When people ask during what period of history, besides the present one, I would prefer to have lived, I have no problem answering. I would have loved to have been alive during the 1,100 years when people were adding books to the Bible.
Our Hebrew and Christian Scriptures basically took shape between the 10th century BCE and the second century CE. During that time, people of faith were not only composing the writings we find in our scriptural canon; they were also deciding whether they should be in that canon. Our biblical canon wasn’t divinely decreed. One need only go online to find collections of religious writings composed during the biblical period that are not part of our Scriptures.
Making the Cut
Our sacred authors weren’t the only ones writing holy books. Why did some writings make it in while others were left out? As far as we can tell, neither Yahweh nor Jesus ever appeared to anyone and insisted, “I want these specific books in my Bible!”
Almost 50 years ago, during a Catholic Biblical Association meeting, the late Father Dennis McCarthy gave one of the best definitions of canonicity I’ve heard. “These particular books were included in our Bible,” the Jesuit Scripture scholar said, “because they helped the most people over the longest period of time to understand their faith.”
Contrary to popular wisdom, these specific writings didn’t give anyone his or her faith. Instead, people of faith turned to them when they wanted to understand the implications of the faith they already professed. Their actual faith didn’t come from books; it came from them experiencing either Yahweh or the risen Jesus in their daily lives. It was their reflections on those experiences that eventually became our Scriptures.
One of my favorite Peanuts cartoon strips revolved around Snoopy’s quest for a drink of water. Charlie Brown’s dog is in the yard, thirsty. Eventually he clenches his water bowl between his teeth and walks over to an outdoor faucet. But he quickly realizes he has only one set of teeth; he can’t turn on the faucet and hold the water dish under it at the same time. While he’s mulling over his dilemma, there’s a sudden cloudburst that completely fills his dish. As he walks away from the faucet, the bubble above his head reads, “I’m going to have to think about this one for a long time.”
That’s similar to what happened to people of faith during those 1,100 years. They thought a long time about what happened in their lives of faith. The result of their thinking fills our Bible. Rarely did the implications of what happened actually take place while it was happening. Usually it didn’t enter their minds for months or years. But once it did, and they shared their insights with other people of faith, it developed into books and writings that people saved.
The Role of ‘Save-ables’ in Our Lives
I always give the same first-day assignment to my college Scripture classes. Students have to come back the next day with a list of five objects in their homes or apartments that they’ve saved through the years, and tell me why they’ve saved them. Rarely is the object something of monetary value. Often it’s a ticket stub from a memorable game or concert, sometimes just a battered cork or a crushed flower. Most of the time, items like these end up in the “free box” at an estate sale following a person’s death.
Although those items are almost worthless to anyone else, the students won’t accept a thousand dollars for them right here and now. In almost every case, the saved objects are things that have helped those people understand themselves. Holding them in their hands, they see themselves in a unique way.
None of us were gifted with a cigar box of “save-ables” on our first birthday. Instead, we spend a lifetime collecting them, a lifetime of understanding who we are, and discovering the implications of those insights. But in a parallel sense, we were gifted with a book of faith save-ables at the moment of birth: our Bible.
Not Eyewitnesses, but Faith Witnesses
Those who created the Bible assumed each reader would simply use their writings as an example for eventually developing his or her own faith book. The problem was that, by the second century CE, many people of faith— both Jewish and Christian —came up with the idea that those special writings were composed by eyewitnesses to most of the events they narrated. We Catholics have frequently fallen back on the statement, “Revelation ended with the death of the last apostle.” Once the last one died, we believed we no longer had eyewitness accounts of what the historical Jesus actually said and did.
But the reality is that those writings were, in fact, mostly secondhand accounts. Catholic Scripture scholars today are convinced nothing in the Christian Scriptures — even the Gospels — was composed by anyone who actually knew the Jesus who lived between 6 BC and 30 AD. Even the earliest Christian author, Paul, confessed that he never knew Jesus “in the flesh.” Like all of us Christians 20 centuries later, the only Jesus they experienced was the risen Jesus:
quite a different entity than the first-century Palestinian carpenter, whom scholars refer to as the historical Jesus.
Disregarding what biblical experts have discovered in the last 150 years about the creation and collecting of our sacred writings, we’ve been taught to zero in on these unique past writings as the only example of God’s revelation, often at the cost of ignoring God’s revelation in our own lives.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we have such difficulty accepting biblical contradictions. By forgetting that these writings are personal implications of God working in our lives and not literal firsthand accounts, we can’t figure out how God can contradict God. Yet, as author Keith Nickle reminds us, “Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels because they didn’t agree with Mark’s Gospel. John probably wrote his because he didn’t agree with his three predecessors.”
