Advent Study 2016
This study explores the Advent readings from the Gospel of Luke taken from the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C. It can be downloaded from here. (The format is Word 2013 in booklet form for duplex printing with folds on the short edge. Print without printing hidden text.)
Agenda 1: Luke has his own agenda for this gospel. He seems to have modelled his gospel on the gospel of Mark, and taken other Jesus stories from a source known as "Q" (from the German Quelle meaning Source) which he shared with the author of Matthew.
Luke was written for Christian folk.
I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:3-4)
Luke is the longest of the four gospels and was probably written between 80 and 100 AD; ie, more than 50 years after Jesus' death.
Agenda 2: The church calendar imposes another agenda over Luke. The first reading of the year is from Luke chapter 21! We divide the year into six main seasons which we use to remind and remember as we seek to model our lives on "the Jesus life." The underlying themes of hope and fear, birth, growth, struggle and death, are the themes which shape any human life.
Agenda 3: Then there is the agenda of this present study. It seeks to help us be conscious about the way we think about our own journey. What shapes the way we use our Christian traditions to understand our own life?
My experience is that we often do not take the time to consider the foundations of our thinking and study. It greatly enriches our understanding.
This is particularly important because we live in a time when the church's self-understanding is in rapid transition, as is our understanding of the scriptures at the centre of our tradition.
Agenda 4: Why are you reading Luke? Or this study?
And as I will repeat often: There are no "right answers" for this study; it is about understanding ourselves in the world. What is most important is to begin to articulate our own answers, and to live by them.
What is Advent?
The church calendar divides the year into seasons. , Each season has a theological theme and mood. We distinguish them with different colours and decorations, and ways of praying. There tend to be set readings for each season. The Uniting Church uses the Revised Common Lectionary.
The UCA Lectionary notes (2014) says Advent is: A season of preparation, beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, in which the Church recalls its hope and expectation in the coming of Christ, past, present and future. (The colour for Advent is violet or purple.)
What is this book called Luke and what is Advent?
Some thoughts on religion… and that book
[Karen] Armstrong argues that "what religion really means is that we have the potential to encounter and have a relationship with eternal forces. This side of our lives is not reducible to rational thought. (David Tacey, Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor Garratt Publishing 2015 pp37)
A religion is like a language that one must have begun to learn before being able to grasp what is being said in it (G.A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age SPCK, London (1984) p. 33 quoted by Andrew Dutney)
What does religion mean for me?
What does/should religion not mean?
Am I religious?
There are no "right answers" for this study; the questions are about understanding ourselves in the world.
Although simple folk can experience the grace of God— and possibly have more access to it than intellectuals— as soon as we touch on the "words of God" we enter the field of culture and need to be aware of complexities. There is no such thing as an "unmediated" experience of God's words, and when I hear preachers claim that we have to "return to the gospel message," I can only wonder what they have in mind. There is no contact with truth except through a cultural context. The uneducated* cannot read sacred texts unaided, not unless they are gifted with poetic intelligence. They cannot read them as they might read articles in newspapers. If they do, the stories are nothing more than fairy tales. The nearest equivalents to the scriptures today would be visionary poetry or mystical writings. (Tacey op. cit. pp19)
Uneducated does not mean "doesn't have a university degree." It means "has not learned how to discern the nature of the literature being read."
In fact, whenever we pick up a book, we all, without thinking, do some of what Tacey is talking about. For example:
What characterises these books?
A recipe book
The manual for your dishwasher
My Life by General Peter Cosgrove
The Works of Wilfred Owen (World War I poet)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Mann Booker prize for fiction 2014)
The Hobbit JRR Tolkien
Question: How would you describe the Bible? What separates it from these other publications? Where is it similar?
Question: What do you think of this statement by Ricard Beck at Experimental Theology? Remember: There are no "right answers" for this study; the questions are about understanding ourselves in the world.
We all have a hermeneutic. We are all interpreting the text to some degree. We are all privileging--deferring to--certain values, doctrines, creedal commitments, traditions, or biblical texts. Something somewhere is trumping something else. In a document as multivocal as the Old and New Testament this is unavoidable.
