“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.