Native American religion: a persistent way of life

August 30, 2010

For two weeks in late September I will be bicycling through America’s desert plateau country—Albuquerque to the Grand Canyon, through Monument Valley, along the rim of Canyon de Chelly, and back to Albuquerque—1,000 miles through some of our country’s most amazing terrain.

One of the most interesting aspects of this journey is that it travels through long-established, highly resistant, and internally coherent Native American communities. Evidence points to continuous occupation of the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi since 1100 B.C.E. (a century before King David occupied Jerusalem), and the Zuni pueblo may be even older. Even leisurely journeys through this country offer only limited opportunities to learn first hand about the religious culture that helps to sustain these enduring communities. Since I will be doing a rigorous tour sponsored by PacTour with long days in the saddle and a tight schedule, it will be even more difficult to learn first hand. The trip does encourage me to renew my reading about Native American religion—a subject interesting in its own right and useful because it helps me understand my own Christian faith a little better.

Ake Hultkrantz (1920-2006), a Swedish scholar and “renowned expert on Native North American Religions,” has provided an overview of this complex subject. Because I read this slender book (144 pages) a long time ago, it has been necessary to read it a second time, adding a new set of underlinings to those I made in red ink twenty years ago.

In his introduction Hultkrantz offers several generalizations that help us understand dynamic factors in all religions, the ancient ones of North America and the contemporary Christianity with its equally ancient origins in the desert lands east of the Mediterranean Sea. The sacred authority of religions lies in an ancient past but all religions are affected by new experiences of the sacred by people who are devoted to the old stories and ideas. “The balance between faithfulness to tradition and openness to new experience,” Hultkrantz observes, “is what constitutes the religious life” (15).

What may be the most important structural difference between the ancient religions of North America and those with roots in the Middle East is that those of the old world had founders and have been handed down as literary traditions, whereas those of the new world “were handed down by tribes as oral traditions.” The result is that they “have not been so dogmatically bound by what was handed down from the past” and are “quite charismatic and innovative, modifying and even replacing older traditions with new revelations. Probably no other cultures have given visions such importance in daily religious life as those of native North America” (16).

While acknowledging the widespread variation among these religions, Hultkrantz claims that “four prominent features in North American Indian religions are a similar worldview, a shared notion of cosmic harmony, emphasis on experiencing directly powers and visions, and a common view of the cycle of life and death.” He then summarizes these elements in a concise paragraph:

“North American Indians have worldviews that in many respects are remarkably similar, particularly in the way they perceive the interrelationship of humans and animals. Many North American Indians also share a notion of cosmic harmony, in which humans, animals, plants, all of nature, and even supernatural figures cooperate to bring about a balanced and harmonious universe.

“North American Indian traditions emphasize a direct experience of spiritual power through dreams and visions; as we have already seen, the sacredness and prestige of these striking revelations often results in the modification of previous traditional elements. Native Americans have a common view of time as a recurring cycle; they are interested mainly in how this cycle affects people in this life and have only a vague notion of another existence after death” (20-21).

Hultkrantz makes one more distinction that is important in understanding Native American religion. Noting the close relationship between religiously shaped culture and economic system that sustains physical culture, he identifies “two kinds of religious orientation in Native American traditions, a hunting pattern and a horticultural pattern” (38). The major part of the book is then devoted to a description of these two types. He uses the Wind River Shoshoni (among whom he had done extensive field research) as an example of the hunting pattern. My interest in this chapter rests, in part, because an Episcopal mission on this reservation served as the model for the Yakama Christian Mission founded in 1921. (I called attention to my book on the mission to the people of the Yakama Nation in a column earlier this summer.)

Hultkrantz’s illustration of the agricultural pattern is the religion of the Zuni, which brings me back to the focus of this column. My forthcoming Grand Canyon Tour will take me through the corner of the ancient homeland of the people who “are famous for having constructed the most complex ritual organization of aboriginal North America” (87). That’s where I will take up the topic next time. While I’m at it, I expect to bring feminist theologian Dorothee Soelle into the conversation, for she too discusses how religion is connected to the economic and political systems in which people live.

