A fuzzy canon

Published in Movement magazine issue 124 July 2006

I have a feeling that the wrong people do biblical criticism. The Bible, at its heart, eludes academic approaches. As an artist I have no problem in holding together human authorship and divine inspiration. As a writer I have no problem with different styles of writing issuing, apparently, from the same pen. (I wonder if anyone has applied textual criticism to a living author and found that they were two people?) In our best moments of production, as in prayer, the human and the divine are one.

Conservatives treat the present-day book-bound Bible as if it were dropped out of the sky in paperback and hardback, without process or human involvement. They misunderstand [or are ignorant of] its history and the kinds of literature it contains. Liberal approaches treat the texts as a rag-bag of historical accidents and human propaganda, a buffet of doubtful provenance which we can pick over for the bits we like. In other words, conservatives downplay human involvement, and liberals downplay divine involvement. Both sides fall into an either-or trap, choosing one side of a pair of apparent polarities.

But I think there's a middle way - middle as in complex not compromised - in which the chaos and accidents of human authorship don't prevent divine inspiration and purpose [any more than in, say, art or evolution]; and in which canon by committee doesn't miss the fact that this text, though crap, hits the spot and that text, cleverer and better written, just doesn't.

I'd like to propose the fuzzy canon. Which is to say, we can put the texts of the Bible [not books, necessarily] into a series of concentric circles. In the centre are the texts that pretty much everyone through the ages has found normative and essential for the Christian faith: Gospels/Romans/Isaiah [however many people]/Genesis/Psalms etc, you know. Then there is a circle outside that, of stuff that is important but not central - backup or sidelight material. Then there's a circle of stuff that is interesting, still inspired maybe but no-one's faith stands or falls by it. And the next circle doesn't really connect with the central texts. And then we're into historically associated material and tall tales.

So the canon fades out from an intense centre as inspiration, authenticity, relevance get diluted. Such a fuzzy canon is how we all operate, in practice. Only fundamentalists or atheists ascribe equal importance to all parts of the Bible, and look where it gets them.

A fuzzy canon still allows that the unregarded text on the outer circle may have something that is suddenly of vital importance as our circumstances and needs change. It may be the key to interpret a central text, under circumstances we have not yet reached. A little seed of something God-breathed still lies dormant. And so there is a boundary of sorts in the fuzzy edge, between the baggage that we take with us even though it seems useless, and the stuff we leave behind. In the end the canon is the stuff we can't quite bring ourselves to throw out, even though keeping it causes domestic arguments. Like the stuff in the attic, it's part of who we are, part of how we got here, even if it doesn't fit or doesn't work.