So we all have a hermeneutic. The only question is whether you are consciously vs. unconsciously using a hermeneutic. Fundamentalists are interpreting the text unconsciously. Fundamentalists are interpreting the text right and left, they are just unaware that they are doing so.
We should not underestimate how much the questions in this study may affect the foundations of our thinking. David Tacey affirms that different ways of understanding scripture "offer … transformative spiritual vistas and insights," but says
… it is hard to realise this if, for instance, one has spent sixty years of one's life in … literal mode. One needs time to grieve… This is not an intellectual exercise, or a university lesson in hermeneutics. It is a believer's life we are talking about. (Beyond Literal Belief pp 90)
As I one day sat and squarely faced the question as to whether there might be `errors' in the Bible, that maybe Methuselah didn't live to nine hundred and whatever it was, I had a sudden vision which terrified me. For a brief moment I looked at the world without my inerrant Bible and felt like I was going insane. Visually, it was like being on the very edge at top of the black Grenfell tower in the city and swaying out over the edge. But somehow my shoes were stuck to the parapet and I didn't fall off; I just swayed back in. It was a horrible experience. The darkness almost swallowed me up and destroyed me. I felt [that] if I had fallen off there I would have fallen forever. So I was unable to face the questions about the Bible until a couple of years later. It was too psychologically dangerous. I needed my 'Father Christmas.'
But later, as I described this experience to a friend, he said, "Aha! The moment of revelation!" And I saw he was right. That terrifying blackness had been something of God showing me more of reality; showing me the reality that the world and the Bible was not the neat package I had worked out for myself. But it had frightened me because it was destroying my ordered world and offering me something different. Something that was better and more accurate, but frightening because I couldn't understand it and control it.
Now I have a new story. Theologically I would describe it as God showing me that I was not on the solid tower in our first picture. God was showing me I was on the edge of an ice floe floating out over nothingness. But God was saying, "If you trust me, you can step off. You can walk on the water of nothingness. You can walk away from your present position from which you haven't been able to escape, to somewhere better which will make more sense of life for you." And I did- later. But I had to tell new stories so that I could see the same experience of blackness as something good from God, rather than a thing of terror. (Andrew Prior This page is a review of Sallie McFague's Models of God)
The World of Luke
This study uses the word myth in its technical sense. Myth does not mean untrue. A myth is a story. In our context it is often a foundational human story which reflects the deep realities of our being. To read myth as empirically true or false like "the door is open," is what the philosophers call a category mistake; it completely misunderstands what myth is.
The Literature of the Time: A Crash Course
The problem faced by the disciples was: how were they going to talk about their experience of Jesus? They solved the problem by searching the Hebrew scriptures for God language, and when they found it they wrapped it around Jesus—not because these words described things that actually happened, but because they were the only words big enough to make sense out of their experience. So the disciples used the narratives of miracles to demonstrate the presence of God in Jesus. (John Shelby Spong Jesus for the Non-religious pp69)
Scripture writers were inventing miracles to describe what they felt about Jesus and his authority. As Spong puts it, "miracles represented the only way first-century Jewish people could stretch human language sufficiently to allow them to communicate what they believed they had encountered in Jesus." But for us this convention has backfired:
Today that first-century supernatural language not only blinds us to the meaning of Jesus, but actually distorts Jesus for us. (John Shelby Spong Jesus for the Non-religious pp95)
The above is an extended quotation from Tacey (pp11). He goes on to say:
Historical reporting was not seen as appropriate for sacred narratives, nor was it seen as revelatory or interesting. It wasn't used because it could not capture the presence of God in creation. Because of the confusion in the public mind about the nature and purpose of scripture, scholarship has emphasised that the biblical writers were not intending to deceive. In a brilliant encapsulation of the conundrum John Dominic Crossan writes:
My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally. They knew what they were doing; we don't. (John Dominic Crossan Who is Jesus? Westminster John Knox pp79)
Question: Does this differ from the understanding you have of the bible? What differs? What emotions does it raise for you?
