Why Do We Study?

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers of recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons, and he regularly captivated those with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no-name town and decided to pop in. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While Craddock was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook promptly turned around, looked at the man in the face and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing over at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!

And with that the black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, he paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Do any of you feel chills? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the story for its timely reminder about problematic race relations in this country, but for some of you this story hits even harder. Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes powerful particularly in its connection to scripture. For, if Craddock was unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance, drove off, and never think about the experience at all.

But Craddock knew his bible; he had studied it well enough to know the ways God works in the world. Such that when he heard the rooster, it changed his life forever.

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This whole month we’re diving deep into why we do what we do as Christians. Last week we talked about why we worship, and today we’re looking at why we study. To put it rather simply: we study God’s Word because this story is our story. It’s like opening up the pages to discover our family history, our quirks and idiosyncrasies, our triumphs and our failures.

Whenever we open the scriptures and study we are entering into the strange new world of the bible, one that shines a light on what our lives really look like even today.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he got really personal. We preachers are taught to do the opposite. Rather than standing before a group of people like you and share how we are trying to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to point away from ourselves to Jesus. And I believe that’s wise counsel; there is far too much temptation for preachers to make ourselves into the Jesus figure of our congregations and instead of saying, “follow Jesus” we say, “follow me.”

But Paul got personal. He laid it all out for this small and budding church. I have every reason to boast in the world: I was the Jew of all Jews, I followed the law, I was blameless in everything I did. I even persecuted the church. Yet whatever I gained in the world, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Paul’s story is a powerful one, but it’s only powerful when we know the whole story. We can read the letters he wrote to different communities, we can reflect on his theology and declarations, but when we study the bible, when we know who Paul was before he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, everything he writes comes into a new light.

Paul was so zealous in his Jewishness, he was so righteous, that he murdered Christians in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest disciples feared him. And, in God’s strange wisdom, the greatest persecutor of the church became her greatest missionary.

We study God’s Word because this story is our story.

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Years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon while wearing a clergy collar. And, most days, people ignore the pastor sitting in the corner supping on coffee and scratching his head. But not that day.

A guy walked in, looking pretty disheveled, and immediately bee-lined over to me. His eyes were locked onto my collar, and before I knew what he was doing, he fell to his hands and knees and started kissing my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to get him to stop, and when he could tell that everyone was staring at us, he asked to speak with me outside.

We sat down on a nearby bench and he began telling me about all his troubles. He was down on his luck with no job and no home. He had been kicked out of a couple local homeless shelters, but he recently heard that he could get some actual help in Richmond.

As he went on and on I caught myself preparing a response in my head rather than actually listening to him. And, as I often do, I offered him a few dollars and suggested that he seek out some organizations in town to help support his needs.

He stared at me blankly and said, “Man, I just need a ride to Richmond.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but I’m sure that I made some excuses about how much work I had to do, or that I really needed to get back to the church. And as I went on listening off my justifications, he stood up while I was talking and he just left me there sitting on the bench. My voice tailed off as he walked away, and before he turned the corner I heard him say, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

That moment has haunted me in the years since. Because, as soon as he said those words, I felt my heart burning within me because I had failed to live into my baptismal identity. He, in a few choice words, had initiated the story of the Good Samaritan, and I was the priest who failed to help the man on the side of the road.

If I hadn’t known Jesus’ parable that the man quoted, I might’ve let it roll off my back like any number of other interactions, but because I knew the story, that moment has haunted me.

On Monday morning I was sitting my office here at the church when a man walked in covered in sweat and asking to talk to the preacher. I invited him into the office and I watched and listened to him share his story. Down on his luck, no job, no home. And immediately, I started sensing a gulf developing between us as I began rehearsing my response in my mind. We get calls here every day from people in the community looking for help; late on rent, overdue on an electric bill, no food in the refrigerator. And we try to help as many as we can, or at least direct them in such a way that they can be helped, but it’s hard not to be suspicious. It’s hard to prevent that sinful side of myself from bubbling to the surface and ignoring the person in need.

Anyway, the man was sharing his story, and before I was able to respond with the same sorts words I’ve used hundreds of times he said, “I just need a ride to Charlotte, NC. I want to start over and my daughter lives there and she’s going to put me up for awhile.”

I apologized and said that I would be unable to drive him myself, but the church would be more than happy to buy him a bus ticket.

He beamed.

I ordered him a ticket for a Megabus leaving that afternoon and then we got in my car and I drove him to a nearby VRE station so that he could get into the city to catch the bus. We talked during the car ride about the change in weather and about Virginian hospitality and a number of other subjects. And when we got to the station I got out of the car to open his door and wish him well, and then he asked to pray for me. Let me say that again, he asked to pray for me, not the other way around. So he wrapped his arms around me and prayed.

After the “amen” he looked at me in the eyes and said, “As you have done onto the least of these, so you have done unto me.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

When I came into work on Tuesday morning there was a message on our answering machine. He had made it to his daughter’s house and wanted to thank the church for its generosity.

I’m not proud of what I did. Sure, I’m happy he made it, and I’m glad that we could offer him some grace, but I’m not proud of what I did; because I didn’t want to do it. I only did it because I knew the story of scripture, and then that man turned it around and left those words resonating in my ears as he walked away.

We study God’s Word because God is always talking to us, only if we have ears to hear. When we know the story that is our story, we become attuned to God’s frequency in the world, we hear the rooster, we see the man in need, and it changes our lives just as God changed the lives of the people we read about in the bible.

If you’re anything like me, if you’re anything like Paul, you want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. We catch a glimpse of that power and experience it here and now when we study the Word and encounter it in our daily living. We need to study the Word because all of us, sinners and saints, preachers and laypeople, we’re all works in progress. We press on to make Christ’s resurrection our own, because Christ has made us his own.

Beloveds of Cokesbury, I have not made it to perfection, in fact I am far from it, but there is one thing I know for sure: when we know the story that is our story, when we study God’s Word, we can hear God calling to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

October

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Devotional – Jeremiah 15.16

Devotional:

Jeremiah 15.16

Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.

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Cokesbury Church celebrated its 58th anniversary on Sunday. For our Founder’s Day we had the choir singing and clapping, we were blessed by a sacred dancer, our children marched through the sanctuary singing happy birthday, each person in attendance was given a puzzle piece to add together in order to produce an image of the church, and we had one of our former members return to offer the sermon.

It was a strange a beautiful thing to witness a church reunion for which I am the newest part. While I am still learning about all of the traditions of the church, I had the opportunity to meet so many people on Sunday for whom Cokesbury is/was their home church for longer than I’ve been alive. Before the service started I was able to mill about and observe reunions between people who had gone far too long without seeing one another, and I overheard stories about the church from the past while also listening to hopes about the future.

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All in all, it was a remarkable worship service and I count myself blessed for having played a small role in it.

When the service came to its conclusion, and I offered the benediction, I stood like I always do in the narthex and shook hands with people on their way to the social hall for our reception. The food was hot and ready by the time we finished and we could all smell the delicious feast awaiting us in the air.

While I was walking around and shaking hands a man walked up to introduce himself and I made some offhand comment about how he needed to stick around for the food otherwise I’d have to eat it all. In response he smiled, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Son, we just feasted on the Word and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more full in my whole life. But I’ll see what I can do.”

We can feast on any number of things: food, experiences, even television shows (aka binge watching). But how often do we feast on the Word? The prophet Jeremiah knew that feasting on God’s Word would bring a delight unmatched at any church potluck or dinner function. Jeremiah knew that God’s Word would fill his heart in a way that no relationship ever could. Jeremiah knew that when the Lord called his name it would sound better than any music to have ever touched his ears.

We feast on God’s Word whenever we worship, whenever we pray, and whenever we read the bible. And though we might try to alleviate our hunger with a number of empty solutions, God’s Word will always be there to offer us true satisfaction.

Devotional – 2 Timothy 2.8-9

Devotional:

2 Timothy 2.8-9

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

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A few of my friends recently embarked on a new venture into the world of podcasting. They call themselves “Crackers and Grape Juice” and they regularly interview people about their faith in order to share the conversations with others through the Internet. One of their regular interviewees is Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, who truly has the gift of preaching. In a recent interview they asked Fleming about her love of scripture and her response was powerful: “If I love scripture, it is because my grandmother read me those stories when I was a child. The role of someone we love, loving us enough to read us scripture, makes all the difference.”

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What do we think of the bible? Is it a text that we are called to master like a subject from school? Should we memorize the facts and dates like a work of history? Should we analyze the literary techniques like a famous work from Shakespeare?

Today, in the lives of Christians, the Word of the Lord is often chained to the realm of the church. If we want our children to learn about the bible, we send them to a Sunday School classroom. If we have a friend grieving the loss of a spouse, we recommend that they go speak with a pastor. If we are unsure about how to encounter a troubling topic, we ask to hear a sermon about it in worship.

But, as Paul reminds us, the word of God is not chained! The bible demands our attention and our affection. It yearns to be read and savored. It should not be relegated to the confines of a church building and should instead sit at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community.