Bicycling and the aging heart

August 26, 2010

On Mt Baldy Road, I knew something was wrong. I had bicycled up the grade for about half an hour, pushing hard, with my heart rate monitor reading about 154 beats per minute. By keeping the rate no higher than that, I had learned, I could keep climbing for quite a while. A few years earlier, that practical limit was 161, but now that I am 78 years old, 154 had seemed reasonable enough.

Until I stopped to watch some guys who had set up for a filming episode. The moment I dismounted I felt light headed, almost dizzy, but leaning on my handlebars I recovered in a few seconds. Since it was time to coast back down to the city (Claremont, CA), I didn’t think about it, not very much, any way. During the next few days, while riding a week of PacTour’s Desert Camp, I felt fine, no recurrences.

A couple of times since then, I have experienced similar symptoms when doing hard climbs on Skyline Drive in Portland’s West Hills, but when they showed up a few days ago on a day-long, fast for me (19 mph) ride on easy roads in the Willamette Valley, I decided that the time had come to see what my doctor thinks about it.

He’s twenty years younger than I, able to do yoga routines on the examination room floor. More important, he is a cyclist, refers to the rigors of Prune Hill east of Vancouver (our town on the Columbia’s north bank), knows all about Skyline Drive, and has told me in previous visits that my capabilities are those of men considerably younger than I.

“It’s physiological,” he told me, after listening to my recitation and then my heart and lungs, “the normal response to the fact that your heart can’t beat as fast as it used to.” He gave me a brief, simple explanation of how the heart gets its own blood supply (in the moment of rest in each beat) and the lessened elasticity of the blood vessels, especially in my legs. He reminded me of the old formula for estimating maximum heart rate (220 less age in years), which for me works out to 142—and I’ve been registering 150 to 160 when doing steep grades. (Click here for a more complicated explanation by the National Institute on Aging.)

He offered two recommendations: wear a hydration pack because you drink more when the water’s on your back than when you have to reach down to a bottle on the bike, and ride at a pace that keeps your heart rate lower.

The backpack water supply is easy enough; I wore one all of the time when we lived in Arizona where the sun gets hot and good rides are out in the desert with no shade. From now on, I’ll wear it on long rides and hill climbs, even in the cool, damp Pacific Northwest.

It also means lower gears. My Co-Motion’s 30 by 27 is no longer low enough. I’ll check with the guys at the bike shop, but I might as well plan for the long haul and install a cassette with a 34-tooth large sprocket. And carry a camera for heart-induced rest stops disguised as photo opportunities.

Two more things to do: keep telling myself that even on group rides with PacTour, there’s no mountain grade too steep to walk, and remember, as PacTour’s Lon Haldeman told me the other day, as we talked about this year’s Grand Canyon Tour, “It’s OK to ride sag once in a while.”

A children’s sermon the rest of us couldn’t even hear

August 24, 2010

It wasn’t intended to be that way, but on this particular Sunday, the mike wouldn’t work. With only a moment’s hesitation, the leader remembered that it didn’t really matter if the grownups couldn’t hear. Instead of shouting over the heads of a dozen children gathered around her in front of the communion table, she conversed with them in a quiet voice that they could hear even if the rest of us couldn’t.

Only at the close of their moment together, when the children repeated the lines of an extemporaneous prayer after the leader, could congregants hear what was being said. The young voices united in the kind of speech that characterizes well-ordered worship—prayers of gratitude and petition to God, “In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Since I couldn’t hear what was being said during the earlier minutes, I have to guess what the leader was doing, based on the way she does this part of the service on other Sundays when it is her turn to lead. Even when her mike is live, she talks quietly to the children, paying scant attention to everyone else in the congregation. She refers to the scripture text that will be the foundation for the sermon a short time later, but she connects it with something that is likely to be within the range of the children who have skipped or run down the aisles to be with her.

There is a quiet intelligence in her time with the children, an approach that is based on the assumption that children think about things, have questions and ideas, and are open to religious experience. Rather than entertaining the children with object lessons or condescending cleverness, she treats them the way the rest of the congregation want to be treated, as though they were real people who want to make sense out of the challenges they face everyday.

Most important, what she says is really directed to the children; nothing about her manner suggests that she is using the children to instruct or entertain the adults who listen in on the quiet time with the little ones.

