Wednesday 21 November 2007

Kierkegaard against Bible reading

Jason has posted an extraordinary passage from Kierkegaard about Bible-reading and Bible societies. Here’s an excerpt:

“Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope…. The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures of missions, societies which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity.”


Matt Jenson said...

sounds to me like kierkegaard was reading his hauerwas.

Heather W. Reichgott said...

Hello Ben Myers,
Does that make K. against Bible reading per se, or against making a quick buck off the sale of the Bible?
It's hard to imagine Fear and Trembling without Genesis, for example...

Jason Barr said...

Matt, you took the words right out of my mouth. lol

My guess, without having read the whole work that contains this quote recently, is that Kierkegaard is decrying the way the scriptures have been co-opted into the Christendom establishment, domesticated and made part of the program - just like he decries the way such has been done to God elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Of course Hauerwas was reading his Kierkegaard. In fact, Hauerwas roars this passage (on pp. 16-17) in Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America (1993), which begins:

"Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America" (p. 15).

Nice quote for Thanksgiving!

For those who wear their collars the wrong way round, here is another little K-quote just oozing with contempt: "Stupid clergymen appeal quite directly to a Bible passage directly understood."

Guy Davies said...

So, was Tyndale wrong to want to put the Scriptures into the hands of a plough boy?

michael jensen said...

Sigh: why didn't the K-man just get married?

Anonymous said...

To which I say, "Amen & Amen!" Truly, I often--increasingly--think the world would be much better off, and our relationship to God enriched, if holy scriptures in all traditions would just disappear. Now that would be a rapture worth its salt: holy books the world over are lifted up into the sky. Frightening at first, but ultimately, I think, liberating.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm struggling to find a polite way to say I think y'all have gone 'round the bend here. Which, no doubt, was the intent of the post anyway. I have difficulty imagining any context which could justify the excesses of the quote. As the old saying goes, "The abuse does not abolish the use."

Through the Bible I have learned so much of God that I would never have learned elsewhere, have met Christ through the witness of the authors, have had stirred in me hopes of blessing and dreams of being a blessing to others as a channel of God's love. I've been humbled and whatever small and inadequate gains I've had in humility or in love have come from God through the knowledge of Christ that I have through the Bible. The witness of Scripture has taught my heart and focused my prayer and moved my hands to action. If you all think I'm intolerable and unpleasant now, you can scarcely imagine what I'd have been like as an Amazon or a Valkyrie in the right Scripture-deprived culture; it would be enough to give a fellow nightmares.

God's Word is one of the channels of his communicative presence in the world, and God's communicative presence would be drastically lessened without Bibles, i.e., without the good news of Christ from those who knew him best.

The prayers, the songs, the patriarchs, the beauty of the Temple, the Psalms, the parables, the witness of the passion and the resurrection, the hope of the New Jerusalem ... You'd seriously want to take away all that? "These are the icons with which God wants to decorate our minds" (R.F. Capon, paraphrased.)

Until kingdom come when God is with us undisguised, I can't imagine a worse idea than taking away the Bibles. And the clergy and church establishment have earned such contempt (right along with the laity) that it's no use saying that one group should have it and the other not. And each nation on earth has earned its share of contempt, so it's no use saying one nation's sinners are better than another's. We're called to treat our own sins with repentance, and to address others' sins directly to them with gentleness and respect. Which is another God-given idea that found its way into my head through the Bible, a healthy corrective to my natural human tendency to go splinter-hunting in other peoples' eyes.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Guy Davies said...

Way to go, Anne!

Anonymous said...

"God's communicative presence would be drastically lessened without Bibles, i.e., without the good news of Christ from those who knew him best."

Can this really be true? Does God really need the Bible, and more than God needs religion?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Kerry

The question isn't whether God "needs" the Bible; it's irrelevant because he has chosen to cause things to be written. It's we who need the Bible, and God who gives it.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Anonymous said...

Come on, Guy and Anne, use your imaginations! Surely you see what Kierkegaard, with a typically prophetic rhetorical manoeuvre, is getting at? He is on the attack against a comfortable, domesticated Bible that makes for the easy faith of Christendom, or (with Hauerwas) of God-bless-America.

"What is the New Testament?" he asks. "A handbook for those who are to be sacrificed."

Or again: "A young girl is at age sixteen and it is her confirmation day. Among various other gifts she also receives a beautifully bound New Testament... Of course we do not expect her to really read it, otherwise she might discover that here are true terrors. For in comparison to the persecutions witnessed here, the ordinary hardships of this world are but a jest."

This is the kind of Bible that Kafka had in mind when he wrote: "I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us... We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us."

On the other hand, Michael has a point about Kierkegaard getting married (though I would put it more crudely!). You find this same joylessness in the poet R.S. Thomas, who was profoundly influenced by Kierkegaard, (and who should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature), who once confessed that he didn't know much about love.

