which the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Moses and Joshua is the very same God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son as an atonement for the sin of Adam.

I do not know how the early Quakers managed to find a way to find the Bible inspiring; I expect this is a topic for considerable research in the writings of George Fox, Isaac Penington, William Penn, Margaret Fell, John Woolman and other early Friends. Whether I will muster the curiosity myself to do this research, I don't yet know. What I do know is that for me, as for many other liberal unprogrammed Quakers, it is much easier to search elsewhere for inspiration than in the Bible. When I attended Quaker meetings forty years ago, it was not uncommon to hear Friends quoting the Bible in their verbal testimony in meetings for worship and giving inspiring oral commentaries on them. As I recall (after forty years!), there were rarely any passages cited of the sort that I have reported finding so challenging. I don't recall hearing much about the smiting of enemies of God and the stoning to death of adulteresses and disobedient sons.

Nowadays, I find Biblical citation less frequent than it used to be. Judging from things Friends were saying in the workshop at this year's IMYM, it is not hard to understand why. A good many liberal unprogrammed Quakers these days admit to finding the Bible unpalatable. Many who have a taste for reading early Christian writings at all would rather read Gnostic texts such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Mary. Elaine Pagels has become their scholar of choice. Others have pretty much abandoned Christian writings altogether, preferring instead to read Thich Nhat Hanh, Swami Vivekananda, Rumi and Laozi. (I myself get almost all my inspiration from Buddhist sources, so how can I blame them?)

Here is my concern: as liberal Friends turn increasingly away from the Bible and toward the vast body of inspirational writing in the rest of world literature, they may slowly be dissolving the very glue that has held Quakers together for the past four hundred years and that gives context, shape and meaning to the testimonies on peace, integrity, simplicity, community, equality and ecological stewardship. In a postmodern Quakerism I fear the prophecy of William Butler Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.