upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

canon or collection?

I am preparing for Rally Day this Sunday, so what else do I have to do but write in my blog? In my preparation, though, I've been reading a number of books and reviewing several curricula for Sunday School that have me thinking about the difference between understanding the Bible as the "canon" or as a "collection." When it comes right down to it, I must admit that I read the Bible as a collection of works about God's revelation throughout Judeo-Christian history; I don't approach the Bible as a closed revelation. That makes a big difference in my life as a Christian and as a person of faith.

By definition, a canon is a closed unit. When we discuss the canonical works of an author, we are referring to the universe and its inhabitants as imagined and written by that author. That means that articles about those works, fiction by others placed in that universe, or other imaginings do not count as canon. Canon can also refer to a formula used in science; this is a rule followed the same way each time. Canon is actually Greek for rule, normative, standard, or measure. Canon, whether it's in literature or science, refers to a closed circuit of understanding. The same thing is true in a religious canon.

For Christians, the canon of scripture comprises the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament. Further discoveries of manuscripts do not lead to a expansion of the Bible. Likewise, discoveries that certain "books" in the Bible are not authentic to their purported authors do not result in the omission of them from the canon. The canon presents all 66 books as the final written revelation of God. Many people - most people, I would suggest - believe that the Bible is not only closed, but, like so many other canons, it presents a unified world. The Bible can be read as a whole - one long and coherent story.

This is not how I read the Bible, however. The Bible offers glimpses of how faithful people over time have understood God at work in their lives, and how they have hoped for God to be at work in their lives. It is not a unified story, but a collection of stories spanning hundreds of years of authorship and, perhaps, thousands of years of oral history. In the midst of this collection I find pictures of God at work, but these pictures do not always complement one another. The gospels, as I read them, do not offer one narrative of Jesus, but four - drawing from the same core stories but focusing on very different understandings of his personhood, his divinity, his ministry, and his life, death and resurrection. In the Bible there are two divergent understandings of "end times." One presents an image of a divine and holy war; the other depicts a heavenly banquet. These are just examples of why the word "collection" better describes the Bible to me than canon.

I think that many people struggle with Christianity because they come to it expecting to find a unified and simple story, but once they dig into the rich scriptures of our faith they find many stories that are complicated and layered. What if we told people right up front that the Bible can be understood in many ways and that it gives us a collection of stories that center around the One God? What if we didn't tell people who Jesus "must" be, but allowed Jesus to emerge in the imaginations and souls of people as they read and grapple with the richness of our scriptures? What if we let salvation take place in people's lives without instructing them on how we think God works - letting God do the work?

These are just questions. I am sure that many people will vehemently disagree with them. What about you? Do you find meaning in the canon of the Bible? Does the word "collection" work for you as it does for me? Would approaching the scriptures as a collection threaten its prominence and influence? Could it withstand a review and a revision? Is it time to add to it newer stories of God at work in the world? Or, does it stand on its own without need for tinkering?


Mystical Seeker said...

I agree with what you are saying. I like Jack Good's description of the Bible as a family album of a community of faith.

To me, the idea of a closed canon is somewhat problematic, since it suggests that we are somehow not engaged in the same process that the writers of the Bible were engaged in. But I think that all of us, including the Biblical authors, are involved in a kind of never-ending dance, where we listen to what previous people have experienced and combine that with our own to try to make sense of the Divine. The Bible reflects evolving ideas, and the authors sometimes play off one another. Their humanity is all too evident. They didn't always get things right. Canonization tends to result in idolization of these writings, and that leads people to shut off their own thinking processes and instead simply rely exclusively on what the biblical authors have said. I think that we need to listen to what those in the past have said--that is why we value ancient spiritual literature--but we also need to move forward and listen to the same God who spoke to those authors. And those authors wrote out of a cultural and temporal perspective unique to themselves. I think we need to be co-participants with our forebears as we seek to understand God.

rev katie m ladd said...

Thanks for the comment. We do idolize a lot of things, don't we?

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