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.

Faith and Film (prt. 3): Rocky

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By Joe LaGuardia

Watching Rocky was a family affair growing up in the LaGuardia household. Not only did we watch every Rocky movie as a family, we literally saw our family in the series reflected back to us.

There was Rocky, a metaphoric character for my father. He, like Rocky, lacked certain social graces and came from a middle class neighborhood not too different from Philadelphia (he was from Brooklyn).

He came from a family of boxers, and he managed to woo my mother with the gift of gab: Legend has it that he walked up to my mother in a club and said, “See this place? I own this place! Wanna’ dance?”

Adrian is very much like my mother. Shy and mild-mannered, my mother worked hard to get beyond my father’s big personality and shadow.

Micky is my grandfather. I don’t say, “Like my grandfather,” because he practically is my grandfather. Micky (Burgess Meredith) and my grandfather talk the same, sound the same, have the same mannerisms, share the same punch-drunk broken-flat nose, and echo similar “boxer” colloquials: Grandpa’s favorite line of advice was (in Burgess Meredith brough), “Hit ’em low! Sweet and low!”

My grandfather taught self-defense and boxing in the Navy in World War 2, and he went on to train boxers in the Brooklyn neighborhood he lived all his life. He was a part of the Police Athletic League (PAL) and helped keep kids off the streets by focusing on family and fitness (sound familiar?).

I would say that Paulie resembles one of my sisters (Gina), but that wouldn’t be fair. Or nice, although she and Paulie do share a certain restless energy. (And I think both my sisters would make intimidating and frightening loan sharks, or assassins like Alicia Keys and Tereji Hensen in Smokin’ Aces.)

Where am I in all this? I’m Butkiss the dog, merely observing all the action swirling around me…

I write all of this for the fact that I am not quite sure how the Rocky franchise has shaped my faith. It’s like trying to ask whether my faith is a product of nature or nurture–it just is so intertwined in my life as a cult film that I have no doubt it contributed to my upbringing in a major, albeit subtle way.

Perhaps the greatest contribution comes from the first Rocky installment. There, Rocky has a coming of age journey in which he meets Adrian, realizes he is not cut out for life in the mob, and gains prestige not by winning the “big fight”, but by staying on his feet.

That is a mirror of my life in so many ways! I’ve never been a winner in big things: I never held a job that made lots of money, and I was never the popular kid in school. I’ve never gone against big shots, but I like to think that I have been able to stay on my feet to the fifteenth round. I believe that dedication, determination, and faithfulness—not some flashy pitch or manipulative marketing–is what gets you through the next round.

I have come of age facing a fork in the road: One road, the wide road was that of living into an Italian stereotype of being a tough guy, muscling my way to destruction. The second road was the narrow way of giving up my familial identity and surrendering everything to the non-violent Christ, including the tough guy vibe.

I must admit that my wife was a little upset when I turned in the sleeveless shirt and Camaro for Oxford shirts and a Honda, something she reminds me of every wedding anniversary (“You remember, when I met you, you were…”).

Thanks to Netflix streaming service, my son and I began to watch the Rocky series–his first time through it. I wondered what things he might pick up from the series. My father passed away when my son was young, but my son wears my father’s boxing trousers and glittering boxing shirt around the house sometimes in his honor.

My son never knew his great-grandfather, so Micky doesn’t hold the same hypnotic sway over him, and he wasn’t raised to be a tough guy, so that is not one of the “coming of age” conflicts that confronts him.

He left me half-way through the first film because he was bored.

Tonight we started watching Rocky II, and my son is giving another go at it. As we sat together, however, I felt myself falling into some of the attitudes I haven’t faced in a long time, including that dastardly fork.

I am finding it hard to stop the film and move into the real world of my life now. Nostalgia works that way sometimes, threatening to hold us down to the point of drowning us in the past.

That is the difficulty of the thing. Dad and Grandpa are gone. Mom has found her voice in a second marriage upon living independently (and doing an amazing job of it) in the last six years. I can’t afford a Camaro because I have big-boy bills to pay. And my wife complains more of my eating habits than the shirts I wear (or don’t wear, rather). The last time I went to Brooklyn was for my grandpa’s funeral over a decade ago. When I preach, I keep the tough-guy, New York lingo to a minimum–only when I’m cracking a joke (a “wise crack!”) now and then.

Rocky presents for me a conundrum whereby I am introducing my son to a life he’ll never know and saying goodbye once and for all to a life that has slipped out of my fingers and no longer exists. Perhaps the movie moves me to grief more than anything else. It is a letting go…and a letting God.

Faith and Film (prt. 2): The Mission

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By Joe LaGuardia

When I was in high school, my sister Gina and brother-in-law Frank invited me to join them for dinner in Manhattan with one of Frank’s clients. Frank was a personal trainer and this client had meant a great deal to him; the client, a Jesuit priest whose name I’ve since lost, had become a sort of mentor and father figure to Frank.

I don’t remember the fine details of our conversation over dinner, but I do remember enjoying the priest’s explanation of Catholicism and the Society of Brothers, commonly known as the Jesuits. I, an evangelical mostly reared in the south, had certain assumptions of Catholics that this particular Brother sought to correct. He did a good job, and I’ve respected Catholics in general and Jesuits specifically ever since.

One other thing I remember clearly is that the priest recommended I watch the 1986 movie The Mission, staring Robert DeNiro. He thought it might be a good historical primer on the work that Jesuits had accomplished over the centuries.

In The Mission DeNiro, a Portuguese conquistador and slave trader, warred with the Jesuits and their work in converting South American Guarani natives. DeNiro ends up killing his brother over a love triangle and runs away to the Jesuits. Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, takes him in as a sort of disciple.

Much of the movie focuses on DeNiro’s transformation from warrior to wounded servant. The journey he takes is one of redemption, and–as any good epic goes–a discovery that his biggest enemy is himself. God forgives him, but he cannot receive it because he cannot forgive himself.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, DeNiro made a long climb up a waterfall to reach the mission with a band of priests and natives. He is hauling his armor in a sort of net knapsack, and after climbing all the way he falls in exhaustion and pain. A native grabs a knife and cuts the chords to the knapsack, and the armor plummets down the mountain. DeNiro finds liberation. His past, now behind him, no longer enslaves him. The natives accept him as one of their own.

For years and years, I have spent much of my Christian walk trying to figure out what baggage I keep bringing along with me in my ascension towards Christ. What is it that I am holding onto? Where do I need the fresh waters of the mountains and the salty tears of my soul to bless and baptize me? Where do I need Christ’s liberation and permission to forgive myself for all of the stupid things I’ve done and continue to do?

These questions haunt me, and the images of The Mission still ring in my imagination. Its amazing how one Manhattan dinner with a stranger who happened to be a priest made such an impact on my life. I can see–as I realized back then–why this man was so important to Frank’s life.

The last I checked, Frank lost contact with the priest, so I am unable to contact the priest and tell him how much that conversation meant to me. I am unable to convey (on this side of heaven, at least) how his wisdom, grace, and movie recommendation changed my life.

I was a born again evangelical when I met with Gina, Frank, and that priest over dinner so long ago; and I feel I was born again a second time after I walked away from that dinner.