Can you imagine how all children would feel about scripture if someone they loved took the time to read them the stories? Can you imagine how differently you would feel about the bible if someone took the time to read it to you when you were younger?

The call of Christians, all Christians, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. We remember the great stories of the bible when we gather together in worship on Sundays, but that is not enough. We remember the greatness of the risen Lord whenever we share his gospel with the people we love: our families, friends, and neighbors. We remember the acts and grace of God whenever we sit down with one of our children and grandchildren to tell them about how Jesus changed our lives. We remember the resurrection when we believe the Word of God is unchained and worthy of our time.

On the Impossible Possibility of Karl Barth or: Why God is God

Many years ago, Karl Barth was invited to give a lecture on theology during his visit to the United States. After waxing lyrical in his high-pitched Swiss accent, he spent some time answering questions and mingling with those in attendance. A young man who was able to snag a chair in the back mustered up the courage to walk to the front and shake the hand of the man who he believed had changed his life. After waiting and waiting he finally reached out his hand and said, “Professor Barth I want to thank you for all that you’ve done. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written and it has changed my life.” Barth looked inquisitively at the young man, took his hand and said, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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Or so I was told long ago. Stories about Barth are like great myths that you can never really prove, but they wonderfully add to what we imagine he was like. That simple story of his interaction with a young man was my first introduction to Karl Barth prior to purchasing my copy of The Epistle to the Romans. From the story, and from my first reading, I quickly learned that to read Barth’s work is work. He held a long time motto that what really matters is “to say the same thing again and again in different words.” This is true of his writing, his preaching, and his influence in the world of theology today.

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In The Epistle to the Romans there is a great passage where Barth juxtaposes the law with faith: “The truly creative act by which men become the children of Abraham, by which stones are transformed into sons, does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.”[1] His expression of the impossible possibility of faith is one that, I believe, is indicative of Karl Barth’s greater contribution to theology. His writing is some of the most difficult to comprehend but, like Joyce’s Ulysses and Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it will change you.

About a month ago I set out to write a number of reflections on what I consider are some of Barth’s best exegeses from Church Dogmatics. In preparation I pulled out my heavily earmarked and notated copies of the different volumes and dove back into the strange new world of dialectic theology. To do theology dialectically is to think in unresolved contrasts. It means that Barth can write, “God is God” which looks like a sentence that is an explanation, but it actually really does not explain anything at all. Barth, unlike so many theologians, rejected the temptation to explain, and thereby limit, God. Instead, Barth leaves it at “God is God.”

This kind of theology is powerful and it is frustrating. We are so conditioned to expect explanation and clarity that when reading Barth we are left reeling and waiting for the notes to resolve, but they don’t. Like any great jazz improvisationalist, Barth leaves us wanting more because the work of theology is never finished.

Just as it is hard to read Barth, it is hard to write about Barth. When I first read his reflections on Creation, the Tower of Babel, the Doctrine of Election, and the Strange New World within the Bible, it fundamentally changed me as a person and as a Christian. When I returned to those works over the last month I experienced the same excitement of transformation once again but when I opened my computer to write, I stared at a blank screen for a long time. How could I adequately reflect on explaining the unexplainable? How could I limit a 44-page exegesis to a 2,000-word blog post? How could I share my thoughts on something that gives me theological whiplash (in the best way)?

Writing about Barth’s writing is difficult precisely because Barth is impossibly possible.

God is God. Three words that say everything and nothing at the same time. God is God; an impossibly possible statement. To say, “God is God,” is to affirm that we cannot control God. We cannot start with “God is…” and fill in the blank with whatever we want God to be. God is what God is, and we are not. (Hence the instruction to Moses: “Tell them ‘I Am” sent you.”)

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“God is God” in its frustrating impossible possibility, reminds us that God can only be known through God. This does not mean that God is somehow hidden from creation, or completely unknowable, but that God is revealed to us according to God’s will. We cannot go digging for God throughout the bible, we cannot go out into the peaceful wilderness to find the divine; it is God who finds us. Or, as Barth puts it, “[the grace of God] is like an arrow from the other side of a shore on which we will never set foot, yet it hits us.”[2]

What Barth’s impossibly possible theology sets forth is a theology that is never finished. Like the shorter ending to the gospel according to Mark, we are left in God’s great ellipses. We are now part of God’s great story being told until God makes all things new. There is no end to the work of theology because there is no end to God. Faith, similarly, never concludes because every moment is a new opportunity to be met by God and to be transformed over and over again.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 138.

[2] Ibid., 98.

Karl Barth and The Strange New World Within The Bible

When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.

Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”

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Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.

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In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.

 

But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…

 

The Strange New World Within The Bible

We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?

We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.

We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.

We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.

