What makes Scripture inspired and authoritative?

The following piece was a presentation Dr. Joe LaGuardia gave at a recent interfaith dialogue with the Interfaith Network of the Treasure Coast. The topic of the dialogue was “Sacred Texts”..

What is it about the Bible — this text consisting of over 66 books, two testaments, and multiple genres — that makes it both the source of hope and faith for so many people across the ages and Ground Zero for conflicts that have divided communities of faith?

The Bible is a source of hope and faith. People claim that it is God’s word, infallible, inspired, and the living word of God. It has shaped people of faith and records God’s interaction with people of faith since the beginning of creation to the end of the first century AD.

But the Bible has also been a source of consternation and conflict. In my own, Baptist tradition, we have used the Bible to support slavery and oppose slavery, advocate for women in ministry and oppose women in ministry, argue that we ought to worship on the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, or the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week. The Bible has been at the heart of every church conflict and split for centuries.

The best way to show you how Christians see the book as authoritative is to show how people of faith believe that it has been inspired directly by God since its inception. This process of inspiration and its source for the formation of the Bible reveals why it holds this kind of power in making and fashioning communities of faith.

Christians believe that God inspired the Grand Divine Story in its oral form. Well before the written word, the story of God’s people passed on from generation to generation through oral storytelling inspired by God. God’s inspiration sustained the consistency and resiliency of this story down to the time of its writing.

Christians believe that God inspired the writing, recording, and editing of sacred scripture. Although the Bible is made up of various authors spanning hundreds of years, moving scripture from oral to written form, God’s inspiration was instrumental in the writing of the text. Some books, however, are a tapestry of God’s revelation from a variety of authors, so the editing of each text also contains within it God’s fingerprints of inspiration.

Christians believe that God inspired the formation of the Bible. From the first to the fourth century, both Jewish and Christian communities were defining which books were to be included in their respective canons. The word “canon” means “closed” and literally implies that the Testaments–both old and new–are “closed” off to new books of revelation. God inspired the formation of the canon, which involved drawing boundaries around what ended up being the authoritative Bible or “word of God.”

Christians believe that God inspires the reading community. We believe that inspiration does not end on the written page. The Holy Spirit inspires our reading of the text to shape and form communities, fashion and guide communities, and transform the hearts of those who read scripture. The Bible is, therefore, central in worship and liturgy and the source of belief and behavior.

The problems with inspiration arise when people confuse the authority of Scripture with authority they assert in their interpretation of Scripture. Scripture is inspired; our interpretation — set within a reading community — is not. Interpretation is contextual and stamped within a certain time and place. That’s why people can read the Bible to support slavery while their neighbors can read the same Bible to oppose slavery.

If we see our interpretations as authoritative, then it is not far-fetched to only read, interpret, and apply the parts of the Bible that we like. We begin to gerrymander our reading of the text, and we ignore parts with which we either disagree or dislike. That’s why the very people in my tradition can disagree whether women can preach while ignoring verses right next door that enforce head-coverings for women in houses of worship. We choose to historicize some verses while claiming that the very next set of verses is universal in its application and scope. It all gets very confusing.

Although there is division in our reading of scripture, we hold in common the ongoing work of discerning the Word of God in our liturgy, reading, and proclamation of the word. Preaching the Bible is our best attempt to apply and appropriate an ancient book to a specific time and place.

The fundamental conviction of most Christians is that the Bible is inspired and authoritative in living a life of faith with God. How we apply sacred scriptures depends on time, place, and the people reading the Bible–and the values and convictions that drive their interpretations of the text that shape communities beyond the written word.

Review of “Our Muslim Neighbors”

By Joe LaGuardia

I recently had an engagement with Muslim interfaith advocate, Victor Begg, at a restaurant attached to a local, municipal airport. When it came time for evening prayer, Victor and his family sought a quiet place to pray. I recommended that they walk next door to the small one-room terminal at the airport, where there is plenty of room for prayer rugs. At the time, no one would be in the terminal save one clerk at a reservation desk.

Victor and his family reminded me of the optics. If he and his family gathered in the terminal no matter how vacant, with prayer rugs and shawls, what kind of message would that send to airport staff? I apologized, and soon they found a corner of the lobby large enough to accommodate their needs.

Victor Begg, community activist and author of Our Muslim Neighbors, has been an American citizen for over 50 years. He is from India–far from the Middle East–so his “look” doesn’t raise any red flags; and yet, he is mindful of how suspicious his neighbors are of having a Muslim do business and recreation in the area.

This brief experience at the local airport is precisely why Begg authored Our Muslim Neighbors in the first place: to help readers in the United States and beyond realize that Muslims make up some 1.8 billion people on earth, and that a large majority of them–over 97%–are upright citizens that defy combative, radicalized stereotypes and caricatures portrayed on the news.

Image result for our muslim neighbor victor begg

Our Muslim Neighbors is a memoir of Begg’s sojourn from India to Detroit, Michigan. It follows his travails and triumphs in learning a new language, attending college, and getting his businesses established. It outlines the joys of meeting his beloved wife and raising a family.

His rise to community organization is accessible and easy to read. The narrative flows in a conversational tone that lets us get into the front door of the Begg household, and might be a good primer for anyone interested in becoming a public activist.