Maybe we should silence the mike every Sunday during the time for children down in front. And what would the rest of us do? Sit quietly, collecting our thoughts, getting ready for the sermon is one possibility. Read the scripture text from the pew Bible, or the one we brought from home. We could get ready for our part of the prayer with which some sermons start. After the preacher asks “let the words of my mouth,” we could, with this little head start,  be ready to pray “and the meditations of our hearts…be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer.”

Trying to be progressive and Christian, all at the same time

August 23, 2010

One principle has shaped this series on an alternative way of worship in progressive churches: in progressive churches, as in all other Christian communities, the basic outline for worship begins with classic texts, constructive interpretation, and prayerful conversation with God about life in the world.

These three elements provide the structure for worship that combines human experience in the post-modern world with faith in the God whom we see and understand most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. By focusing attention on these structural components, I am strongly persuaded, pastors, musicians, and other worship leaders will be able to develop and lead worship that is experientially aware of God, seriously attentive to the intellectual, ethical, and cultural issues of life, and capable of making a difference in the lives of people all along life’s spectrum.

Because this approach gives high priority to ideas, it easily leads to worship that is intellectual and abstract, as some of the comments to the series have mentioned, worship that is too much of the head and too little of the heart. Where is the emotion? The excitement? The life-changing passion? This worship may suit the professors and clergy who are institutionally protected from the harsh reality of life that many people must face every day. But what about everyone else, especially the young, the artistic, the happy-go-lucky, the people who are lucky in love and those who are facing the prospects of life by themselves in a world that seems to work only for those who are teamed up in unbreakable bonds of affection?

To put the challenge another way, the classic structure, which is connected to the enduring theological tradition and intellectual universe, needs to be filled out with rich detail that that connects it to real life in the real world. Liturgical structure has to be matched with experiential style—with music, ceremony, and ritual that are shaped by cultural, generational, and geographical factors. At some future date, I hope to address these topics, since they too are vital in any church that seeks to develop what I earlier in the series referred to as “the something other service,” one that moves beyond conventional worship and conventional Christianity.

A second challenge also faces every progressive church as it prepares and offers worship suitable for our time. It is to answer the two perennial questions: Who is Jesus Christ? How does he enter into the process by which we are reconciled to God? I am aware of congregations with long histories of progressive theological witness and missional presence in the communities that are coming unhinged as they confront these questions.

This challenge comes into sharpest focus in classic liturgies for celebrating the eucharist. The words of institution and standard prayers of thanksgiving and consecration say things that grate against some congregants in progressive churches. The conclusion reached by some is that they can conduct the traditional ceremonies with “the bread of heaven” and “the cup of salvation” only if they do away with body and blood language, sacrificial concepts, forgiveness related to the death of Jesus on the cross, and any talk of resurrection that is real.

Later in the year, I intend to address these two challenges—liturgical style and the salvific heart of eucharistic worship. An alternative way of worship in progressive churches requires that they be treated seriously and persuasively.

Bicycle rider in blackberry heaven

August 19, 2010

Somewhere south of Portland–August 13, 2010: Even at a bicyclist’s easy-going pace (eighteen miles an hour), it’s hard to tell when the berries are ready. Clusters that look good as you ride by may have many berries still too tart to enjoy and others already drying up ready to fall to the ground. Even large clumps shimmering in protected pockets may turn out to have so many red or green berries that it is hardly worth the stop.

On Vancouver’s Lower River Road along the Columbia’s north side, some of the patches are low-lying, never producing more than a few good berries. Further out, the stands are more productive. A south-facing stretch rewards cyclists almost the entire season–mid August through mid September–while a half mile deeper into the countryside, west-facing blackberry patches reach the full potential of this species, towering as high as ten feet into the air, with a rich harvest of fruit.

Any time you stop along the road, of course, you have to pay attention to vehicular traffic. One time on Lower River Road, I was way to the side, when some guy driving a gravel truck with trailer, stopped in the middle of the only traffic lane going his direction to tell me I shouldn’t be out there at all because truckers had trouble seeing bikers. My sister-in-law tells me I shouldn’t eat them, “Think of all the fumes they’re subject too, and the DOT sprays sometimes.” Old habits (for me, nearly seventy years deep) are hard to break. Whatever they say, I’m going to be a hunter gatherer (gatherer, anyway).

On US 99W–the Pacific Highway, running from Portland through Corvallis to Junction City–things are different on Friday the thirteenth. For one thing, the paved shoulder is ten, maybe twelve, feet wide, with gravel and grass beyond that. More important, the stands of berries are more luxuriant than I can remember seeing in years. Although they are deeply shaded at 10:00 o’clock (on a day that will see temperatures climb into the upper nineties), it is clear that they receive unimpeded blasts of sunshine through long afternoons and evenings.

If there is an optimum time for these berries at this place, it must be exactly now. Every cluster is covered with berries, most of them at the peak of their sweet ripeness. Nearly all that I pick display the soft white-turning-purple spot where the stem has held them to the vine. None of them show the bloated dullness indicating that they are about to tail off into decrepitude. Few berries are not yet ripe enough to eat.

No one has stopped! No sign that any berries have been eaten by bird, beast, or bicyclist—until now, and I have no way to carry any with me except by eating them.

When I reached my friends’ house an hour later, my mouth was still purple.

When my family moved to western Oregon, in 1941, our place out in the country was well-supplied with wild blackberries, both kinds–Himalayan and evergreen.The evergreen bushes were neater, more like landscape plants, than their Asian cousins, but looks and thorns were about all they had. Never many berries, and certainly none that ever were sweet enough to eat.  But the Himalayans! They always seemed to offer sweet berries as long as anyone wanted to eat. When taken home, they made into pies, tarts, and crisps, filling the air with their deep aroma as they baked.

Imagine my shock thirty years later when I discovered that these blackberries are an invasive plant, an undesirable weed that threatens to crowd out Oregon’s own more subtle natural berries. To my surprise, I also learned that if there is a culprit to blame for giving the nation one of its most invasive species, it is famed, revered Luther Burbank, who in the 1880s lost control of the plant he had imported with such high hopes.

But today, as the sun climbs relentlessly up the skies, I’ll not demean the men and women of past generations for their mistakes. While Burbank’s name will be in my mind, with regrets that the berries that got away from him are so destructive of all things native, I will enjoy this luscious fruit now freely given to all who carefully reach their way past the massive, thorn-studded canes. And I will continue to stop along the highways and byways, beginning in mid-August and continuing as long as I find a few lingering berries, to feast upon this luscious gift.

And when a day’s hard ride is over, I will sometimes stop by a Vancouver-based Burgerville restaurant, for a seasonal shake featuring this delicious fruit: Oregon blackberries at their very, berry best.

But will the theology lead to prayer? That’s the real test!

August 16, 2010

In thirty years of seminary teaching, I attended chapel on campus a thousand times or more. Of all the prayers offered—by professors, students, staff, and campus guests—I remember exactly one: “God, our dear friend Georgia died, far before her time. We don’t understand why, and we want you to know how angry and filled with sorrow we are.”

The raw emotion in these words was one reason why this prayer has stayed in my memory for more than a quarter of a century. Its unconventional form was another. For some who heard the prayer, even more surprising was that it was offered by a professor noted for the hard logic of his process theology with its doctrine of God that defied the ideas that many students and faculty alike had learned in the semi-conservative, naïve Protestantism of our earlier years.

Students were accustomed to hearing that the Whiteheadian God of the classroom was someone you could pray to, but until that day in the chapel some had not believed it. Now they could. We realized more fully than we had before that the test of our theology is not the conventional question “does it preach?” but instead a much more difficult question “does it pray?”

There was nothing new about this kind of prayer. Even if we had not read the literature ourselves, another professor also deeply colored by process thought (even though his discipline was what in those days we still called Old Testament) could have pointed us to the Psalter and to the large body of scholarly literature describing “psalms of lament.” To use the words of Artur Weiser: “In the laments the most profound problems of life are tackled and ultimate decisions are contended for in prayer. The question, age-old yet ever new, of whether, and, if so, in what manner, destiny and God and guilt and destiny are related to each other recurs in many variations and is answered in different ways.” Weiser continues the discussion is his dense academic prose, but his point is important.