We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.

We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.

We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.

We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?

We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.

We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.

We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.

We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.

Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.

Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.

And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.

We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.

And then it ends and The Bible is finished.

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What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?

These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.

It is not merely a history or a genealogy.

It is neither a myth nor a fable.

What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.

We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.

But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.

Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.

And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.

The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?

The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.

The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.

The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!

 

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On Why Christians Should Not Read The Bible

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.

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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).

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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.

On How To Read Barth or: Why The Tamed Cynic Is Wrong

Back in February of 2013, Jason Micheli (The Tamed Cynic) proposed an invitation to read Karl Barth’s writings over the following two years. Throughout this time Jason periodically reflected on what he read for the whole world to read on his blog. I like Jason a lot. I’ve written about him here on the blog, I’ve used him as an example in a number of sermons and devotionals, and I genuinely believe he is one of the most faithful followers of Jesus I’ve ever known. Because I like Jason, and I grew up listening to his sermons, I like Karl Barth.

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Barth is most well known for his writings in the theologically shattering Epistle to the Romans and his dialectical approach in his Church Dogmatics. Reading his work over the last few years has profoundly shaped the way I understand what is means to be a Christian and how to read scripture.

When Jason invited me to start reading Barth from afar I was already familiar with The Epistle to the Romans, I had read sections from Church Dogmatics, and had read a number of his sermons from other compilations (Deliverance to the Captives and The Early Preaching of Karl Barth). Though relatively familiar with Barth’s style and larger project, I was excited to read Jason’s “Tips for Reading Karl Barth”:

  1. Barth is the opposite of the social media, fast food age. Read slow. Barth’s thought frequently unfolds in long clauses and sentences that double back almost like music. It’s better to focus on a page or a long paragraph and understand it than try to read everything I’ve scheduled in the given week.
  2. Barth uses the term “being” a lot. IT’s a freighted philosophical term that would be better translated for you as “character.”
  3. Whenever Barth speaks of the “Word of God” he’s usually referring to Jesus NOT scripture. This will be obvious in the next sections.
  4. The footnotes. Skip over them. You can read them if you want but don’t let them slow you down or intimidate you.

 

Jason’s “tips” are on point when the daunting task of reading Barth is open on the table. Barth’s Church Dogmatics is divided into fourteen volumes and takes up the entirety of one of my bookshelves. I fully agree with his first three “tips” but I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with the fourth: “The footnotes. Skip over them.”

If theology is like jazz, then Barth’s footnotes are his greatest improvisational work over the larger melody.

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Reading Barth is challenging and requires patience. There are times when you will come to the end of a long paragraph and have no recollection of what you just read. There are times that you are sure you know what he is driving at only to have him turn the whole topic upside down and address it from a different angle. But it is in his footnotes (or excurses) that he exegetes the biblical texts that brought him to the conclusions in the rest of the text. The excurses are where Barth does the true work of theology.

For example, in part III.1 The Doctrine of Creation, Barth makes the claim that “Creation is the external basis of the Covenant.” He breaks down arguments for the watchmaker analogy as if God created the Earth like a watch and is not sitting back and watching the hands go round and round and instead posits that God, as the divine creator, created freely in love and is forever bound with creation. This is all good and true, but it is the long excurses on Genesis 1 that the brilliance of Barth’s theology comes to light.

In it he goes through the scripture with a fine-toothed comb and provides reflections on each day of the creation story. He looks at the presence of light and darkness: “The best analogy to the relationship between light and darkness is that which exists between the elected and the rejected in the history of the Bible: between Jacob and Esau; between David and Saul; between Judas and the other apostles. But even this analogy is improper and defective. For even the rejected, even Satan and the demons, are the creation of God.”

He spends a great amount of space analyzing the power of created water and its relevance throughout the entirety of scripture: “The Old Testament ranks a sea voyage with desert-wandering, captivity and sickness as one of the forms of extreme human misery; of the misery from which it is the gracious and mighty will of God, which we cannot extol too highly, to redeem us. It is thus the more note-worthy that the most striking Messianic deeds of Jesus are His walking on the sea in royal freedom, and His commanding the waves and storm to be still by His Word.”

All of this and much more can only be found in the places that Jason suggested skipping over. The more I have read Barth, the more I am convinced that the most important parts to read are his footnotes where he dives deeply into the strange new world of the bible.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will be posting reflections on some of my favorite excurses from Church Dogmatics including Barth’s thoughts on Creation, the Tower of Babel, and the Doctrine of Election.

Jason’s proposal to read Barth was a great challenge, and I am grateful for his “tips”, but the ripe fruits of Barth’s work should not be skipped over.

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