Monday, August 3, 2009

Allowing people to write themselves into the bible was never going to work

Recently, a bible was put on display at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art and people were invited to write themselves back into its pages. However, within a short period of time, there were so many obscene messages, that the artist, Jane Clarke, a Christian minister who has an outreach to gay, lesbian and transgendered people, was forced to place it under a glass case. People were still invited to write comments into it, but they had to do so on loose leaf pages, which were then inserted inside the bible.

At first glance, it sounds like a good idea. The kind of feel-good act, that leaves everybody feeling better. So why did it fail? Perhaps it was because there were too many flaws in the idea from the start.

The major problem in the whole set-up is that it presumed that people would respect the bible. They just want a chance to write themselves back into it. It’s easy for Christians to make assumptions about people’s attitudes towards the bible, that simply aren’t there in the wider community. In a church setting, most people either consider the bible as the sacred word of God or are at least willing to engage it. When we look beyond the church, however, that respect and willing to engage is not always there.

In fact, sometimes people can have very negative attitudes and even hostility towards the bible. I have had someone stand in front of me and swear at God for half an hour. And I don’t think the feelings expressed then were that uncommon.

In all fairness, inviting people to write in the bible may have been a way to address that hostility. If people could simply write what they wanted to in the bible, then they would no longer be angry.

And perhaps it might have worked if the only reason people feel anger or hostility towards God is because they feel excluded. But that’s simply not the case. Yes, there are many Christians who feel rejected by the church. But it should be noted that being rejected by the church is not the same as being excluded from the bible. Also, there are people who are angry with God for what Christians have done, or how they feel God has treated them, or because they think God’s angry with them or doesn’t accept them as they are or is trying to impose a whole lot of rules that they simply cannot keep.

Despite the fact that writing our own messages in the bible does not really address this at any deep level, it’s also not the full story. Some people are angry with God because they want to be. The problem is not so much that the church has rejected them, it’s that they have rejected God. They’re not looking for someone to welcome them back into God’s family. They want no part of it. If Jesus came down from Heaven himself and rolled out the red carpet, they would walk away. For such people, an open bible and a pen is not a chance to re-include themselves, but simply a chance for them to express their anger.

The other problem with the open bible approach is that it’s not really being excluded from the bible that is the problem. Many people feel rejected (or sadly are rejected) by Christians, not because the bible fails to mention them, but because it does. It mentions their sins. Now we are all sinners and there is not a single person alive who does not have at least one of their sins mentioned in the bible. But it’s often the sins that are mentioned in the bible that make people feel excluded. To feel accepted again would not be a matter of writing themselves back in, but of writing their sins out.

And another problem with this whole episode is that it panders to the desire that most (if not all of us) have to simply write our own bibles. I don’t like this, so let’s cross it out. That needs to be changed, let’s edit it. Perhaps we don’t take a pen and physically do this. But whenever we read a bible, we have a tendency to read ourselves into it. We don’t need an invitation. It’s human nature. I heard one (rich) pastor say that Jesus must have been rich, because God would not have wanted his son to be poor. That’s writing himself into the bible. Just add a few words and feel good about all the money you have.

Yes, there are people out there who feel rejected by God and rejected by the church. And I do commend Jane Clarke for trying to do something to make people feel accepted. But the type of exclusion that many people face is not going to be solved by writing a few words next to Leviticus 18:22.

Perhaps instead of writing ourselves into the bible, we should start writing the bible into our hearts.



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