Stories beyond the horizon

by 31 Oct, 2017

It’s 500 years since the fabled beginnings of the Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg chapel. It’s a pretty big deal as far as anniversaries go. The Reformation set in motion drastic change across Europe, where religious wars redrew the map and defined the continent for a hundred years.

Though the Reformation was a religious change, it was also extremely political. Luther objected to the selling of Indulgences, where people could effectively buy divine forgiveness. But selling indulgences was a major way the Catholic church secured their wealth. The new religious imagination created a new political landscape, as relationships between Rome and its affiliated monarchies changed.

All this took place on the basis of an appeal to the Bible. Luther and his fellow reformers made their case by careful re-readings, demonstrating the un-biblical nature of the status quo. In 16th century Europe, the Bible was unquestionably the most important text of the day. It was the basis on which to argue for any major change. With the aid of new vernacular translations and the technology of the printing press, the previously exclusive Latin text of the clerical class became accessible to the wider literate population and the battle for biblical interpretation a subject of public debate.

Every society has religious ideals that secure the consent of the governed. 500 years ago in Europe, these were explicitly Roman Catholic. The Medieval worldview of heaven and hell, paradise and punishment was alive and well and, most importantly, a given. God determined the course of our lives and the sacred texts revealed his will to humankind, through the mediation, of course, of the church. Today, most Western nation states relegate historical religions to the byways of public life (despite a revival of sorts since 9/11 and this new Millennium’s religious wars). Though many countries have large religious populations, few still let religion mix too much with formal Politics (at least officially).

However, this is partly to do with how we define religion. Historical religions have been marginalised, of course. The Enlightenment revolution saw to that. But we still tell sacred stories and practice careful rituals that secure the ongoing consent of the governed. Our stories are now about the legitimacy of the democratic nation state, the promise of economic growth, and the power of individuals to choose. And our rituals perform those stories: voting, shopping, watching TV, sharing our lives on Facebook. This is our new normal, the horizon beyond which it is so hard to see. Even for those who identify as non-religious, our concerns might be existential more than they are eternal, but we are religious people nonetheless. We’re human.

As globalisation sweeps the world, some of our modern sacred stories are beginning to crumble. The legitimacy of the democratic state is undermined by vast inequality in wealth; economic growth has become mired in systemic mistrust; our identikit individualism increasingly replaced by a group-think suspicion of foreign Others. And underneath everything, always, is the possibility of ecological catastrophe.

There are ways in which the political tectonics of today resemble the seismic shifts of the Reformation. But what about the Bible? Ok, so we may still be religious in an anthropological sense. But the Bible is specifically from the Judeo-Christian tradition. How is it still relevant to radical change today?


A story-world beyond our own

One of the most influential philosophical ideas of the 20th century came from the German linguist, Hans-Georg Gadamer. He argued that every human is shaped by their environment, their culture, all their experiences of the world, and that this creates a horizon of meaning. It’s a view of – an encounter with – the world that its almost impossible to go beyond alone.

The Reformation was so dramatic because it opened up a totally new horizon of meaning for people.  Suddenly there was a completely different way to conceive of oneself in relation to the forces of the day. Of course, it was still – at least initially – well within the Medieval horizon of meaning; the beginning of the Copernican Revolution was still nearly 30 years away. But by relocating a person’s relationship to God (i.e. the whole way they understood their being) from the pronouncements of the church to the individual experience of faith, Luther created a whole new ocean of possibility – not just for religious doctrine, but for politics, economics, ethics and the very idea of what it is to be a human.

One of Luther’s most lasting ideas reflects this transgression of the horizon: Sola Scriptura. It means ‘Scripture alone’, and it was his way of relativising the authority of the church. The brilliance of Sola Scriptura is that it’s impossible to really define. Who decides whether something is what the Bible really says, or is just what someone thinks it says? Whether Luther meant it to or not, Sola Scriptura created the possibility of an always-outside to the ‘common sense’ of the day; an alternative understanding that can challenge the status quo.

Of course in Luther’s day the societal role of the biblical text was dramatically different from its role today. It was commensurate to the public role the Bible played at the time that Luther used it as a document from which to advance a legal argument. Today, however, the epistemic ground from which the Bible derives its moral or legal authority has been eroded by the social changes of the last 500 years. But legal basis is not the only way – not even the primary way – the Bible is meaningful or influential.

Formal arguments operate at the surface level of how society is organised. But the Bible has wormed its way deep into globalised imagination because it is a story that has been repeatedly told over the better part of two thousand years. Stories are elusive, wild creatures that live with a mind of their own. Legal arguments proceed in more-or-less predictable, structured ways. Stories are cognitive chaos. They are layered with complexity, with resonance and dissonance. They grab a hold of our psyche and pummel our emotions till we yield. And the Bible, a story full of competing, conflicted voices, is arguably the story – a peerless story – within the global imagination.

So what would happen today if we extended the idea of Sola Scriptura to our contemporary authorities: the military authority of the nation state, for example, or the market forces of consumer capitalism? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to even ask that question without getting tangled up in the agenda of the vast swathes of people who want to see the Bible return as the basis for public life. I’m not in the least bit interested in that – in fact I really strongly oppose it. To continue to treat the Bible as a legal authority with divine mandate is at best divisive and at worst dangerous. I’m talking about something totally different: Sola Scriptura as a story. Not a single-authored, coherent narrative, like the epic novels we are familiar with today (because that isn’t how the Bible is structured). But as an entire multi-authored story-world that invokes a horizon beyond our own.

The Bible as a story-world is an always-outside to our contemporary life. It is from a different time, with its own entirely different horizons of meaning. And yet, after more than two thousand years of telling and retelling, this story-world and its meanings have got themselves enmeshed in the fabric of our globalised world – whether we like the Bible or not, or even know its stories or not.

Bible Pirate is about invoking this story-world beyond our horizons, insisting that there is an outside to the dominant status quo that can be called into being by the Scriptures. That its oppressive meanings can be rewritten by a return to that story-world. And that its capacity to incubate revolutionary alternatives can be ignited, like a flame alight at the very edge of our imagination.

For me, I’m certainly not writing from a traditional religious perspective – I don’t bring any theological reason to advocate for the Bible, certainly not for any authority to be given it beyond its own wild power. For me, I just call myself a Bible fan. I love the Bible for both its light and its dark, its sublime and its ordinary; all its complex plots and crazy characters, its conceptual vastness and awkward detail. I don’t think you have to believe in God to find the Bible life-changing – in fact I know people who read the Bible and stopped believing in God and said their life was better as a result! I just still believe that even 500 years on the Bible is worth re-telling.