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The Stories of the Bible Today

April 17, 2015

The Bible is a story book. Its stories are primarily Jewish stories that tell truths about us in our relation to each other and to God. Even the early stories in the New Testament reflect the Jewishness of the early Christians. Some of the stories are history, some are biography, some are poems, some are wise sayings, some are mystical writings. They are stories written in another time and culture, using language that reflects the understanding of the universe of that time. So to read those stories today, we must try to hear them in the contexts of that time. And that’s not easy, for we have so much new knowledge of the world and of us as living human beings.

We no longer – as those old stories do – picture a three-tiered world with the gods above the dome of the sky, with a lower world just below, and with animals and us on the earth in between. Our creation story is now a 13.8 billion year story of the evolution of the universe and of life and of our awareness as human beings that each one of us is a current expression of that evolution. We are a part of something grand!

Since the purpose of most of the Bible stories is to illustrate, to teach, to celebrate, to lament, to worship, they often are stories within stories. They use metaphors and symbols to express the larger meanings, and while these metaphors were understood in the Jewish culture of that time, they are often difficult for us to understand in our culture. And as Christianity grew apart from its Jewish roots, the Jewish metaphors and symbols became lost, and the stories became read as literal happenings.

But within the last two hundred years or so, scholars and theologians have rediscovered the metaphoric and symbolic meaning of the stories giving us new understanding of the meaning of the Christ story. Two books were significant in introducing this “liberal Christianity” to the public: Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), and Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963). Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), a Baptist minister, and Ralph Sockman (1889-1970), a Methodist minister, were both noted “liberal” preachers in New York City. I heard both of them preach. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) a German Lutheran theologian who emigrated to the U.S. in 1933, first to Union Theological Seminary and later to Harvard, is considered the most influential theologian of the twentieth century.

There have been numerous initiatives to introduce this modern thinking into the institutional churches The exciting one was from Pope John XXIII (1958-63) and his Second Vatican Council with its brief attempt to move beyond the rigid dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. But it was stopped in its tracks when Pope John died, and eminent Catholic theologians such as Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, Charles Curran, and Matthew Fox were removed from teaching posts and silenced. The same thing happened in the Protestant churches in the same period. Bishop Robinson was marginalized in England, Bishop James Pike was harassed in California, and Lloyd Geering in New Zeeland was tried for heresy – all by the leadership within their own denominational institutions.

Now in the 21st Century, we are witnessing a new recognition of who we are in our relationships with others. Some of today’s well-known scholars and writers expressing this newer theology are Marcus Borg, Matthew Fox, John Shelby Spong, John Dominick Crossan, Michael Dowd, and Brian Swimme, to name only a few. In their many books, they have articulated for me my own growing understanding of God and of us as human beings in this wondrous universe.

But so far most of the change has been happening in the public arena, in the political institutions, with legal recognition of rights of all people and with civil rights and non-discriminatory legislation especially relating to race, and gender. Most mainline Protestant churches are struggling to address these issues, but within most congregations there continue to be members who hold to their older beliefs and feel threatened by the newer ones. So change comes slowly at the top levels of the denominational organizations. With one exception: the United Church of Christ whose churches operate without the strong denominational organization of the others.  Within many of their independent churches, their preaching and their educational programs fully embrace what is becoming referred to as Progressive Christianity.  I think we are seeing the beginning of a new reformation taking place within Christianity. We are seeing a return to the original expression of the Christian message in the context of our current knowledge of the universe. But we are not there yet.  That is the challenge for the Christian churches in the 21st Century.

For me this has been has been a gradual development in my own thinking – a “slowly dawning recognition” – from the time I was growing up in a Methodist parsonage and attending Sunday School and church every week. I am still learning and experiencing the sacred in new ways. For me I now see the entire evolving universe as sacred. And all of life, including even me, is an active participant in that constant creativity.

But those old stories are still full of truth as to who we are as human beings in relationship to each other and to the world around us. They are our Christian heritage. As Bishop Spong reminds us, reading them with Jewish eyes gives even deeper meaning to them today.

Loren Bullock
April 28, 2015

Note: The web site, has a weekly Newsletter (free) with many articles and even worship and meditation materials that are helpful to me. In addition they are the publisher of Bishop Spong’s weekly commentary that I continue to find so meaningful. His website is

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