The lament is our way to work through the most severe challenges of life at a level that is foundational both to our intellects and to our emotions. Weiser makes it clear that these Hebrew prayers—these laments—lead to “affirmations of trust” and these lead to “psalms of confidence.” They serve as evidence of the creative power and vitality which has been at work in this sphere of Old Testament faith” (The Psalms, 83). They also lead to psalms of thanksgiving, which express the confidence that despite the deep distress, the fear of death, the opposition of enemies, the failures of family and friends, God is present as the one who can be trusted to hear, understand, love, identify with, and ultimately to sustain us through all things.

Prayers of lament are important to Christians today. There is much that goes wrong in the world, much that seems to counter everything that we believe about God and the world which God declared to be good. Our worship becomes authentic—and, in the spirit of this series, we could say unconventional—when we tell God what we think.

In this regard, however, the Psalms are a better example than the prayer of my professor colleague. In the Psalter, the autobiographical details have been subsumed into language that is general enough that all worshipers understand the distress and bewilderment and fear. Similar experiences of their own slip into their emotional consciousness and they, with Paul, find themselves offering prayers in “sighs too deep for words.”

These prayers are completed when our confidence has been restored through lament, confidence, and thanksgiving, and we are able to express prayers of intercession and petition. In these prayers, we reveal our hopes for a world in which sorrow and suffering are overcome and the paradise that God intended becomes a reality.

Prayers of this kind serve as the transition from the believable explanations that our sermons provide to the dramatic rehearsal at the eucharistic table of the world that already has begun and, we dare to believe, will someday—in this age and the next—be all in all.

In order for prayers in public worship to express the depth and range that I am proposing, they have to be prepared with care. People who speak these prayers are lending their mind, heart, and voice to the congregation As best they can, they say to God what they believe the congregation as a whole wants to say. In laments, they remember the suffering of the days just past, and in prayers of confidence and hopeful anticipation, they ask that the powers for life, which show forth most fully in Jesus Christ, crucified and triumphant over the grave, will drive away the despair and reestablish trust and hope.

The only theology worth preaching in progressive churches is a theology that is fulfilled in prayer.

Preaching that makes a difference

August 9, 2010

Is it true? Do I believe it? Will my people believe it? Even if it is true, what difference does it make?

I first encountered these four questions in a book that H. Grady Davis published near the end of a career that had included two decades as pastor and two decades as professor of preaching in a seminary that later became part of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

For many of us of liberal theological persuasion, the first three questions are especially important, especially at a time when conservative theologies abound. When many people reject Christian faith because of its apparent anti-intellectualism, preachers in progressive churches try to speak a positive, believable message.

We work at this in at least four ways: 1) Discount, deny, or argue against the ideas and practices which we think are inadequate; 2) Extract from the biblical record or theological tradition those kernels of truth that we think can be believed and practiced by people today; 3) Ignore the archaic or unbelievable elements, even if they include central elements of the biblical tradition, and replace them with elements from our own time; 4) Develop each  text in the light of the major Christian story. Each of these methods can be useful to the work of preaching and probably are used by nearly all preachers along the liberal-conservative continuum.

As preachers in progressive churches, however, we face a special occupational hazard. By emphasizing the first three questions, we may neglect the fourth: even if true, what difference does this message make in the lives of the people who have come to church today? As long ago as the 1930s, Charles Clayton Morrison addressed this question in a long-forgotten book, The Social Gospel and the Christian Cultus, stating that when we restate the gospel in a new form, such as the psychology of religion, we had accomplished only “a clever trick of legerdemain.” In the process, we have lost the gospel.

In a perceptive essay, “Towards a Definition of the Church’s Liturgy,” Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., pointed out “that piety and devotion in the act of worship again and again exhibit a richer doctrine than does the exposition of the theologian. A congregation in worship senses a Real Presence which its confessional theologian often denies in his systematic treatises. In prayer and hymn it confesses a discernment of spiritual realities which the dogmatician may rationalize out of existence.”

Substitute “preacher” for “dogmatician” and we have a clear statement of the tendency for preaching in progressive churches. Our preaching is described as too  intellectual, fixated on ideas rather than experience, stodgy and boring. Having listened to a lot of sermons in sixty years of every-Sunday church going, I know that the accusations often are correct.

