A favorite movie from my childhood was the 1981 South African film The Gods Must Be Crazy. It’s hysterical. It’s a rollicking story about an African bushman named Xi who is sent by his tribe to hurl a Coke bottle off the edge of the earth. The bottle had been dropped from an airplane, but they conclude, since it came from the sky, that it had been given by the gods.
It is like nothing they’ve ever seen, and can be used to do everything from milling grain to playing music. But there’s a problem. There is only one. Eventually it begins to divide the tribe—at one point being employed as a weapon.
So they decide that the gods have made a mistake in giving them this object, and Xi is sent on his mission, during which he encounters the civilized world in all of its absurdity. Hilarity ensues.
And the premise that the gods have given a gift we don’t fully know how to handle seems to parallel our conundrum with the Scriptures.
What are they really? Mostly stories, and fairly unresolved ones at that! If we receive them as they offers themselves to us—implicitly, explicitly and in their given form—we are presented with a Creator whose prefered method of self-disclosure is to involve himself in the lives of real people, then prompt them to record an account.
Almost every story leaves us perplexed, right? Sure we can sift out the troublesome bits, but isn’t that a troublesome thing to do? Isn’t that akin to saying, “the gods must have made a mistake”?
And so we are left with stories and poetry and pithy aphorisms and more poetry and more stories and a few letters to real people (groups and individuals) and then a book that no-one can really agree about.
We zoom in and out of history and people’s circumstances. More is left unsaid than said. When people get overwhelmed—with joy or despair—they write songs and poems. When the Creator has something important to say, more often than not, he says it through a poet.
And the reader is thinking, No, no, no! This isn’t working for me!
But what can be done? So we make of them a textbook, complete with headings and charts and figures and annotations and a glossary. We systematize and categorize and topicalize them into a tidy, orderly, basically safe thing; quarantining off all those unseemly loose ends! Now we can sleep at night. It’s like Ambien for our doubts.
Eugene Peterson addressed this well in Eat This Book,
The Bible is a revelation of such lived reality…
The most frequent way we have of getting rid of the puzzling or unpleasant difficulties in the Bible is to systematize it, organizing it according to some scheme or other that summarizes “what the Bible teaches.”
If we know what the Bible teaches, we don’t have to read it anymore, don’t have to enter the story and immerse ourselves in the odd and unflattering and uncongenial way in which this story develops..
(He said it.)
The real confrontation we’re avoiding comes by way of the question, “What does the nature of this gift reveal about the Giver?”
For starters, he is infuriatingly less concerned with tidiness than we are.
Incidentally, therein lies a distinctive between Christianity and Islam, which calls their sacred writings “Koran” or “recitation.” Tradition has it that the angel Gabriel met the Prophet Muhammad in a cave outside Mecca in 600 AD and commanded, “Recite!”
Over the next 30-plus years, Muhammad received many more such “recitations.” (Muhammad was allegedly illiterate.) The text was said to be recited in its pristine form; verbatim.
Stick with me on this. Allah, the giver of the Koran, will not risk his self-revelation to human foible, imprecision or personality. He is like the dad who finally snaps the model airplane out of his son’s hands and says, “Let me do this, or you’ll mess it all up!”
Recite: “If men and jinn (heavenly beings) banded together to produce the like of this Koran, they would never produce its like, not though they backed one another.” [Al-Isra 87]
This is the doctrine of i’jaz or inimitability. German Koranic historical orthographer Gerd-R. Puin writes:
So many Muslims have this belief that everything between the two covers of the Koran is just God’s unaltered word…
They like to quote the textual work that shows that the Bible has a history and did not fall straight out of the sky, but until now the Koran has been out of this discussion.
Thus the Koran suffers from conceptually hemophilia, and so, too, does Islam. UC-Santa Barbara Islamic history professor Stephen Humphreys puts it this way.
To historicize the Koran would in effect delegitimize the whole historical experience of the Muslim community… If the Koran is a historical document, then the whole Islamic struggle of fourteen centuries is effectively meaningless.
Islam became the first wholesale return-to-sender of the Christian form of revelation. Like later such movements, it borrowed the Judeo-Christian motif, but, to quote CS Lewis, became “a simplification of Xtianity. Clear, lucid, transparent, simple religion.” By removing what were perceived to be human impurities, they also removed the eloquent sweep and so too its elegant culmination. By aspiring to something more divine, something altogether more human was produced—messy spirituality gave way to tidy (if rigid) religion.
This is not the Christian version of divine revelation. More importantly, it is not the Christian version of the Divine! From the opening poetics of Scripture we discover a Creator who wholeheartedly entrusts earthly stewardship to human agency. And though the Creator remains steadily involved even when humanity falters (viz., it is not a deist text), still he never snatches the enterprise of telling his story from our hold.
This is the hermeneutic of “concurrence”—that Scripture is fully of God and fully of man.
Toby Lester wrote (back in 1999) in The Atlantic,
…the Encyclopaedia of Islam (1981) points out, “the closest analogue in Christian belief to the role of the Kur’an in Muslim belief is not the Bible, but Christ.” If Christ is the Word of God made flesh, the Koran is the Word of God made text…
While there is truth to this statement, it is also misleading because it adopts the Muslim presumptions of the Creator’s modus operandi. While it is true that Christians teach that Jesus was the perfect Word (logos) made human, yet, given the choice, the God of Christian Scripture would produce all accounts surrounding Jesus concurrently with human agency. This is his version of the ideal!
And so we find statements like,
“…it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you..” [Luke 1:3]
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30-31]
“Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again…” [Romans 15:15]
“There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people. For I know your eagerness to help…” [2 Corinthians 2:1-2]
“We write this to make our joy complete.” [1 John 1:4]
Human agency and intention are far from hidden in the pages of Scripture. What results is an eclectic mingling of voice, perspective, motivation and values in the final product. The rich, textured and even perplexing nature of Scripture is a reflection of the Christian Creator’s own self-consistency to his own values, isn’t it?
And so, just as mankind was prone to reject Jesus on account of his disconcerting failure to live up to our idealized expectations owing to our anthropocentric outlook, so we would demand Scripture be something other than it is. And we would tacitly fault God for the lackings in his gift.
But what would it look like for us to accept the Creator’s self-revelation as it comes to us in the bewildering pages of Scripture—the “writings”? What would it look like for us to quit fighting against the form in which they come to us, and instead ask what this form of revelation reveals about the Revealer?
I’m realizing as I write that there are so many directions this topic could go; so many ways to draw out the varied conclusions. But I think I’ll leave it at the above question—for now!
Maybe you could share some thoughts below!