Thanks to a link from John Shuck, I discovered the blog of April DeConick, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University. Her blog tends to have an academic and scholarly focus, which means that it isn't necessarily written at the level of lay people like you and me. I'm not a biblical scholar, I don't play one on TV, and I only have a bare bones knowledge at best of the tools that biblical scholars use. But skimming through the blog, I find it still has some interesting things to say that even people who aren't scholars or professors can appreciate. I suppose the best analogy I can think of is that, just as non-scientists can read Scientific American, we who aren't biblical scholars can peek inside of academia by reading blogs from biblical scholars and thus find a nugget or two of value.
I found this comment in her opening entry to be quite interesting:
Those in the Academy who have not dislodged themselves from their faith operate to defend, justify and explain it in terms they couch "historical" while privileging the New Testament canon and ignoring or dissing the apocrypha. Their personal religious belief in the authority of the New Testament scripture has led them to a common (and erroneous) assumption, that the New Testament texts are the only documents that tell us about the history of early Christianity. This leads to another common (and erroneous) assumption, that these canonical texts are accurate and reliable documents for the study of early Christianity. In this way, the religious walls of the canon have imprisoned the Academy for a couple of hundreds of years, holding us back from an honest historical analysis of early Christianity.I think what she says makes a lot of sense, and I also think it has some resonance, not just to academicians, but also to people of faith. It seems to me that, just as scholarly inquiry about the origins of Christianity should not be restricted to just what is in the New Testament canon, so can those who care about the events that initiated the Christian movement (which, one would think, means all Christians) might open themselves up to appreciating the diversity of the faith, and therefore the writings, that emerged during that time. The distinction between the canonical and the non-canonical continues to strike me as rather arbitrary. Creating a wall between the biblical and the non-biblical can lead to the bibliolatry of fundamentalism, to an unnecessarily extreme degree of reverence for what is in the canon as having an inerrantly divine origin, as being God's literalwords rather than the words of the human beings who put them down on papyrus.
Even though there are some scholars in the Academy who attempt to operate as historians rather than theologians, the theological position is still controlling our discipline. The discipline is still limited by the canon, perpetuating the myth that the religious boundaries of the canon should be the historical boundaries as well. Certainly the New Testament texts are important pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the only pieces. An enormous amount of literature was written by the early Christians in the first two centuries, and all of it needs to be studied critically in order to get a full picture of what was going on. If we only study the New Testament documents, our reconstruction of early Christianity is inherently flawed. Paradoxically we end up promoting as "historical" an "apocryphal" Christianity solely based on the New Testament.
I am not suggesting that "The Shepherd of Hermas" should be added to the Revised Common Lectionary. But I do think it is worth asking ourselves why it is that the specific collection of writings known as "the Bible" are elevated to the status of a permanent, fixed, immutable set of authoritative and standard writings from which both the Christian liturgy and private personal religious study is drawn. Is it a matter of revering tradition for tradition's sake? Is it because, despite all the troublesome texts (or "sins of scripture", to borrow a term from Spong) in the Bible, it nevertheless contains all the pearls of theological wisdom we ever need to draw from? Or is it because the canon, once established, then becomes part of the ongoing tradition that is relived through ritual and worship, and thus becomes a kind of self-justifying reality of the faith? Christianity is, to be sure, full of relived traditions and rituals that go back a long way in time.
I've been too busy lately on Wednesday nights to attend Taize services, but one thing I liked about the services that I attended was that they not only included biblical readings from the Psalms, but also readings from non-biblical sources--the poetry of Thomas Merton for example, or writings from contemporary religious figures, and once recently they even had a reading from the Koran that celebrated the glory of God. Even the psalms that they use come from interesting, modern translations, such as from the book Opening to You, a Zen-inspired translation, or from the book Psalms For Praying by Nan C. Merrill. And the version of the Lord's prayer that is said at the end of the service comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, and is a remarkably interesting form of this prayer which begins with the words, "Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all..." That's a bit different from "Our Father Who Art In Heaven". (Lest anyone wonders about the Christian focus of the service, however, at the front there is a large cross on the floor, with lit candles upon it, and one part of the service involves people going there and placing additional candles or praying at the cross).
The balance between tradition and innovation is a subtle one. If innovation is given free reign, a religion can break from its moorings, lose its ethical basis or its emphasis on the Divine or on social justice, or otherwise lose its way. But clinging to tradition at all costs can make religion rigid and closed, and believers can stop listening to the continuing revelation that God is always offering us. It can solidify dogma at the expense of listening to God's call. There is a balance between tradition and progressive revelation. Where this balance lies is a tricky question, but I have to wonder where a closed canon fits into that.