Begg has plenty of experience to share with readers. He is a published columnist, community organizer, successful entrepreneur, and (…and I have personal experience with this!) a good friend. We meet him as he defies family in order to seek life in the States, struggles to secure a loan to start a furniture franchise, and brokers relationships on behalf of religious freedom from the Mid-West to South Florida. If there is anything weak about this book, its too detailed and drowns us under the weight of so many accomplishments.

The beauty of the story is not in the religious sense of his writing, but in the folksy way he makes his story anyone’s story. He is not preachy or pushy. It is, simply, one American immigrant’s tale of earning and living the American Dream.

We need a resuscitation of that dream today, a dream lost in the midst of our political and religious milieu of late. I have personally been involved in Baptist and Muslim interfaith work for nearly 15 years now, and it seems that Begg’s goals of seeking understanding and educating others on the American experience is close to mine and so many others. It is a part of a dream as American as apple pie and Corvettes.

The only way to go beyond toxic divisiveness is to dream again, and to take hold of the promises our privileged nation continues to offer those who work hard and love others as themselves.

Mark Hicks, writing for the Detroit News, states, “The book . . . extends his legacy and serves an influential guide in a volatile political climate.”

I may not have the same troubles Begg has, since I am squarely at home in a majority-Christian culture, but I relate to his immigrant-related issues. I am an Italian American in the Christ-haunted South, and I remind people, as has Begg, that it is not one particular religion that breeds violence or despair, but a growing radicalism in all corners of the world in which we separate “us from them”. In Myanmar, Buddhist radicals slaughter Muslims; in the Middle East, Muslims persecute and execute Christians; in Europe, Christians bomb synagogues. In China, communist officials in Xinjiang province are oppressing, torturing, and incarcerating in forced labor camps nearly 1 million Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim people.* In our own nation, secularists limit freedom of speech on college campuses in the name of (ironically) “tolerance.”

Right now, we need Begg’s voice–and we need it badly. But we also need mine, and yours, and ours.

The greatest way to understand someone is to stand in his shoes. Our Muslim Neighbors helps us achieve that goal. Its dual role of being an immigrant memoir and exposition of American Islamic activist plays effectively to those of us who, above all else, believe that the American Dream can still work in an environment of justice, inclusivity, and diversity. Its not enough to say, “I tolerate you.” Who wants to be tolerated? That kind of marriage can’t last. Instead, we must say, “I understand you, and I have walked with you–and now I see differently because of it!”

*The House of Representatives has passed legislation identifying Chinese officials at the heart of Uighur oppression and freezing financial assets and visas is currently awaiting a vote in the U. S. Senate.

Learn from the Italians: talk over one another!

telephone

By Joe LaGuardia

In the South, it is considered rude to speak over another person.  It is polite to listen and yield to your conversational partner.  After all, Southerners are known to be humble, mannered folk.

Not so for us Italians.  While growing up around a table full of bread, wine, and pasta, I learned that speaking over one another with exuberance was a way of life.

Italians bicker with each other, debate politics, and gossip (just a little) at the dinner table, often, all at the same time.

Our embedded cultures bleed into religious life.  Take funerals for example.  There is nothing like planning a funeral in the South.  Funeral directors around these parts are as close as siblings and as invested in the local church as your favorite deacon.

In the North, planning a funeral is like strong-arming in the Stock Exchange.  When we planned my father’s funeral, I wish I could have transported Scot Ward and company up north just so my mother did not have to fight with the director about whether to make the visitation an sixteen hour or eight hour event.

I was not happy.

Yes, Italians are anything but humble, but when it comes to speaking their mind, they are on to something.

On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit filled the earliest disciples with power and charismatic gifts fit for heaven.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.”

In other words, a cacophony of voices rose in praise and proclamation to God.  A divine wind blew manners out of the windows, and a chorus of different languages erupted like a fight in an Italian household.

“At this sound,” Scripture tells us, “the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each” (2:6).

Pentecost, like the Italians, teaches us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another.  I don’t mean to say we’ve lost the ability to be rude, but to say exactly what we mean and to mean exactly what we say.

Italians can get overwhelming at times, but they value communication, which generally leads to intimacy, growth, and honesty.  You may fight, but you’re still family at the end of the day.

We have removed the power of Pentecost not by only silencing voices in our midst, but by congregating (no pun intended!) around people with whom we agree and share a common language.  We forgot how to welcome diversity and talk robustly about things that matter and about which we may disagree.

There is no shortage of topics worth debating at church.  Race relations and violence come to mind.  We need to be frank about how violence has made its way into faith as if violence is a part of faith.

There is the subject of ecology and policies related to global warming.  Did you know that Christians feel differently about these topics, and our theology shapes where we are on matters related to our earth’s future?

How about gun control?  Just because some people want to regulate gun control to curb violence does not mean that people want to curb gun ownership, no more than people who value gun ownership want to shoot everyone who gives them a dirty look.

The sanctity of life demands that we assess honestly the protection of all lives that are made in God’s image, whether guilty of heinous crimes or as innocent as doves.  Talking out our differences is a start.

On that Pentecost day so long ago, the result of disciples talking together — talking over one another even — resulted in a revival that inspired 3,000 people to accept Christ as Savior.  The church has lost something along the way.  We, like the Italians, need to engage in conversations that matter.