Fortunately, however, many sermons in progressive worship do focus on the life-giving center of the gospel text and on the difference that this can make. On every Sunday in progressive churches, including those intended to be something other services, the work of preachers is to speak the central story of God’s love in Jesus Christ so that people can understand and experience it. Just as we translate the gospels from Greek to the vernacular speech of people in the worshiping assembly, so we search for metaphors and ideas from the cultural world in which the preacher and congregants live to translate the Word of God into the words of the people.

My effort to understand this translating process draws upon the work of sociologist Peter Berger and historian Diana Butler Bass. (See my paper entitled “Fluid Retraditioning.”) Berger uses Friedrich Schleiermacher as the prototype for the inductive process that he recommends.

This same scholar, usually considered the progenitor of modern theology, is also invoked by C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen in their book Rerouting the Protestant Main Stream. They describe one group of mainstream churches that are growing, referring to them as “spiritually oriented.” These churches “draw from the best of liberal mainstream tradition and provide a compelling alternative to the evangelical mode of congregational vitality.” They also are “a compelling alternative” to mainline Protestant churches that spend most of their time diagnosing and prescribing while simultaneously minimizing the time they devote to proclaiming, professing, and experiencing.

While the something other service may use other forms of gospel proclamation, including drama, dialogue, and demonstration, the solo voice of a preacher will continue to be the most often heard. May its message speak the living Word of God to people in a way that gives life to all who hear it.

Major Taylor: The World’s Fastest Human Being

August 5, 2010

“The world’s fastest human being”—that’s how Marshall “Major” Taylor was acclaimed by people around the world a century ago. He earned the title because of his powerful kick and blinding speed on the oval tracks that dominated competitive cycling in the years when the “safety bicycle” with pneumatic tires had replaced the high-wheel ordinaries as the machine of choice.

I stumbled across Major’s autobiography in the mid 1970s in the Indianapolis Public Library on St. Clair Street across from the Indiana War Memorial. New to cycling as a serious activity for serious adults, I was eagerly reading serious books on the subject and to my delight found not only Major’s narrative but also Dervla Murphy’s first bicycle book in which she told about bicycling from Ireland to India soon after the close of World War II.

One of the reasons why the Major Taylor autobiography interested me was the fact that he had grown up in Indianapolis, the same city in which I lived. That an African American kid from my town could rise to such international prominence as a cyclist was a source of considerable satisfaction to me, especially since many evidences of the city’s history of racist attitudes and practices could still be seen.

I remember three things about Taylor’s autobiography: 1) It made considerable use of news reports, stitched together with the author’s own account of what was taking place; 2) The story was dominated by his achievements despite the determined efforts by competitors to keep this black man from having a chance to win; and 3) Taylor’s deep sense of personal integrity and determination showed through.

Todd Balf is to be commended for retelling the story. In his book Major, he provides a richly detailed account of the social context within which the drama of Taylor’s life took place, with the result that the remarkable character of his achievements can be seen and appreciated more fully. Balf details some of the break throughs that Taylor achieved in those early days of cycling before training patterns were understood and when the bicycles themselves and the competitive venues were still in a relatively primitive state of being.

Especially distressing to me is the detail that Balf gives of the blatant character of racist practice and the blood lust that seemed to dominate the spectator world, especially in the six-day races that were widespread. It is painful to read about the way that promoters would play the race card, pitting white and black cyclist against one another, almost as though the honor of the white race depended upon the its ability to best people of color in public spectacles.

Fortunately,Taylor was befriended by people who recognized his ability and character. They supported him as a person and as an internationally acclaimed cyclist. While this support in no way diminished Taylor’s own achievement, it provided the enabling structure that to an even greater degree in our own time makes possible the achievements of the great cyclists on the world scene.

Balf also fills in much of the detail of Taylor’s personal life. Especially interesting to me is his conversion to a strong, demanding version of Christian faith and the effect that this had upon his cycling career. Also important is the nuanced accounting of the courtship and married life of Major Taylor and Daisy Morris.

