Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Bible as Improv

Ron Martoia wants to change how we read the Bible. In fact, he believes, we've been reading the Bible wrong for a while now.

We read it wrong because we often read it as a rulebook. God has certain rules and expectations on behavior, and our Bible reading becomes and exercise in figuring out all those rules and expectations (sometimes they become quite intricate), and then living accordingly.

In the same vein, we often read is a book full of principles. There is an order to the universe, and if we can read through the Bible and pull all the strands together, we'll figure out the right principles to guide our lives.

The problem is, according to Martoia, the Bible is much more complicated than we like to admit. As Scot McKnight did in The Blue Parakeet, so Martoia opens up a window into all the ways the Bible doesn't fit into our categories of rules and principles. For instance: The Bible has rules for sexual behavior (we like those, even though we don't always follow them). The Bible also has rules about lying and murder. We like those. But. . .the Bible also has rules against wearing clothes made of different types of cloth. And against sowing different seeds into the same field. And we don't usually like those so much. In addition, even those rules about sexual behavior, which we like: we still don't like the full extent of the rules. As an example - how many people today believe we really ought to employ capitol punishment for adultery? Or for homosexuality? Or for disobeying one's parents? So. . the Bible has rules. But we don't think we ought to follow all of them. And the ones we follow - we still think we should alter them. Yet we claim the Bible is inerrant and infallible, Truth for all time. If it is Truth for all time. . .then why don't we do what it says?

In the same way, the principles don't seem to always work out. We pick and choose verses we like, using them as proverbs to lighten our day. All those verses about God blessing those he loves, about obedience leading to reward, about children being a blessing, about God giving us the desires of our heart. But then. . .children rebel, or, worse, they die. Spouses cheat. Christians go bankrupt. Like Job, even the righteous find out obedience doesn't always lead to blessing.

Even then, Martoia would argue, we're doing the Bible a disservice when we think we can grab a promise or admonition given to a specific person (or people) at a specific place in a specific situation a really long time ago, and apply it directly to our lives. We like to quote the admonition to Joshua: "Be strong and courageous!" as if it applied to our life. But Jesus' admonition to the rich young man, "sell everything you have and give it to the poor. . ." - how many people would claim that as their life verse? We love to grab hold of Proverbs 3:5-6, but how many want to abide by that little part in Acts 2 where "the believers sold everything and donated it to the church, so that nobody would be without"? We pick and choose, we read the Bible through lenses that fit our preconceived ideas of "how it should be," without realizing that we then leave lots of parts on the cutting room floor.

Martoia contends that it's wrong to read the Bible as a one-to-one correspondence to today, full of rules and principles we can uncritically apply to our present lives and situations. We must instead realize what it is: a record (or series of records) of people who encountered the living God in their own world, their own culture, their own understanding of reality. God came to each of these people (and peoples) and met them where they were; in the same way, God wants to meet us where we are today. But not by directly applying rules and principles he gave to his people long ago, but by allowing this book, this Bible, to live and breath in our world today. To do that, we must free it from our trappings of rulebook and collection of pithy sayings; we must let it sing and dance to us in new ways.

The book offers two suggestions to help us move forward. The first is reading the Bible as a literary classic. But don't let that title throw you off. He's not suggesting the Bible is simply another piece of literature, a la Moby Dick. Martoia still holds to the view that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and speaks Truth like no other book. The image of Bible as Classic is more built around the idea of how a classic shapes the reader, and then shapes the culture. Classics reveal truth not so much in pithy sayings or memorable quips - that would be the arena of second-rate gift books. Instead, classics reveal truth through the arc of the story, through character development, through the interaction of theme and action and reflection. We read how Ebenezer Scrooge became a miserly man, and how a fantastic night changed him. We do enjoy some of the quotes from the book, but none of us expect this Christmas to be visited by ghosts; if a troubled man came into my office for counsel this week I wouldn't say, "In A Christmas Carol, Dickens goes home and eats dry bread and cheese - you should do the same, and see what happens." Instead, we look to large themes - abandonment, pursuit of financial success at all costs, societal inequities, faith and hope even in dark times, good vs. evil, redemption - and those themes then fold into our lives, coming in new and fresh ways. We don't copy the book, but we appropriate the ideas and themes into our lives. And we continue to live our lives where the story finishes off.

Which leads to Martoia's second idea: reading the Bible as jazz improv. Jazz music, for all its freedom, follows pretty strict rules. The composer lays down the original melody and harmonic progression; the composer sets up the theme, sets up the 'box' in which the song sits. Usually, the first run-through sticks closely to that original theme, the 'true' melody. As the song moves along, however, the individual musicians take turns riffing solos that project outward from the original. Well-trained musicians know how to incorporate the composers idea and intent, while creating something fresh and new in their current context. To the untrained ear it may sound like a completely different song, but, if it's done well, the solo is actually very true to the composer's ideas and plans. "Good improv is in keeping with the original, but unearths new things within the framework of the original."

So, too, can we approach the scriptures, according to Martoia. "The Bible is no different. The goal isn't to repeat or recite the Bible. The Bible has to live through the music that I am making in my life. The Bible is being reinterpreted for the moment here and now - a reinterpretation that is happening in continuity with the Bible as originally written but may or may not include any of the same responses the characters in the Bible had."

Recently, I have come across a number of authors making a similar point. What if, they ask, instead of saying "Paul dealt with this situation and came to this conclusion for them, so the same conclusion applies to us," we instead looked at how Paul did theology in his context, and then attempted to do the same thing here. One simple example suffices: Paul declared it proper for a woman to pray with her head covered. While some churches believe that to be a once-for-all regulation, you'd be hard-pressed to find a church requiring women to wear bonnets for the prayer time. And so we are already doing this - we're not taking Paul's admonition to wear hats as new Torah; instead, we' re asking "why did Paul require that? What were the issues? How did he come to his conclusion?" and applying those same ideas to our context. What are the issues we face? How do we see the story arc of the scriptures coming to play in our world? What are the grand themes? What are the original melodies and harmonies, and how to we stay true to the original while creating new ideas today?

It must be said that Martoia continually returns to the idea of community throughout this book. Community fosters growth, it stimulates understanding, but it is also a safeguard against moving too far away from the original. As we read the story in community, as we attempt to work it out in our lives together, we have to use the resources around us, including the community of saints who have come before, and the Literary Experts and Jazz Masters, who have spent much of their lives digging through this Book.

There's obviously a lot about this approach that will leave many people nervous; it certainly feels very unorthodox. But I think, in the end, Martoia sifts through much that is wrong with current Bible reading practices, and offers some helpful ways forward. One of the greatest suggestions he offers is that people need to read the Bible as a whole, reading it all the way through, and reading it in large chunks, in order to see the sweep of the story, to pick up the grand themes. It is true that, to many people, the Bible is a collection of short stories and sayings. Martoia believes we need to be reading entire books in one sitting, and that we do it best when we read those large chunks together. With this I heartily agree; God's people will only be stronger when we read the Bible in its entirety, and when we read it in community, working out the ideas and plotlines and themes and melodies together.

With special thanks to Zondervan for sending me an advance copy for review.


Lori said...

Hmmm! Intriguing food for thought.

Janet Oberholtzer said...

Good review.
I heard Ron speak this fall and look forward to reading this book.