One Book, Many Voices

This is the second in a short series of guest posts. Today’s author, Geoff McElroy, is a United Methodist Minister and has served as pastor for churches in Madison, Rome, and Atlanta, GA. Currently, he is about to begin his second year of PhD work at the University of Texas-Austin in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, and his research interests focus on Semitic linguistics, gender in the Hebrew Bible, and the reception and interpretation of biblical texts and stories. He also serves at University UMC in Austin as the Young Adult Ministries Assistant.

The Bible is a diverse book.

It was written in various stages, in various times and places, by various people, and even in various languages (three: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). It has been used and embraced and pored over by diverse communities; it has been interpreted, taught, sung, dramatized, painted by a variety of scholars and artists.

As a biblical scholar, I wrestle with these texts in a variety of ways. I read it as literature, and sometimes as a text that gives a glimpse back into history and at ancient cultures. This past year at the University of Texas, I began learning how to read it linguistically, mining it for data about the development of the Hebrew language, and as such, the development of the Semitic language family.

The ways the Bible is encountered is a diverse as the people who have engaged it over time.

More and more, my view of the Bible has been shifting from a monolithic, single entity and into something more spread-out. What I mean by that is that the Bible speaks about very little with a single voice; instead, what we have is (I believe) is more dialogue than it is monologue about God, faith, and what it means to try and live the journey.

My favorite (and most simple) example of this is the three wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs generally dispenses its wisdom in very short sentences, kind of like an ancient precursor to Twitter. But it operates within a specific worldview: if you do good, good happens to you because you are giving towards and orderly society. If you disrupt that order by doing bad, bad things will come to you.

Job and Ecclesiastes, whether or not they know Proverbs as an actual book at the time they are written, are engaging exactly this kind of thinking and coming away with very different answers. In fact, the worldview or Proverbs appears in Job on the lips of Job’s companions only for Job to shoot them down time and again, appealing that he has done nothing to deserve the suffering he is enduring. In other words, for the book of Job, bad stuff happens even to good people.

Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, goes one step further in its response. It says again and again that everything is “vanity” (or maybe “emptiness”) and that the same fate befalls both the righteous and the wicked and that there is nothing new under the sun. Thus, all we have really is to be happy and enjoy ourselves while we live (Ecc 3:12). Good stuff and bad stuff happen, and in the view of Ecclesiastes, there is no real rhyme or reason to it.

These books and their worldviews exist side-by-side within the canons of both Judaism and Christianity. I am not aware of any attempt to get rid of one or another because they clash with the others. Instead, I think they provide a very powerful model to think about how we interpret our experiences of life, faith, and God.

My experience of God is different than yours, just as yours is different than the person who sits in the pew or seat next to you on Sunday morning, just as theirs is different than a someone who attends a church across town, or who goes to a Catholic church somewhere in South America, or who attends an Anglican service in London, or who is a Palestinian Christian in the midst of all the fighting and tension in the Middle East.

The Bible is diverse; it is diverse in the times and places that it reflects, and more importantly it is diverse in the voices of those who produced these documents and in their own experiences of God.

The early church made a curious decision somewhere down the line. They chose to have more than one Gospel. They could have chosen Matthew, or Mark, or Luke, or John as THE Gospel of the New Testament, but they chose not to do that. Some people tried to harmonize the four into kind of a Super!Gospel, but that was resisted as well. Instead, it chose four distinct, diverse voices about who Jesus was and what he meant.

The Bible is in many ways a conversation between ideologies, concepts, worldviews that span across centuries as Israelite, Jew, and Christian struggle concerning life with God. And by bringing these texts together, communities of faith over the centuries have continued the conversation, adding their own voices in a variety of ways.

Diversity does not demand an “everything goes” mentality. This diversity makes it hard to engage at times, I admit. There are times I wish it would just give me a simple, straight-forward answer, and most of the time I come away with more questions.

What diversity does demand, however, is the ability to dialogue, to share, to be in conversation with each other. Which is why more and more I am finding social media to be a fascinating place to watch theology and faith take place, for in that space we can have conversation with voices that 20 years ago we might never get to hear or experience.

Just like other mediums like art, dance, theatre, film, etc. have engaged biblical texts and themes and invited others to engage them in new ways, I am excited to see the new possibilities that a broader, more connected world might bring about.

I love this book, which is why I have dedicated my life to studying it. And part of my fascination is the fact that it has continued to inspire and confront and push and prod on the hearts and imaginations of diverse people in diverse ways. That is the beauty of the book, and I think its why we keep going back, and why it is able to keep speaking down through the centuries: it is inviting us to take part in the journey, in the conversation, to add our own voice as we read, as we study, as we learn and grow.

Let’s join the conversation, and through each other’s voices, may we once again hear the voice of God.“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

One thought on “One Book, Many Voices”

  1. Geoff gives some interesting insights, particularly as to the “wisdom books” showing varied approaches to the question as to whom good and bad things happen. Also the various “approaches” to the life of Christ. One caveat, however–we can’t let the “God/man” work lose out on the “God” part (and I of course doubt Geoff is intending that). All of scripture is divinely inspired, written as moved by the Spirit, profitable for doctrine, etc. It’s not simply a dialogue among different people about their experiences with God. It is God’s way of showing us the truth; only, sometimes the truth is a very difficult and multivarieted thing–lots of variables and nuances as opposed to clear “black and whites” as to every circumstance. Which is probably why, in part, God used different people with different personalities in diverse circumstances to get these truths across.

    I have a shorthand that I sometimes use to address this situation–the “doctrine of competing principles.” In simplest form, consider the spiritual universe to have originally been one of all “parallel lines.” No one rule would ever “intersect” or collide with another. But sin entered the world, and with sin, a “warping” of this universe. Now the “rules” sometimes do intersect and collide. So what one rule would otherwise always call for now runs into another rule which would otherwise always call for something else. Probably the easiest example is with Jesus himself. The “rule” is that good things happen to good people, and bad to bad. However, due to sin, there had to be a “perfect” sacrifice–i.e., the death of something perfectly holy (always doing good)–in place of all the “sinners” to allow for their redemption. So, a very bad thing happened to a very good person. Why? Love as the highest principle temporarily won out over the “blessings to the blessed.” “Mercy triumphed over justice.”

    Ultimately, of course, everything will be “set straight.” But, as long as we live in this world combining good and evil, “white” and “black,” there will be “gray areas” calling for difficult choices and doctrinal “statements,” and God sometimes used the varied biblical accounts and discourses to point this truth out.

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