Sunday, 23 July 2017

Reading the Book

I love reading the Indian Express.  Here in Laltipur, it comes a day late.  So I read yesterday’s paper which reports on events of the day before. 

But it’s not for the up-to-date log on what our dark world is churning through that I read the paper.  The Express has voices.  The op-eds curate a variety of viewpoints (including talking heads from the current regime) – and there are lovely summaries where basic data about how our nation is presented, analysed and explained.  And then to top it off there is a page each day that reprints 2-3 articles from the Economist.  (No, I have not been paid by Indian Express to put this blurb up – but any cash sent this way will be accepted gratefully).

On the 15th of July Ramesh Venkatraman wrote a thought-stirring piece Let’s talk about the Book which looked at the European Reformation and gently suggested that something similar take place for Islam.  It’s been raining here in Lalitpur and so after a few paper-less days, today two arrived and I got to take a dekko at Javed Anand’s response to this (Islam’s reform: Way to goIE 19.7.2017).

Javaid Anand zeros in this passage as the fulcrum of what he wants to say: 

Venkataraman quotes the philosopher Anthony Appiah as saying that the reform of Christianity 500 years ago was greatly facilitated by the fact that on encountering morally ambigious, contradictory or problematic passages, ordinary Christians who started reading the Bible for themselves decided on “which passages to read into and which to read past.” 

Simply stated, the reformists chose to ‘cherry pick’ from among the passages of the Bible, embracing what was appealing, skirting around what seemed appalling.”

I am not at this point going to address the main purpose of Javaid Anand’s article – but would rather step back and suggest humbly that my three friends Venkataraman, Appiah and Anand have got the issue of Bible-reading in the European Reformation half right and totally wrong.

Yes, common people reading the Bible was *the* seismic shift that brought about reform to the Christian church (reform which is still needed at so many levels).   Luther’s genius was to translate the Bible into the language of the people (German in this case) and combined with the spanking-new technology of the movable metal-type printing press, whole Bibles, portions of the Bible, sermons, tracts, bromides, letters and counter-letters started swirling around Europe.  One obvious fruit of this was the press which 500 years later I hold in my hand in the form of my beloved Indian Express and which allows me to have a (at least one-sided) conversation with Venkataraman, Appiah and Anand et al

A strong case can be made that Bible translation was thebiggest reason for the shift to a post-colonial world.  Wherever Bibles were translated, local people got presses in their own language (Bengali, Hausa, Bantu, Tamil) – and not the languages of power (Persian/Urdu, English, French).  Local communities learned to read, schools sprung up, local newspapers began being printed.  No wonder the British authorities in India spent umpteen efforts to suppress the ‘vernacular press.’

But this is not my point of departure from Mr. Javaid Anand’s take on events in Europe 500 years ago.  More than the technology of getting information out, I believe it was the actual process of reading the Bible together as Scripture, of meditating on it, debating it, applying it.  Of wrestling with the disparity between what is written and what a common life is like.  Of sharing and discovering in community which brought substantial changes to how we see the world.

Javaid Anand has picked up on what he calls “cherry picking” – looking for what is good and disposing of the rest.  The problem with that is:  what if someone else choses different cherries?  How do you know what is true?   A generation ago tonsils and appendices were removed willy-nilly as early surgery under anaesthesia gave the opportunity to ‘remove vestigial organs’ before the became inflamed later and caused you problems.   Well, we are still just discovering the myriad complexities of each organ.

If you have the write to pick and choose whatever strikes your fancy, then how can you be sure of anything?  There has to be a basic belief that the Bible is actually revealed truth for it to make any sense.   There have been cherry-pickers in the past – Thomas Jefferson comes to mind.  His view of God was one of a ‘Supreme Being’ who has left humanity long ago to our own devices.  The idea of the Supreme Being having anything to do with us in the here-and-now was embarrassing to Jefferson and so he published his own new-and-improved version of the Bible.  Every ‘miraculous’ event neatly cut out.  Vestigial organs for Mr. Jeff it seems.  Unsurprisingly there have been not many takers for his ‘cherry-picked’ version of Christian hope.

What makes the Bible so compelling to so many and why does it continue to be translated into various un-scripted languages around the globe?   Why do so many of its principles find their way into the broad spectrum of human excellence?  Why do different generations encounter it and come away changed?

One of the keys is in the process of belief and discovery in community.   You have to believe that something is true for it to have any authority and meaning in your life.  And yet, so many things seem so confusing that to find truth we are blessed when others are there along with us.  Joint discovery and mutual learning allow us to change.  Europe 500 years ago underwent a seismic shift when the Bible began to be read by the people.  Some of the outcomes were pretty ugly, but so much of what we treasure today as good and true flowed from these various streams of faith communities who were discovering and applying the Bible into their lives in vibrant ways.

Reading is a precious gift.  Deep reading, like in the ‘olden days’ seems to be evaporating.  Our house is full of books, but sadly, I seem to read so little these days.  PhilipYancey feels the same way.
But in my last trip up to Shanti Kunj I picked up a little gem.  “A New Motive for Living”  is the story of Venkateswara Thyaharaj whose grandfather Subbaiyar had been the dhikshitar (spiritual teacher) of the Maharaja of Travancore.   I am purposefully working through this gentle saint’s life and have been touched with many of his deep insights.

Here is Thyaharaj’s take on the Bible:

God has always had a wonderful plan for his world and not least for this land of ours.  To fulfill it he recruits, not demigods and astral beings but people like you and me… In the Bible.. God recruits men and women with nothing to boast of but his mercy and the change it is making in their proud hearts. 
Again and again I returned to that treasured Book, to its frankness about men’s faults and yet its disclosure of God’s amazing destiny in store for those who turn to Him.  How, I asked myself, in today’s darkening world can we fitly respond to God’s disclosure of his purposes for mankind?

How indeed?  How in deed? 

This is our life story – and one that continues to live out the beauty, and at times messy grappling with divine love and human perfidity, with the mist of so much of what happens around us and yet the piercing clarity of having our own beings revealed in the light of revelation. 

Sheba and I continue to read the Bible and be read by it.  We invite you to join us on this journey of discovery, as we join others in different places and times who are living in the light of the Book. 

a Bible study at our Lalitpur home last year

No comments:

Post a Comment