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Why Look Beyond the Biblical Canon? It’s Spicy and Alive.

by Dr. Hal Taussig

Bright red fall leaves against a blurred orange background

There’s something new cooking that makes a family of texts be spicier and more alive.

Here’s the latest example. A friend of mind just told me that she has recently joined a large group that meditates on the Gospel of Thomas each week.

They do just one Saying a week (there are 114 Sayings in the Gospel of Thomas). The members of the group practice many different kinds of religions.  Buddhists. Presbyterians. Pentecostals. Muslims. Catholics. Jews. Whomevers.

My point is that other friends of mine are yawning just a bit about their family of texts. And, although I myself am a Bible guy, what I’m noticing is that those yawning about their family of texts tend to be Bible people. That is, I catch them yawning while reading the Bible. Not every day or week, but more than we are happy about.

And this is where it seems to me that many of us (who are Bible folk and not yawning) are increasingly aware of a new, more spicy cooking with families of texts.  And yes, the clue is from the BuddhistPentecostalCatholicWhomevers reading the Gospel of Thomas together. It’s not that the Gospel of Thomas makes everything spicy. It’s that there are so many tried and true dishes that are neither bland or yawny. So many of my friends and I—whether we like the Bible or not—are branching out in what we read with devotion and aliveness. Our family of texts to read is growing quite naturally.

What about that book of the biblical psalms that got spiced up with Buddhist phrasings? [1]  Or, the Poems of Hafiz, the great Sufi Master? None of this means that I’ve stopped reading the Bible as part of my prayer and meditation practice. It’s just that my family of texts is growing and getting deeper and spicier. And now my friend meditating on the Gospel of Thomas with Presbyterians, Jews, Muslims, Whomevers tells me they are liking the Gospel of Thomas so much that they have decided to read it again.

I hear that the Presbyterians and the Whomevers are now reading parts of the Bible (Song of Songs, Leviticus), which no one reads. In other words, the spicy additions to our family of texts actually can come from stuff in the Bible no one reads. Spicy is the word for some Bible stuff too!  People are now finding beautiful material in some ignored parts of the Bible.

What is it about some of us who think that we have to read the same old stuff over and over again? Is that related to the other (not particularly healthy) part of us that just wants to think we know all the right things? In Synagogue, Church, or just in our lonely house where we don’t get a chance to talk to our neighbors or the bigger world, we hunker down in just a handful of texts, proud of ourselves for knowing what we think is right and missing a chance for growing.

How to find a bigger and spicier family of texts

Some of you know that eight years ago my literary agent and a big publisher helped me get a bunch of leading national spiritual leaders together to add ten of the more recently discovered texts from the early Christ people to The New Testament. We called it A New New Testament: A Bible for the 21st Century Combining Traditional and Newly Discovered Texts. And after studying 75 such texts for almost a year, we decided which ones would be most helpful spiritually for Americans. We picked ten, and they included The Gospel of  Mary, the Gospel of Truth, The Odes of Solomon, and The Prayer of Thanksgiving. A bigger and spicier family of texts to help us through our days.

This kind of idea is popping up all over the bigger picture of all kinds of new books gets us closer to the ever growing and changing family of texts. And with it our life gets bigger and spicier.

But there’s some other help we need. There’s a tradition in some religions that needs re-examining and critiquing. In most religions like this, it’s called ‘The Canon.’ This is a very serious and proud tradition in which a religion selects the BEST writings, the ones everyone should read. In my (Christian) religion, it’s called The Bible or The New Testament. Many of my sister and brother Christians believe that this Canon, this Bible, this New Testament is the exclusive Word of God.

Lots of other Christians honor their Bible/New Testament, but stop short of calling it the exclusive Word of God. (I am one of those kind of Christians.) But many of them keep yawning.

What to do with our multiple Canons?

But there’s another big problem among the many religions who have a ‘Canon,’ ‘Word of God,’ ‘The Best or Almost Best,’ or ‘Sort of the Best.’ For instance, among us Christians, a major problem is that different Christians have different ‘Canons.’ For instance, the Catholic Christians and the Protestant Christians do not agree on their ‘Canons.’   Similarly, Orthodox Christians, Ethiopic Christians, and Syriac Christians don’t agree on the Christian Canon, nor do they agree with the Catholic Canon or the Protestant Canon.

Similarly, the Catholic Canon was only declared official at their Council of Trent in 1545, at least 1200 years after there were official Christians. One doesn’t need a Canon to have a good religion. At the same time, one of the major founders of Protestant Christians, Martin Luther, tried to take some of the Catholic books of their Canon out and did so successfully in some cases. I suspect you understand how silly it is for people of the same religion (Christians) not to agree on books in their respective Canons. That is, their disagreements about what are the most important writings in their Christian religion make the idea itself of a truly absolute Canon a puzzle.

I do love many writings in the Christian Canon (whichever one you want to hold to). And, it is a good idea to have these writings recognized for their places in history. The point in this post, however, is that already underway in America is another set of very lively interests in adding to the family of texts that can make more people have a wider and deeper set of texts for spiritual, value-filled, and vibrant living. The strange fighting about and narrow boundaries of Canons are in our time not primarily signs of health, compassion, joy, and aliveness. There are too many chances these days for us to have our hearts jumping with caring, learning, and humor. I myself do not want to spend time fighting Canons. They have a limited role in the world. That which calls me is the plethora of new resources for living deeply, loving life, and making connections to one another and the world.

I hope that this blog signals to you the open-ended ways life comes toward us in the same way an open-ended Canon could help us be more alive. Here’s to your chance to discover groups like my friend’s very diverse constituency that meditate on fresh ancient voices. May a growing family of texts provide us ways of getting beyond yawning. I wish for us the surprise of meditating on parts of the Bible hardly anyone reads so that we wake up.


[1] Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms