In progressive worship, why read from the Bible?

“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.

7 Responses to In progressive worship, why read from the Bible?

  1. joel says:

    I guess I had always simply taken for granted that we read scripture in worship. I was a bit uneasy about the assumption by the commentor that we read scripture only because it contains inspirational stories. Hosea chapter 1, which was the OT reading two weeks ago, provides a notable counter-example.

    Thanks for the reminder that we read scripture because it is our common story.

  2. Bob Cornwall says:


    As one whose own “evangelical” and even episcopal roots values strongly the witness of scripture, I do appreciate this clear statement as to its value to Christian worship. Indeed, that it is the very place where the conversation starts!

  3. roy donkin says:

    Bob (and Keith), my roots are also evangelical (a good place to be from), but I would question whether that tradition really “strongly values the witness of scripture” at least in its current incarnation. As you noted in your blog, often those from that tradition who talk about “Biblical preaching” are really only talking about proof texting. That does not imply seriously valuing anything to me. I am struck when I visit many of the megachurches to find that no scripture is even read. Instead we hear about the “10 ways God wants you to have a better sex life” with a few quotations from scripture pulled out of context and applied where they do not really pertain.
    It is interesting that Rabbi Rami has a recent post on similar questions and I made an entry on my blog as well.

  4. Thanks for this Keith – it is a helpful reminder of the place of Scripture in our worship, and I appreciate the clear way you affirm the Scriptures as both a book of the people of faith and the narrative of God’s work among God’s people through the ages.

    I often refer to worship as intimacy with God. Intimacy can be defined as ‘mutual self-disclosure’ consisting of 3 elements: your story (attentive listening), my story (vulnerable sharing) and history (the continued process of deep interaction over time). In worship we do this work with God, and the Scriptures are the best vehicle for us to hear God’s story in order to be brought into an experience of God’s grace and presence.

    I expand this in my book – which I will be sending to you this week.

    Thanks again.

    • John, I am looking forward to the book and intend to put it high up on my reading list. Your three elements of intimacy, as related to the biblical text, remind me of some material written several years ago (I think by David Power) along similar lines but related to the eucharistic prayer. Thanks to your comment, I now will look this up in the likelihood that it will influence my discussion at that point in this series.

  5. eirenetheou says:

    Some of us read from the Bible in worship because our faith is founded in it — indeed, we found in the Bible our faith that we have in the God that we worship. We do not now understand the Bible or any of its stories or pronouncements in the way that we did when we began reading it, but as our understanding of its contents has grown, so also we have come to value the Bible more and more.

    Where should we find the “modern stories” that would “embody the same virtues” as the stories we find in the Bible? Do we look for them in the New York Times or — God forbid! — watch CNN? Where in the modern world shall we find a text that pronounces and explains the love of God, the promises of God, or the judgment of God, that is not derived from the Bible?

    The Bible is not merely a collection of ancient stories about human “virtue” (or, more often, human folly), but it contains testimony to the love and faithfulness of the God whom we gather to worship, “progressively” or otherwise. We gather to worship God, not ourselves; the Bible tells us why.

    God’s Peace to you.


    • Don, I especially appreciate your observation that our understanding of the Bible changes over the years and that our appreciation of the Bible deepens. You are certainly right when you say that the Bible’s importance to us rests in the fact it tells us one story, the story of God’s love, rather than stories. Unfortunately, it is easy to focus so much on the stories that we miss the story.

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