Toward the end of his book, Balf describes how racism continued to be presence in Indiana into recent times, with special focus upon the Little 500 bicycle race that has long been an annual event at Indiana University. Only during the past decade has Team Major Taylor become a vehicle for redeeming the IU event in Bloomington. Across the nation Team Major Taylor cycling clubs have extended that influence.

I have often noted that rarely does one find African Americans participating in the cycling events I enjoy. Despite the achievements of Major Taylor a century ago, cycling is an athletic activity and socializing practice that has not yet opened itself to widespread participation by people of color. I hope that Todd Balf’s book will not only lift high the record of the first American to attain international acclaim as a competitive cyclist, but that it will also make cycling a genuinely inter-racial way of life.

In progressive worship, why read from the Bible?

August 1, 2010

“Why read stories from the Bible that come from a different time and context, when there are equally inspiring current stories? Why not just describe modern events that embody the same virtues?”

Sooner or later, people interested in an alternative way of worship for progressive churches have to address this question (which was asked in a comment on one of my June columns). Although acknowledging that Bible stories may be inspiring and value-laden, the questioner implicitly faults the Bible because it comes from a different time and context. For some readers, especially in progressive churches, a more serious objection to the Bible is that many of its historical narratives, moral codes, wisdom writings, and theological interpretations are, to borrow a word from Paul’s writings, scandalous.

For an answer, I am turning to a remarkable essay, “The Words and Music of Social Change,” in which Robert Coles explains why we quote things when we get together. He describes what happened in Oxford, Ohio, when several hundred college students were being trained by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to spend the summer of 1964 working in the Mississippi Summer Project. Learning that three students already in the Delta had disappeared and were presumed dead, the students came together in the large open space in front of the college chapel.

Even though they had been told to bring only essentials for the summer, they pulled from their backpacks all kinds of books and music. “In a moment of fear, of decision, of social struggle,” Coles reports, “I saw books, inert books (and symphonies and post cards from this or that museum) become—well, if it has to be said that way, ‘relevant’ and ‘useful.’” They spent the night reading to one another, singing, grasping hands, embracing. Their fear transformed into resolve, they steeled themselves for what some suspected would be not only their first but also their last trip to the South.

In his interpretation of this event, Coles plays out the importance of the humanities because they distill the experiences and wisdom of people who are wrestling with the deepest issues of life. While his essay deals broadly with a wide range of literature, music, and art, it is clear that in his own experience (and of many others described in the essay) the Bible is preeminent among these wisdom-laden books. It is the book with which Christian conversation always begins. It provides a set of stories, interpretations, commands, and promises that all Christians hold in common, argue about, mix together in various ways, profess, sometimes reject, and which to some degree shape everything else that we read and incorporate into our lives of faith.

While the entire Bible ought to be studied with historical, theological, and devotional methods, some sections are more suited than others for use in public worship. The Bible is a grand epic, which in highly stylized ways, portrays the story of God’s interaction with the world, a story that begins with creation and continues with the establishing of humankind in God’s own image.

This epic tells of God’s work in history, especially with the people of Israel, and reaches its climax in Jesus of Nazareth in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20). The Bible’s grand narrative anticipates a time, in this world and the next, when all of God’s intentions for the world and its peoples will be fulfilled.

This dramatic narrative takes time to tell, which is the underlying principle in the year-long pattern used by many churches to determine which parts of the Bible to read in their weekly services of worship. I have long been persuaded that “the ecumenical hermeneutic of the three-year lectionary,” to borrow the words of Fritz West, makes sense. Sundays feature a sequential reading of the four gospels and provide additional readings from the biblical canon that serve as a commentary on the principal text.

While these words all by themselves bring us the Word of God, their efficacy is greatly enhanced by the way they are read, by the music and devotions that surround the reading, and by the interpretation—whether in silent pondering, sermon, discussion, other readings from non-biblical sources, or dramatic-musical form.

Many ideas about “what the Bible teaches” are rooted in a selective literalism that is increasingly problematic for people of our time, especially in progressive churches. Thoughtful interpretation, however, provides a way to connect the ancient word with the progressive faith that sustains many people in churches today. The privilege–and challenge–that comes to pastors today is to provide that interpretation. In an earlier column, I have described the kind of sermons I like to hear. In my next column, I will continue this discussion of proclaiming a faith-filled word in Christian worship.