Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Biblical Relevance

A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to the arena of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums.
-Abraham Heschel, The Prophets
One of the standard criticisms brought against Christianity is that it is a "pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by" religion. But curiously, one of the chief obstacles people, specifically Christians, have in developing a love for the Bible is that it lacks what I may call, for lack of a better term, spiritual profundity. It isn't awe-inspiring in the way, for example, that the Tao Te Ching or the Upanishads can be. It's too earthy.

Members of my family, knowing my love for the Bible, will occaissionally ask me to read them something they'll like, by which I take them to mean something that they'll hear and say, "Ah, yes! That's beautiful!" I invariably respond with selected bits of Romans 8 or Isaiah 40, and they are satisfied. But if they later pick up a Bible themselves looking for such inspirations, they'll quickly put it back down.

Heschel says that he turned from the study of philosophy to the study of the prophets because "philosophy had become an isolated, self-subsisting, self-indulgent, entity.... The answers offered were unrelated to the problems." Ironically, this sounds a lot like what people seem to want from the Bible. They would rather it were a book of platitudes than what it is.

I think this has to do with our cultural understandings of what a "Holy Book" should be. If God were to speak to us, it would sound like Bach's "Mass in B Minor", right? Everyone in western culture can sigh with pleasure when they hear, "he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace," but we're left scratching our heads when we hear, "Therefore I am like maggots to Ephraim, and like dry rot to the house of Judah" (Hosea 5:12).

Could it be that we want a God who is a little less relevant to daily life?


Thomas Adams said...

You make a very good point. Too often we turn to the Bible solely for comfort or escapism, only to be turned away by hard sayings. In some sense, the prophets present an earlier version of incarnational theology; God meets us here, on earth, in the misery of our creaturely reality. Through Christ, God is among us, "with us in mud and in work, so that his skin smokes" (Luther). Of course, it's risky for me to put a Christian spin on Hebrew writings, but it shows that Scripture is consistent in its "this-worldliness."

Christopher said...

I like that point! Christianity is really a quite Fleshy ordeal, pimples and all.