Those sacred writings were composed not just to convey history, but also to interpret history. There’s simply more than one implication of Yahweh and the risen Jesus working in our lives. Our ancestors in the faith had a broad enough belief system to include even contradictory theologies in their biblical collection. In some sense they were telling us, “Here they are; take your pick of what most coincides with your experiences.”
The Benefits of an ‘Open Canon’
Having a book of canonical faith implications in our hands certainly impedes many of us Christians not only from actively experiencing the risen Jesus in our own daily lives, but also from discovering some implications of those experiences. Our sacred authors never addressed these items during the 1,100 years when the biblical canon was open. A closed canon has a way of also closing people to acknowledging God working in their lives, crushing an awareness of all the ancient faith our ancestors shared.
But if we could add to Scripture today, what would we include? I presume that would vary from person to person, depending on each one’s experiences. Yet I believe almost everyone would demand we include St. Francis of Assisi’s Peace Prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. . . .” This prayer’s petitions resonate with people of many diverse faiths, and it’s already included as an extra in many deluxe coffee-table editions of the Bible.
On a personal level, I would add Robert Bolt’s mid-’60s play and movie, A Man for All Seasons. Though the drama is essentially a fictional account of St. Thomas More’s 16thcentury relationship with England’s King Henry VIII, it gave me many insights into confronting the authority structures that constantly crisscross my life—both religious and civil. As a Christian, it’s not always clear what to do and when to do it. Bolt seems to have been inspired to point me in the right direction and help me reflect on the faith directions I’d already taken.
The first time I heard Lonestar’s 2009 song “I’m Already There,” my brain kicked into high gear. The song’s lyrics revolve around a man who’s on a trip and calls home to speak to his family. Both his wife and one of the children take the phone to tell him how much they miss him and want him to hurry home to be with them. He responds, “I’m already there.” Then, among other things, he assures them, “I’m in the beat of your heart . . . the shadow on the ground . . . the whisper in the wind.” He ends by asking, “Can you feel the love that we share?”
Then Joshua said to them, ‘Do not be afraid or dismayed, be firm and steadfast. This is what the LORD will do to all the enemies against whom you fight’” (Joshua 10:25).
It helped me better understand Jesus’ earliest followers, who expected him to return quickly in the second coming. Though they wanted him to hurry home, he eventually assures them that his love for them guarantees he’s already there in the people, events, and situations of their everyday lives. He’s among them in a new and unique way. They simply have to refocus their eyes, and they’ll experience him in others. Paul had parallel insights in his well-known Galatians 3 passage on the risen Jesus as a new creation. We simply can’t expect Jesus to be here as he was during his earthly ministry.
In a similar way, long before I knew anything about closed or open canons, the first time I heard Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” I knew it was a keeper. Better than most retreat sermons I’d endured, the Jesuit’s poem outlined our basis of faith in Jesus of Nazareth. As the poem’s young girls, who are admiring their beauty reflected in the water of a well, eventually discover, one only gets to keep in eternity what one gives to others right here and now. It’s at the heart of Jesus’ life and message. If we were putting the Bible together today, I’d certainly lobby for its inclusion.
Our Personal Canon
I believe our whole mindset changes once we go beyond biblical writings. We begin to look at our life’s experiences from a completely different perspective. Instead of simply being handed all the implications of our faith in one neat book, it becomes our responsibility not only to find some of our own, but also—following the practice of our sacred authors—to be brave enough to share them.
With this in mind, I recently checked with four friends on what they would include if given the opportunity. Tom, who frequently works in the field of mental health, mentioned the importance of Martin Buber’s I and Thou in his own quest for meaningful relationships. During the period when he was dealing with the suicide of his daughter, he found Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon extremely helpful in understanding the depression that killed her. He added Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock because it clarified his instinct that the future is more important than the past. And he surprised me with his inclusion of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. He looks at it as an experience of spirituality that encompasses all of life.
Bob, deeply involved in social justice issues, immediately suggested the book and movie To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. He then included a classic of the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 16, 1963, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And he reached back a hundred more years to incorporate Abraham Lincoln’s March 4, 1865, second inaugural address. Ever up to date, he ended with the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight.
Elaine, a retired teacher of literature, simply mentioned two classic poems: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” and E.E. Cummings’ “I Thank You God for Most This Amazing.” Both focus on the wonder and awe that nature inspires in people who take the time to see. Through the years, she’s come to realize that so much of God’s nature comes to us through the natural world.
Probably based on our common Jesuit training, Jack also listed three Hopkins poems: “Heaven-Haven,” “The Windhover,” and “Spring and Fall.” At the same time, he included Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” a beautiful tale of conversion.
Given that the Holy Spirit is just as much at work in God’s people today as it was over 2,000 years ago, what books, songs, plays, poems, or movies would you add to your personal biblical canon? What things help you understand your faith?
Roger Karban is a priest in the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois, who holds a licentiate in theology from Gregorian University and a doctorate in Scripture from St. Louis University’s divinity school.