The Bible as a Family Album


Jack Good has written an article for the current issue of Creative Transformation (a publication that explores process theology) that discusses the concept of the Bible as a kind of family album. He points out that the Bible is often divided into passages without any due respect for their context. He writes,

Seldom is the Bible encountered as a unit. It is sliced and shredded. Sentences are lifted out of context. Ideas that have no relationship to one another are matched to buttress some thought the reader brings to the text. No wonder there is so much confusion about its role and authority!
I tend to agree. It seems to me that nothing in the Bible was written in a vacuum; its passages were always the product of a cultural and historical context. Later biblical writings took into account the earlier ones. The Bible reflected a community's ongoing dialogue with itself and with God. Reading individual passages of the Bible without taking into account these contextual and evolutionary factors, I think, often leads to missing the depth that underlay those writings. Fundamentalists are often fond of quoting some individual passages of the Bible to make various sorts of definitive theological pronouncements, but that is a meaningless approach to the Bible both because it ignores the multifaceted and evolutionary nature of the Bible, and because it treats individual Bible verses as if they were atomic, self-contained units.

In response to this, he suggests that conceiving of the Bible as a family album offers a way out of this problem.
Just as a family might try to preserve its basic ideals by passing on to future generations their history, descriptions of its movers and shakers, and samples of its creative efforts, so the Jewish community built the biblical canon. The community of faith was attempting to preserve itself by preserving and passing on its understandings of its unique role in human history.
He argues that viewing the Bible this way offers certain advantages:
  1. * The Bible is seen as a forum for debates rather than a platform for firm positions.
  2. * The reader learns to look for development in basic concepts
  3. * Both ethical low points and ethical advances are accepted as parts of one's tradition.
  4. * The focus shifts from God to the community.
  5. * Scripture becomes open-ended; family albums are never finished.
  6. * One approaches scripture, then, seeking self-identity rather than specific guidance.
He elaborates on all those points in his article, which I will not quote in detail here. But one passage that I appreciated was his elaboration on the first point in the list:
The reason that even the devil can quote scripture is that biblical writers tended to take many positions on many subjects. The reader is an observer of long-standing family arguments. What is the nature of God? How may severe suffering be explained? What is the role of women? Biblical writers do not settle such issues so much as they define the questions and the boundaries of discourse. Reading the Bible as a family album means no reader should feel tempted to read only those passages with which she already agrees; all biblical writers who comment ona particular issue become relevant.


Cynthia said...

One thing that I like about viewing the Bible as a family album is that it makes my family's foibles look tame by comparison.

Eileen said...

I have Good's book The Bible: Faith's Family Album sitting on a shelf, waiting for me to read it.

It's going to be awhile, but, it's waiting.