Friday, March 17, 2006

Sacred facts

Couldn't resist using these neat Guardian goodies to illustrate today's maunderings: Comment is free....but facts are sacred. I've been looking at St Mark's gospel with a few mates, and yesterdays' session set me thinking - not just about the events leading up to that last passover meal, but also about the truthiness of the gospel story. (This is a new word for me - worth making the link to Wikipedia to find out).

When we began discussing, for example, the woman with the alabaster jar of precious ointment, we found in her various symbols. There was the undoubted truth of a woman's emotional reaction to the person of Jesus - and the women present related to that. But when we considered that the cost of the ointment probably amounted to the basic stipend for a year, it raised immediate questions of what we were doing paying a priest instead of "giving to the poor". And as for Judas - after realising that Judas was probably us, we began to wonder if he was a real person in the factual sense of the word, and was instead a purely symbolic - and enormously important - figure.

So: comment is free - and that, I suppose, it what we were doing. But facts? I suppose I've always felt, in adult thought at least, that the incredibly familiar bible stories were not facts quite as the Guardian would report them - because the Guardian's reporters file their stories immediately after - or even during - an event, not decades later. They would confirm their facts, even in a feature covering, say, the Second World War. By modern journalistic standards, the gospel stories would qualify as ancient morality case studies.

But golly, do they inspire comment! In recent weeks I've been reading the Psalms, and had reached the notion that they were a bit like blogs, reflecting the moods and the hopes of the blogger/psalmist. The gospels, once we get away from the "yeah, yeah, I know this bit" approach, can produce a torrent of comment to match those on the new Guardian super-blog

People are still wary of blogs, especially church people. And too many people - inside and outwith the church - are wary of actually commenting on the Bible. But is ignorance ever a good excuse?

Time for coffee!


  1. The freedom to comment on the Bible, especially the gospels, is extremely liberating, but is best done within a safe environment IMO.

  2. I'm not sure that your newspaper/gospel comparison is fair. Newspapers, by their nature, are commenting on current events and have to get the "facts" as far as they are known out there as soon as possible - yesterday's news is tomorrows fish and chip papers and all that.

    It may be true that the gospels were written down (at least in the form we have them) some time after the events they describe, whereas newspapers are reports are written up shortly after the event, but the gospels are not newspaper reports - they are not supposed to do the same job as newspapers. The stories have been carefully selected and complied - particularly Mark which seems to be an especially concise and careful selection from the available material. This is not really my field of expertise, but all four gospels seem to draw heavily on eye-witness accounts and I think it is fairly widely accepted that Matthew, Mark and Luke all draw on a common source which was presumambly written down even closer to the events described.

    Also, the example you give of writing about WW II and checking facts. That could involve checking facts that are over sixty years old. Somebody with more knowledge than me may be able to pronounce definitively on this, but I'd be surprised if the story of that last passover meal had not been written down before sixty years had passed and more surprised if the essential truth of the account had not been checked with some of the people who were actually present at the meal.

    ...You'll notice that I have approached this very much from the recording of history point of view and haven't even touched on the authority of scripture arguments - therin lies a whole new can of worms! :-)

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  4. Having just read the definition of truthiness, I suspect my previous comment is a good example of truthiness in action. :-)

  5. Cheers for your email! Yes, it did help. I'm intrigued and as always, have an open mind!

  6. "the gospels are not newspaper reports - they are not supposed to do the same job as newspapers."

    Yes - but is the careful selection used to do this job not an important factor in determining our response? And is this not what makes it so exciting? I've become fascinated by what in literature I would term the "authorial voice", and this recent stint of contextual Bible study has become steadily more lively as we became more adventurous.

    That's Piscies for you!

  7. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Your comparison between the writing of the Gospels and of Guardian articles seems incredibly trusting of modern journalists. Modern history as we have it recorded shows much bias and inability to understand. It can also be very individualistic in appraisal of what is happening, sometimes hampered by the writers being too close physiclly, emotionally or mentally to the events they are trying to record.Modern memories are not well trained for accurate remembering.

    In contrast, the gospel writers had a very different and honed ability to remember and pass on accounts of events accurately down the generations. They also had time to appraise what had happened.

    Comparison is also difficult in that modern journalists are supposedly writing facts - but as history, or as propaganda? The gospel writers (even Luke) did not purport to write history as we understand it - They wrote what they believed happened - but to help people to understand God and believe in the risen Christ. Their concern was for meaning.

    Wouldn't it be great if the meaning of events were tackled better in newspapers?

  8. I'm not sure (she added weeks later!) that I was putting total trust even in the Guardian - despite understandable bias - but rather wanted to look at different kinds of "truth". There is ordinary truth: it's a chilly evening - and there is truth with added value, so to speak: it was night.

    The first is without overtones; the second has resonances which vary according to the reader's experience and perception.

    But alas, it is not only cold; it is late, and my brain is not functioning quite as it ought. Night night!