Friday, 19 February 2016

Strange Scriptures

When helping plan my father's funeral service, I very much wanted to incorporate a reading from Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy. While never officially a Christian Scientist, Dad had been a devotee of Mrs Eddy's teachings since his youth. Though not a particularly literate man, a much thumbed and marked-up copy of Science & Health was his constant companion, and he would copy out whole sections painstakingly in longhand. My sister and I placed it with him in his casket. It seemed appropriate.

Unlike my father, I have always loathed Science & Health. Finding something appropriate to read on this occasion was more difficult than I had imagined, and it turned out to be a very short reading indeed. The truth is that I had to cherry pick, and there weren't exactly an abundance of palatable cherries to choose from.

Science & Health is a modern (19th century) scripture of sorts. A strange scripture for anyone outside the mindset. I still possess a paperback copy, but while I can't bring myself to bin it out of respect for my father, I refuse to dignify it with a place on a bookshelf. It lies gathering much-deserved dust at the back of a wardrobe.

I was reminded of Science & Health recently as I thumbed through Willis Barnstone's The Other Bible, a collection of "ancient alternative scriptures"; Jewish and Christian Apocrypha, Gnostic texts and Kabbala. Gathered here are writings from Mrs Eddy's spiritual forebears; Valentinians, Manichaeans, Mandaeans and more. To a twenty-first century reader (except perhaps for the few remaining Mandaeans) they seem very strange indeed. If I had to pick one that intrigued me it would probably be the Gnostic The Thunder, Perfect Mind with its paradoxes.
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
   and many are her sons.
Many of the other texts tend to repel casual readers, even the earnest, organic vegan sort who frequent New Age bookstores. If I had to write an article or essay on, say, the Ascension of Isaiah, I'd need to steel myself for the task. Be reassured: I won't be blogging on the Ascension anytime soon! There's so much here that simply has no resonance with someone millenia removed from the writers. Strange scriptures.

The bottom line for me, at least, is unless there's genuine literary merit - or an academic incentive - reading strange scriptures is an unengaging task. Science & Health, The Book of Mormon, the Shepherd of Hermas and the wonderfully named treatises of Hermes Trismegistus. Thanks, but I think I'll pass.

But the Bible is different, surely. Or is it. Tim Bulkeley makes some interesting comments in a recent blog post.
... I have been concerned with falling rates of Bible reading among Christians in the Western World. 
Among the churches I have most contact with, NZ Baptist and occasionally other Charismatic and/or Evangelical churches, there has also been a slow but marked decline in the public reading of Scripture. Often now I can attend a 90-120 minute service of which less than 1% is spent reading the Bible, and it is never normally over 10% (including the sermon, where sometimes only a collection of small fragments is actually read and not merely referenced). 
Yet, it is precisely in these churches, where our faith and practice are founded and built on Scripture. 
That’s the first point: We read Scripture less, yet we claim it is the basis for our faith – we have a problem!
Past generations were familiar with the Bible in its classic translations such as the KJV and the Luther Bible. Long before then, and before any kneejerk doctrine of inerrancy surfaced, its stories were familiar in music, performance, icon and art; embedded in Western culture.

But we're no longer living in those times. Christendom is a thing of the past. The Bible is now an increasingly strange scripture too, hardly helped by the misguided race to turn a complex mix of genres into easy-to-understand literary mush, an initiative that simply exposes the absurdity of homogenising ancient texts into a map for contemporary life. No wonder "devotional reading" is plummeting.

Alas, it seems unlikely that this particular genie will ever return to its bottle. Tim suggests that part of the problem might lie with a rising generation that now demands visual stimulation alongside text. It's an interesting thought but it doesn't seem to account for the popularity of those thick unillustrated Harry Potter volumes that sold in truckloads long before the movies appeared. Or Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings, or Eion Colfer (all of which are among this ex- teacher's tried and tested favourites) and many others.

Tim concludes:
This post is very much an exploratory musing, so (if you have the attention span to have read this far ;) do please contribute to my thinking by voicing concerns, ideas, hopes, … in the comments!
Well, I guess this is my rather long-winded response.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. It's an interestung response, the Bible is less read because it has become "strange" like all those other scriptures you mention. Certainly much (and much more than most casual readers recognise) of the Bible is strange - after all it comes from long, long ago and far, far away. And yet is it so much longer ago or further away now than a generation ago?