By Aian Macpherson
Several years’ back I read extracts of a lecture given by N.T. Wright entitled, ‘How can the Bible Be Authoritative’. If you have forty minutes I would suggest reading it. I took the time to read it through this week. Of all that I read before one part stayed with me very clearly. Wright suggests that a good way to think about the Bibles authority is by analogy to an imagined lost Shakespearian manuscript. The manuscript is incomplete; it holds four complete acts the beginning of the fifth and hints about how the fifth act should end. The play is so good that it is agreed that it must be staged but rather than writing a fifth act it will be improvised so as not to commit Shakespeare to being posthumously responsible. The actors must be sensitive to, and immersed in, the plays own world. But they must not simply repeat acts one to four as they play out act five.
‘Among the detailed moves available within this model… is the possibility of seeing the five acts as follows: (1) Creation; (2) Fall; (3) Israel; (4) Jesus. The New Testament would then form the first scene in the fifth act, giving hints as well… of how the play is supposed to end. The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer something between an improvisation and an actual performance of the final act.’
Leaving aside the development and discernment needed to read the bible for the church today in this way, which in any case Wright begins to explore in his essay, it is a creative and helpful approach. It identifies the covenantal narrative, the big story. It situates the Bible as being in history rather than a text from which we draw abstract truths or lists of rules. It is helpful that Wright separates us from the first four acts in that it helps us to see the distance we have from the text and its strangeness. Also it shows the importance of narrative – we continue the story and call it to mind continually but we do not repeat the same scenes. Wright’s approach locates us, the church, in the story of the Bible as its continuing actors and helps us to realise that the Bible is not for dissection but for living out.
I would, however, propose a second analogy. Not to replace Wright’s but to be read alongside it. What Wrights analogy does not do is lay sufficient stress on Act 4, Jesus in particular, from the other acts. Also by separating the acts into a chronology it does not show the way in which we, the catholic people of God, read the Bible not to hear about Israel and the beginnings of the church, but with Israel and the church traditions of the past listen to God’s Word.
So imagine, instead of the manuscript and the actors, an empty stage. All is dark and then the first note is plucked, and a spot light shows you the solitary guitarist. A beautiful song begins to unfold as the finesse of the players fingers turn notes into music. Then a little more of the stage is illuminated, percussion begins to play, initially they keep the Guitarist’s beet but some play other rhythms and try to drown out the tune with crashes of cymbals and pounding bass drums. The Guitarist plays with eloquent force, taking the counter rhythms and weaving them into the music.
More lights reveal more of the stage, wood wind and brass begin in turn to play back the Guitarist’s theme. Sometimes they play back the Guitarist’s tune, sometimes they improvise new music that echoes the themes of the Guitarist and sometimes like the percussion they play off on their own. Discordance, and violent competition to be heard, destroys the music. But the Guitarist plays three low notes that hold every other note and beet and bring silence. BerBer Berrrr. The reverberation of these three notes catches all the beauty of the first tune, sounds again the rhythms and depth of the percussion, the power and majesty of the notes makes as nothing the violent discordance of woodwind and brass, and the sorrow of it, which you realise was there all the time brings a tear to the eye.
The stage lights spread again, stringed violins and cellos begin to soar with the music of the flutes and oboes. The drums pound out, in protest and in adulation of the Guitarist, but it does not matter which, all sound increases the reverberation of the Guitarist’s notes and the Guitarist plays on.
And the joy of a Blog? I can link you to some music that might help you see all these things in your mind.
The version from ‘Brassed Off’ is very good too but lacks the guitar. It did however introduce me to Concierto d’Aranjuez for which I am grateful.
When we read the bible we are reading for the Word: for the Word of God who came in flesh as Jesus and about whom all the law and prophets testify. It is the Word’s tune, the Guitarist’s music, we, the string section, are to play. We can be inspired by the percussionists, the flutists and trumpeters and other members of the string section but only in so far as they have played the Guitarist’s music: no one but the Guitarist plays without fault.
The words of the bible are human words but the bible is also the Word of God. If we separate them too much and make only the big picture or only the gospels the Word we will play discordantly because we are not listening to the whole orchestra and will miss the unity the Guitarist intends. But if we think following the imperfect and sometimes downright discordant trumpeter helps us to follow the Guitarist we are in just as much and may be even more error. We must learn to follow the Guitarist; it is his orchestra, his music, and his ending to which we play.
 Wright, N. T. ‘How can the Bible be authoritative?’ first published in Vox Evangelica (1991).