Wednesday, October 21, 2009

5. Using the Bible in Ethics: An Aside

I am currently reading for pleasure a biography of one my favourite writers, Somerset Maugham, by Selina Hastings. Maugham described himself as in 'the front row of the second rankers'. In his time, he was immensely popular as a writer, but was never regarded as quite being up there with the literary greats: the sort who get their books listed on university English Literature courses. As I find most of these often incomprehensible and, frankly, boring, I do not see this as a particularly bad thing.

One thing you can be sure of when you read Maugham is that his books are very readable and never dull. His stories, for he was essentially a story-teller, translate easily and effectively to the big screen. The latest adaptation, the Painted Veil, is of special interest to me being set as it is in China! My recent shoulder injury required me to hang around the physiotherapist's for quite a while each week. To pass the time, I read a volume of Maugham's short stories. I came to look forward to those sessions of enforced idleness! Our Lord himself was, of course, known for his gifts as a story-teller.

What has struck me most so far in the biography, however, is how much the world changed during his lifetime. Maugham was born in 1874 and died in 1965. He lived through a period of incredible social, political and industrial change. Maugham himself wrote of this when 'looking back' on his life:

'In my long life I have seen many changes in our habits and customs.

The world I entered when at the age of eighteen I became a medical student was a world that knew nothing of planes, motor-cars, movies, radio or telephone. When I was still at school a lecturer came to Canterbury and showed us boys a new machine which reproduced the human voice. It was the first gramophone. The world I entered was a world that warmed itself with coal fires, lit itself by gas and paraffin lamps, and looked upon a bathroom as a luxury out of the reach.'

I was born in 1955 and I suppose my memory kicks in at about the time of Maugham's death. In the years from then to now, change has continued at a constantly increasing pace. I was watching Fawlty Towers not long ago and the thing that struck me was how they used a typewriter with not a computer in sight and this only 3 decades ago.Maugham himself was a great traveller. It is one of my many reproaches against myself that I always resisted the idea of travelling when I had the time and freedom to do so. It was said of the Beatles that it was a big deal for them to make the journey from Liverpool to London. It was! I made the same journey just a little later and was not in any mood to go further. Now living in Hong Kong and, in the past ten years having travelled more than in the rest of my life, I wish I had travelled more and regret what I have missed. Yes, I know God willing, it is not too late to travel, but it is too late to see what life used to be like in different parts of our world even just a few years ago. (See under: Personal Journey)

When I visited the Taj Mahal in India a few years ago, I was able to ring my mum from it on my mobile phone. To me, this still seems incredible, but not to any of the young people I know and minister to for whom the worst crisis in life is their mobile phone going dead or not being able to access their Facebook. But I am beginning to get nostalgic.

My point (yes, there is one) is that the world we now inhabit has, over the past 100 years or so, changed beyond recognition from the world of the Bible. This was the point that Bultmann was making when he famously said:

'It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.'

I don't as it happens agree with him, but living in the world we now inhabit does make it harder than we realize to understand the New Testament world and even harder to know how to apply the New Testament to ours. It also raises the question of whether rules which were designed for and worked in such a different world still work in the one we live in today.

The first commandment God gave human beings in Genesis after their creation was to 'be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis 1:28). It was also the first commandment he gave Noah and his family after the flood (Genesis 8:17, 9:1, 9:7). Most of us would, I think, feel that while human fertility is a great gift, it now needs to be controlled in a way it didn't in the past. We do not hesitate to over-ride God's most fundamental commandment to men and women because of changed social conditions. What was right then is not right now. What other commandments in the Bible are there, I wonder, that were right then, but are no longer right now?

Anyway, I recommend Somerset Maugham's writing to you if you want a really good read!

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