Sunday, 20 February 2011

“It ain't necessarily so

“It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
De things dat yo' liable to read in de Bible
It ain't necessarily so”

These are words from Ira and George Gershwin’s musical “Porgy and Bess”.

They have a ring of truth.

The Christian Bible is a strange admixture of myths, fables, fairy tales,  oral history remembered, and teaching.

Mostly it is a collection of 66 “books”, more accurately described as “writings”, which are trying to make a case for the G-d of Israel in the “old testament”, and for the “Jesus Movement”, (a.k.a. the Church), in the “new testament”.

As we come to understand that these writings are for the most part “propaganda” (in the best sense of that word), so we can approach them with suspicion, albeit a suspicion which is biased towards faith.

As I read the bible it is always with the questions: “What’s the angle here?”, “what’s the spin?”, “what are the underlying suppositions of the writer or compiler?”, and (very importantly) “what are the biases of the translator/s?”.

Only then am I ready to ask “how do these ancient writings speak to me as God’s word?”

I use a similar suspicion as I read biography and history.  For those writings are never simple and straightforward recitations of facts, or of information.  Historians and biographers are not merely recorders, they are also interpreters.  

This became clear to me as I read David McCullough’s biography of President Harry Truman.

Whilst he never got into hagiography (making Truman a saint), it was clear that McCullough liked Truman, so that he painted the most favourable word picture of the President.

As I read the book, I was reminded of yet another bias – that of me, the reader. I’ve always had a high regard for President Truman, so my mind and heart were more than ready to concur with McCullough’s interpretations.

That same bias applies when I read scripture.  I am particularly fond of the prophet Isaiah, and of the gospels according to Mark and Luke. I take a much more jaded view of the gospel according to John, and of Revelation.

So, even before I open a bible, I know that I am likely to be nodding with approval when reading Isaiah, or scowling with displeasure as I read John.

All of this makes me very alert as I read a newspaper, or listen to the news broadcasts on radio.  For instance, I am extremely aware that certain newspapers have “conservative” publishers, and others have publishers which are “liberal”.  (Take for instance the London Daily Telegraph and the London Guardian).

As I read those papers even though I believe that most reporters strive to be un-biased, their under-lying presuppositions are likely to influence the “voice” they use when writing their reports; the “angle” from which the story is written; and the bits of the story which they choose to include or exclude. 

(I also know that the reporters themselves do not write the “headlines”.  These are written by the editorial staff and in many cases the headline gives an inaccurate or biased spin to the story which follows.)

When I was a boy my parents told me that I could always believe what I heard on the B.B.C.

Of course that was stuff and nonsense!  From its very inception the B.B.C. was susceptible to governmental pressure, and was often the source of governmental propaganda.

It’s not that my parents were lying to me.  They truly thought that the “Beeb” was objective and unbiased.

Fifty-five or more years on, my eyes, ears and mind have become increasingly sceptical about the ways in which news is reported, even on the B.B.C.

But there is a bit of a saving grace these days.  Thanks to the internet I can read the news from a rich variety of sources, based in very many nations, and from very many reporters. Some of them work for T.V., radio and the newspapers; others make their reports on personal blogs or on Facebook.

As I read the stories of the same events from “all over” it’s like creating a mosaic. 

I can just about get the story by putting all the bits together. 

But even then the “mosaic” is never entirely clear.  I, (and WE ) never get the whole and complete story.

With that in mind, I continue to hone my “canons of suspicion”.

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