The Bible and Human Transformation
Yung Suk Kim
The Nature of the Bible
The Bible is composed of many books of different genres, written and rewritten over more than a thousand years, “interpreted and reinterpreted, in different times and places, and thus contains many views or theologies,” as I wrote at the Journal of Bible and Human Transformation (JBHT), a new peer-reviewed online journal started a few years ago. Therefore it is very difficult to articulate what it is, let alone what it means. By and large, it can be read as history, theology, and myth. All biblical writings, albeit in a different way, have a mixture of history, theology and myth. 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Samuels can be read as history and inform us of ancient Israel’s political events. However, even these purported historical writings are written not to record what exactly happened as modern historians attempt to do, but to deal with particular life issues in the community.
Accordingly, the Bible includes divergent perspectives of theology or ideology; for example, there are four sources (J, E, D, and P) or traditions about God in the Torah, which reflect four different views of God and the world. In similar fashion, there are four gospels in the New Testament that interpret Jesus tradition differently in view of his significance in their lives. In addition, the Bible also contains myths of shared beliefs or traditions about the desired life in a community.
The Bible and Human Transformation
No matter how disparate biblical writings may be, the bottom line is that they are life stories involving some sort of change, whether it is personal or communal change: a change in terms of human behavior, a change in terms of human attitude or a change in terms of society. When there is a split in the community, it needs restoration for which new knowledge or exhortation for example is provided to members of the community. For example, the post-exilic Jewish community (as seen in Nehemiah and Ezra) is exhorted to return to God, purifying their lives and renewing the Mosaic covenant. When there is a personal tragedy, he or she needs comfort, strength, and encouragement for continuing life. Here the needed change is trust in God without falling prey to despair. Psalm 13, a shortest yet typical lament, deals with such a terrible life experience. The psalmist begins with the three times “how long” questions: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
In sum, biblical writings or stories, although to a different degree or in kind, can be read as stories of changes that biblical audiences were in need. Ancient Jewish prophets call for a change in terms of seeking God (shub in Hebrew as “turn to God”). Jesus asks for a change of the heart (metanoia in Greek, Mark 1:15), and Paul for renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2).
What Kind of Human Transformation Do We Expect?
As we have seen, the Bible can be read with a focus on change or transformation. All change is transformation, but not all transformation is equally valid or helpful to readers. On the one hand, we need to explore the positive side of transformation in the Bible; for this purpose, we will look into Jesus’ parables (in Part 2 of the blog) and miracles (in Part 3 of the blog). On the other hand, we also should be aware of the negative aspects of transformation in the Bible. For example, conservative gender ideology reflected in 1 Tim 2:11-15 is resisted because it is the voice of patriarchal church leaders, and a more egalitarian voice in Gal 3:28 is reaffirmed to promote gender equality. So the critical issue is how to discern sound transformation.
To help explain what I mean by sound transformation, my personal observation will suffice now. One day there was an opening worship service at a conference, and the preacher read the text from Acts 3 and preached about it. The text is about Peter and John who walk up to the Temple to pray and heal a lame beggar in the name of Jesus Christ. The speaker’s point was simple and clear: these disciples received transforming power from God and therefore they could do anything in Jesus’ name. The speaker asked the audience to receive the same power from God and asserted that they could live a powerful transformation life. But I felt uneasy and questioned to myself how God or Jesus could be different from shamans or other deities who proved to be powerful enough to give healing to the devotees. If what really matters is only power from God, and for that matter people are required to pray to receive such power, Christian good news would hardly be different from other religions or shamanistic rituals. In such good news, there is not much ethics or human transformation other than receiving power from God. Rather, I am more interested in what motivated these disciples to move toward the beggar or what may have happened to this beggar when he listened to them. Therefore, we have to ask many transformation questions, as I suggested in my book, A Transformative Reading of the Bible (2013); below are some questions we have to ask in the study of transformation in the Bible:
- What kind of transformation occurs, from what to what?
- How can we balance different, difficult life experiences?
- Who or what is being changed or who or what are we changing?
- What does transformation look like if it happens to self, neighbor and God?
- What roles do these subjects (self, neighbor, God) play in transformation?
- What degree of change might be considered “transformative”?
- Are all transformative aspects equally valid in all situations?
- What is the method to get there?