The first Word but not the last

Discipleship and Imagination - Tradition and Imagination
May 18, 2001

Anthony Freeman sifts the sense and nonsense of a biblical reading.

When David Brown was installed as a canon of Durham Cathedral, he declared his allegiance to the faith that is uniquely revealed in the holy scriptures. Ten years later he has thrown down a challenge to this view of the Christian faith, arguing persuasively that the Bible is not the only source of revelation. In opposition to the usual opinion - even in Roman Catholic circles - that later tradition can only make explicit what is already implicit in the Bible, Brown insists that there can be genuinely new revealed truth. The conditions that "trigger" the new insights are as crucial to the revelatory process as the original text, and to claim that the new truth was already in the old text is distortion.

Brown's scholarship is massive without ever becoming tedious, and the range of subjects covered - art, philosophy, literature, and the history and writings of three major world religions - is awesome. Yet the central message, repeated in the course of the work, is simple: when it comes to revealed truth, "the Bible must have the first word but it need not have the last". Indeed, it must not have the last word.

The main argument is that certain truths can only come naturally to consciousness as a result of specific historical pressures. Consequently there are certain truths that have only emerged in our own time, such as the proper relation between the sexes. In this situation, giving the Bible the last word will mean scripture being distorted to produce a meaning that is acceptable to modern ears, but one that is far removed from anything that would have made sense in the original context. Christians must accept that in places the Bible simply got it wrong, and only subsequent tradition - developing and even contradicting the original text - has salvaged certain biblical stories as vehicles of divine revelation.

An example is the sacrifice of Isaac. So long as we stick to the text of Genesis , no amount of twisting and turning can excuse the immoral behaviour of both Abraham and his God. But there is a later tradition in both Judaism and Christianity that Isaac willingly offered himself in self-sacrifice. This puts a totally different and far more acceptable complexion on the whole incident. Nor need the rewriting end there. The Koran tells the story in such a way that it is unclear which of Abraham's two sons is the intended victim, and since the 8th century the Muslim tradition has opted for Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arab nation, rather than Isaac, through whose son Jacob the Jews trace their ancestry.

There is a chilling reversal of the story's ending in Wilfred Owen's war poem "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young". Although Brown does not cite this example, it is a powerful endorsement of his thesis. Abraham stands for Europe's leaders, who "bound the youth with belts and straps, and builded parapets and trenches there" for the sake of their own egos. And when "an Angel called him out of heaven, saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad ... Offer the Ram of Pride instead," he refused: "But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one." In 1918 this was the Word of the Lord more surely than anything in Genesis.

In the tussle between Enlightenment and postmodern approaches to text and history, David Brown argues the need to have a foot in both camps. If Christianity is to retain its basic claim to be founded upon a historical revelation, then a continuing concern with historical objectivity is essential. At the same time it must be acknowledged that narratives succeed by conveying significance and values rather than by one-to-one correspondence with historical fact.

For Brown, the imaginative tradition ultimately wins out against sober history. Thus he concludes from his study of the Christmas story that regarding the Magi as kings cannot be judged as "anything other than nonsense" when assessed as history. Yet viewed against a different conceptual frame, he finds that in their regal dress "they emerge as more profoundly true than even Scripture itself". His Enlightenment side is clearly uneasy with this heavy reliance on coherent theories of truth, but it is forced upon him by the extreme difficulty of what he calls "the more fundamental question" of correspondence with reality, and the danger of distortion if the latter is attempted prematurely.

No one could read these two books without being grateful to Brown for his many rich insights and the challenge laid down by his refusal to embrace exclusively any one approach. In places, however, the tension ceases to be creative and simply becomes self-contradictory. To take one example - crucial because it touches on the fundamental question of the nature of human existence - consider his handling of the communion of saints. Brown supports the post-biblical idea that not only Jesus but the saints as well currently enjoy a life in heaven, which follows on from their earthly life. He argues that the social dimension of human personality means that Jesus's own humanity requires the fellowship of the saints to uphold it. But this rather conservative view of heavenly life as a biographical continuation of earthly life sits uneasily with the author's postmodern enthusiasm for saints who either had no historical existence (such as Catherine of Alexandria) or else are composite beings created by the church out of more than one historical person (such as Mary Magdalene). These saints have no independent existence as persons, they never had an earthly life, so how can they have an objective continuing life in heaven? It is nonsense.

Feeling the still-unresolved tensions in his attempt to combine modernism and postmodernism, one cannot help asking what Brown's motivation is. Perhaps his commitment to art is the answer. Throughout this work, constant reference is made to the role of the visual and performing arts in expressing and moulding changes in Christian belief.

Yet the Bible itself forbids the creation of images. The author tells us that his search, as part of his work on the Doctrine Commission of the Church of England, for some scriptural warrant for representational religious art proved fruitless. So the eventual acceptance of such art by the church - despite strong opposition at certain points in its life - is a paradigm example of a genuinely new Christian belief, one that not only cannot be found in Scripture but that is actually condemned by it.

It is the conflict between his debt to creative art and his loyalty to revealed religion that forces Brown into contradictions. His willingness to embrace them is a mark of his dual commitment; others of us may choose a less heroic path. By letting go the idea of divine revelation we can ease the paradox while gratefully accepting the central and creative role of human insight and imagination in the Christian life.

The Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Discipleship and Imagination

Author - David Brown
ISBN - 0 19 8018 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £29.99
Pages - 438

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