A reflection on Stanley Hauerwas’ Unleashing the Scripture:
I was 9 years old and sitting in one of the front pews at Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, Virginia when I was called up to the altar and given a red hardback copy of the New Revised Stand Version of the Bible. I can remember feeling the thin pages in my fingers while I flipped between the Old and New Testaments and ignored whatever the preacher was preaching about. I knew it was the same bible as the one sitting on the back of the pew in front of me, but there was something different about it being my bible. From that point forward, whenever I grew tired or distracted by whatever was going on in the pulpit, I always knew I could open up the book in front of me and enter the strange new world of the bible.
I still have that bible that was given to me almost 20 years ago; it sits on one of my shelves next to the never-ending row of different translations that I have accumulated over the years. I had it with me in college when I grew frustrated with different campus ministries, I had it with me in seminary while I was helping multiple churches, and I still have it now while pastoring a church. For years I came to rely on that bible’s words to reveal something to me about the nature of God, particularly when I felt like worship was not making the cut.
This is why, according to Stanley Hauerwas in Unleashing the Scripture, we need to take the bible away from North American Christians.
Most American Christians believe they have a right and obligation to regularly read from the bible. Ask almost anyone in the church I serve and they will tell you about how important it is for them to start their mornings by reading scripture. As Protestants we celebrate the great availability of the Bible and regularly call for individuals to read it on a daily basis. But through the privatization of scripture we have transformed our understanding of the bible into it being treated like any other book, rather than the living Word of God.
The scriptures we affirm as the holy and living Word of the Lord cannot be properly understood outside of the church community that gathers around the Word every week. Or, to put it another way, to read scripture in isolation without the community of faith assumes that the text of scripture makes sense separate from a Church that gives it sense.
Reading in isolation, or believing that having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ revealed through scripture alone (sola scriptura) is enough, has led to some of the most profound abuses of scripture through a practice called proof-texting (Cherry-picking particular verses to make a singular argument).
The collection of both the Old and New Testaments contain a remarkable number of stories and teaching that make it difficult to treat as a whole. Whenever someone makes the comment, “The Bible says…” I am always thinking of another place in the Bible that says something contrary to the first point. The bible is a strange and beautiful thing that cannot be limited to a handful of verses.
However, this is exactly what many Christians do when they want to argue a very specific position. For instance, there are passages in both the Old and New Testaments that advocate for the subjugation or lower status of women (ex. 1 Corinthians 11.8-9), but these verses can only be properly understood in the light of scripture as a whole and within the worshipping community. Because only in a worshipping community can the scriptures be read, debated, and proclaimed. Only in a worshipping community can a differing opinion be brought forth and used to consider the first scripture at hand. Only in a worshipping community that gathers at the table are we forced to confront the deep and profound truth that we (men and women) have been created in God’s image, that we (men and women) are invited to partake without cost, and we (men and women) are offered the body and the blood of the Lord.
Similarly, proof-texting has been used to advocate for the horrific treatment of members of the LGBTQ community by reading verses from the likes of Leviticus and the letters of Paul without confronting the fact that Jesus never says anything about homosexuality in the four gospels. It is only in the community of faith that we are challenged to read the scriptures that go against our opinion and then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are we able to take steps forward in faith.
The temptation to read our bibles in isolation results in the Scripture being broken up as separate texts, commandments, and opinions. The Church, as the body of Christ, is the corrective to this temptation and is the place where scripture lives and becomes incarnate in the way we live.
It is good and right for us to have our own bibles and to read from them from time to time. I’ll admit that to call for the Bible to be taken away from individuals who wish to read the Word of God is an absurd proposition. Yet, in the Church’s current situation, the overwhelming opinion that every person has the “right” to interpret scripture has led to the fractured and divisive nature of the Church.
Instead, we are most faithful when we turn in our bibles together in the midst of worship, when we pray for the Lord to speak to us once again through the Word, and when we wrestle with what God is saying as a community.