And so too Karl Barth, another student of the Big K, said that his mentor never quite got the fact that "the Gospel is glad news of God's 'yes' to man." Nevertheless, Barth insisted that Kierkegaard is "a teacher whose school every theologian must enter once." Woe to him who misses it" - provided that he moves on.

Don't you agree that too many people - too many Christians - cut their classes?

Guy Davies said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Davies said...

Kim, if Kierkegaard was saying, "Look, it isn't enough simply to own a nice shiny, black-covered, gilt-edged Bible - you have to receive it as the undomesticated Word of God and live it!", then fine. But even some of the commenters who agree with his sentiments seem to think that he was saying more than that. However, maybe I've misunderstood him and he was just being provocative.

As for RST, he was living proof that not even marriage can cheer some people up. The man was only happy when he was miserable.

Guy Davies

Drew said...

Perhaps this quotation from Concept of Anxiety helps?

"...the Bible has often had a harmful effect. In beginning a deliberation, a person has certain classical passages fixed in his mind, and now his explanation and knowledge consist in an arrangement of these passages, as if the whole matter were something foreign. The more natural the better, [however, particularly] if he is willing with all deference to refer the explanation to the verdict of the Bible, and, if it is not in accord with the Bible, to try over again. Thus a person does not bring himself into the awkward position of having to understand the explanation before he has understood what it should explain, nor into the subtle position of using Scripture passages as the Persian king in the war against the Egyptians used their sacred animals, that is, in order to shield himself." p.40

Ben Myers said...

Perhaps it's also helpful to think of Kierkegaard's remark not as a comment on the Bible as such, but as an indictment of the church. Perhaps it's a bit like saying: "The church has become so corrupt that all pious practices are now suspended until further notice!" Or again, it's like the prophet who said: "I hate, I reject your festivals, and I don't delight in your solemn assemblies!" (Amos 5:21; cf. Isaiah 1).

Anonymous said...

It is not clear that Kierkegaard conceived of Luther's "doing away [break] with the pope" as valid. He, in fact, writes in a great number of journal entries right around this same time period that Luther's vision was best understood as a corrective that unfortunately became normative. That is, a corrective is supposed to be one-sided and aimed at reforming the whole, but it must be presented in such a way that it does not become a normative position. For a corrective to become normative is to confuse subsequent generations as they will react to the corrective as the dominant view and they will fail to understand it in relation to that which it corrects.

Kierkegaard does his upmost to retain this structure in his own thought. He does not want to overturn Lutheranism, but he wants it to be reformed from the inside (which means two things: a. he writes as a member of the Lutheran church and b. he thinks that it has become too enamored with external rites and the like and it needs internal reform. As such, he is regularly critical of those who would use his views to criticize the church, and he is just as much a critic of sectarian-type reformers as he was of the established church.

Kierkegaard's comments about the Bible in this journal entry ought to be understood in that context.

Anonymous said...

I second Kim's judgment that R.S. Thomas should've been a Nobel Laureate. What achingly beautiful poetry he wrote!

Here's a thought: declare a moratorium on reading institutionally designated "sacred scriptures"--all of 'em, across faith traditions--for, say, a decade. Instead, encourage everyone to focus on the books written by inspired folks like R.S. Thomas, Annie Dillard, Denise Levertov, Tayeb Salih, DH Lawrence, Robert Lowell, Nikos Kazantzakis, Rumi, etc. etc. Focus on great literature, great poetry, great music, the beauty of nature, the goodness of individual actions for soul food. Renounce, even if it hurts, chewing and grinding over too-familiar scriptural texts.

It won't make any difference that many of the authors and composers we'll attend to have been inspired by the sacred texts of their tradition. The point is to walk away from sacred scriptures long enough to quit worshipping them, clear one's mind, recognize that wisdom flows in all directions from lots of sources, and then, hopefully, return at the end of the decade to the sacred texts in a less bibliolotrous (what a word!) mood than the one with which we currently read scripture.

One of Freedom said...

Reminds me of Tom Berry's appeal to shelf the Bible for 20 years. The issue isn't the Bible, it is how we read the Bible. We are so entrenched in a particular way of reading our scriptures that we can't see any other possibilities. Of course he caught major crap for saying that, and I'll probably catch crap for quoting it. But I agree we need to have a better relationship with Scripture than we do now.

BTW I find a lot of hope in a Liberation Theology approach to scriptures. That is letting our lived situation speak to the scriptures as well as letting the scriptures speak to our lived situation. I think we are obsessed with preaching applicable messages in the Evangelical world - but we don't dialogue with the Bible, we treat it like a self-help guide. That makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

"Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity.”

## Yes indeed. There is no basis whatever in Christianity for a body of 27 books to be reckoned as a New Testament. So unscriptural a practice as the acceptance of these books as Scripture is to be unambiguously condemned.

Jesus had no need of them - so neither do His followers. He did not so much as hint that it was God's Will that Scripture should be enlarged. If He had thought a written NT was so important, He could have written one Himself. He did not.

The Bible is in any case a corrupting book, which ought to be utterly destroyed, or at the very least forbidden to children.

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