Because readers want the scriptures to be "true," they apply the standard of truth they most readily understand. But this is not how truth was understood two thousand years ago. … Thus we have to reverse conventional opinion. Instead of a literal reading being the "religious" one, we need to see that only a metaphorical approach yields the genuinely religious reading. (pp17-18)
[Story] is a doorway into another kind of consciousness… There is a great difference between fact and truth. [Story] provides us not with facts of history but with truths of spirit. These truths never "happened" in time or space, but they are true for all time.
[Stories]… tell us of events that are real, not in the sense of having happened just like that, but in the sense of being the kind of thing that is always happening. (Frye)
… Only in our time are we beginning to understand how primary mythopoesis is. It is the most ancient form of art, but it is art that embodies the sacred and tells of the divine. . (pp 18-19)
Once the imagination is functioning we don’t need the miracles to be literally true, because as soon as we perceive their meaning they have performed their function. Miracles are for those who don't see spirit always already at work. (pp60)
Question: What is true? How do you understand the truth of the information in your dishwasher manual compared to the truth that a parent or parent loves you, or the truth of a proverb such as: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?
Question: Which of these three statements leaves you most comfortable, and which makes you uncomfortable? Do you find any of them adequate?
1. When the Bible "is historically accurate, it is only accidentally so: reporting was not of the slightest interest to its writers. They had a story to tell which could only be told by myth and metaphor: what they wrote became a source of vision rather than doctrine. The Bible is, with unimportant exceptions, written in the literary language of myth and metaphor. (Northrop Frye, quoted by Tacey pp 17)
2. It was not the intention of the biblical writers "to be read in a literal way" as they worked in "the mixed medium of parable and history" as they wrote "the Jesus story." (Tacey pp40) The key question is: What is Jesus' significance? The facts in the gospels are like the facts in Shakespeare's Henry V, for example. There was a Henry, and the play follows the outline of his life, but Shakespeare is using the story to communicate his own message and agenda.
3. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives. (Chicago Statement of Inerrancy 1978)
Continuing the question: What lead to your choice? What is discomforting or inadequate about the "uncomfortable" statements.
Again: There are no "right answers" for this study; the questions are about understanding ourselves in the world.
Responding to the text
What this study is seeking to do is not to give all the answers. It is designed to model a methodology for approaching the text. This methodology is as much art as science; we can gain an instinct for which questions to ask of a particular text. Our ability to be insightful in our questions will grow with practice.
Tacey says that "the story of Jesus enables us to see the life of the spirit: the Jesus story opens a window to the soul." (op. cit. 59) He goes on to say "that the Jesus story is about the secret life of us… a story about the life of the human soul." (pp 63)
This means that at least as important as the text, is our response to the text, especially our emotional response. So the key question I always ask in Bible studies is: What are your emotions after reading this? Boredom, confusion, anger, fear, curiosity…?
Only then do I begin to apply literary and critical tools to analyse the text. If we do not see that the biblical texts have the underlying aim of "opening us up," then we are as deluded as the person who seeks wisdom for living in a David Jones catalogue, or their dishwasher user's guide.
A note: You have seen me use the term [story]. I have substituted story for myth because, as Tacey says, the technical literary term myth "means 'sacred story' whereas the modern term 'myth' has been debased and refers to falsity." (pp2)
Reading which may be helpful
In Defence of Doubt Val Webb (Second Edition) Val Webb
Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language Sallie McFague
Beyond Literal Belief: Religion as Metaphor David Tacey
There are some 'tips' to reading this ancient book.
Our first questions. What emotions does this raise in me? No rights or wrongs.
2. Always look for the parallel stories in the Old Testament! The biblical authors use a technique called Midrash.
Our literary convention is to footnote our writing to establish its authority. We point back to the recognised authorities who support our thesis. But Midrash does more: "everything to be venerated in the present must be connected with a sacred moment in the past." A particular form of this is Haggadah which interprets a story by relating it to a sacred story from the past. A classic example: Moses went down to the water of the Red Sea, and the waters parted. Joshua went down to the Jordan, and the waters parted. But when Jesus went down to the Jordan, the heaven was opened! (Luke 3:21)
3. How would Jesus' people read this story?
4. What was their situation?
5. What were their hopes and fears?
6. How can I find out answers to these questions?
7. What are our hopes and fears?
8. When I put my hopes, fears and emotions together, what will I do?