Confessions of a prose-oriented, poetry-challenged Bible reader

October 14, 2013

For 75 years I have used the Bible as a guide for understanding life and a manual for living in an ethical and constructive way. I read it privately and in public ceremonies, and I base many of my public presentations on excerpts chosen from this set of ancient religious documents.

What I have never learned to do, however, is to love the Bible, to feast upon the Word, as many people say they do. I recognized this inability while listening to Bonnie Bowman Thurston’s 2013 Turner Lectures in Yakima, Washington in early October. Bowman is a recognized, much published scholar whose writings combine technical biblical scholarship and a thorough knowledge of contemplative spirituality.

Two of her lectures focused directly upon long-practiced ways of reading the Bible that move beyond the explicit meaning of texts so that metaphorical and mystical meanings are perceived and experienced. “Can all parts of the Bible, even the bloody narratives in Judges, be used this way?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered, “although it takes longer for the richer insights to arise when one is reading problematic portions like Judges and Leviticus.”

Immediately following the lectures, I spent several days in the home of a daughter and her Old Testament/Hebrew Bible husband. A new book on the coffee table—Joshua and Judges, edited by Athalya Brenner and Gale A. Yee—helped me continue my reflections on how to read and understand the Bible. This book is part of a series that explores “Texts in/at Life Contexts.”

Because of my Finnish ancestry, I immediately turned to an essay entitled “The Finns’ Holy War against the Soviet Union: The Use of War Rhetoric in Finnish History during the Second World War.” I remember listening to radio accounts of that war when I was ten years old and also remember how proud I felt as I heard of the exploits of the people in the homeland of my mother’s family.

The essay shows how the Finns found new non-historical meanings in their reading of the Old Testament book of Judges. The essayist, Kari Latvus, however, dissents. He quotes another scholar, Marti Nissinen: “Religion can give rise to visions of peace and reconciliation, but it can also become ‘evil’: God can be invoked for the purpose of violent pursuits.”

Latvus then concludes his essay: “Following these lines, it is possible to say that using God-talk in the way it was done during the Second World War in Finland was simply a misunderstanding: Holy Wars do not exist.”

Another of my son-in-law’s books was Preaching on Judges by Joseph R. Jeter, Jr. He outlines five methods for interpreting the book, noting, however, that he had been warned against all of them by his professors when he was in school. Jeter then observes that all of these methods, with “scholarly names,” are now generally accepted.

He quotes Danna Nolan Fewell: “This does not mean that a text can say anything that a reader wants it to say. Texts have rights, too. Texts have constraints.” Jeter concludes that while they have this responsibility to the text, preachers  also have a responsibility for their people. “If they cannot process the text in its raw form, or if they cannot hear the gospel through a traditional sermon, we may need to reread or recraft or both.”

Since the love of holy books and practices of reading them contemplatively for meanings that lie beyond the words themselves are well-authenticated realities in religious life, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or other world religions, my pragmatic, pay-attention-to-what-it-says attitude is the anomaly.

It started when I was six years old, listening to my father reading Bible stories before we went to bed. I could not believe that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt and remained there until this day, as the paraphrased story worded it. At the traditionalist little church we attended, I learned a plenary inspiration, literal meaning understanding of the Bible, but it didn’t take.

In high school English classes, I chafed when teachers showed us how to read poetry so that inner meanings would gradually emerge—meanings that even the poets had not intended and might not even be able to understand.

I know that many of the world’s spiritual giants and many of its most effective activists have been shaped by their reading beyond the texts of their holy books. For their devotion and contributions to the well-being of the world, I give thanks.

But as a prose-oriented, poetry challenged reader, I am bound to what the texts actually say. I parse them to derive the writers’ intensions. I look for underlying principles that extend beyond the immediate context. I affirm some texts as constructive and others as misrepresentations of God’s character and will.

Maybe that’s a flat place to be, but after all these years of reading the Bible, this is where my theological and religious life is firmly rooted and likely to remain.

To find a way of “double belonging”

October 4, 2013

During the 1970s nine Protestant churches at the center of American life were developing a plan that would have blended them into a new church adapted to the post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights Movement era that was emerging. One step in the process was for each of these churches to declare that it recognized the baptisms performed in the other churches as valid baptism and membership in any of their churches as membership in the one, true Church of Christ.

In order to explore what this declaration meant in practical terms, a consultation was scheduled in which theologians and historians from the churches could talk things over. In preparation for the meeting, the General Secretary of the unity organization, Gerald F. Moede, PhD, prepared an extended document entitled “Ecumenical Pressure and the Mutual Recognition of Baptism/Membership.”

He states his purposes clearly: “to study the findings [on mutual recognition of baptism and membership] thus far revealed, and to ask what these findings imply for the future.”

Moede’s own scholarly work in classic writings on ecclesiology, his studies of the emergence of the Methodist Church, and current writings by Roman Catholic scholars Joseph Eagan and Avery Dulles were woven together in this analysis of the ecclesiology of American churches.

He wrote that two classic types had come together in the North American context. The church type had historically meant (quoting Ronald E. Osbon) “one official religious institution in alliance with the state. In the same way that one was born a subject of the realm, one was born a member of the Christian community.” Moede comments that in this system, “marginal and ‘active’ members differ in their fervor or commitment, but are, in the dogmatic sense, equally members.”

In the sect type, the church is understood as a voluntary association. “The very life of the sect depends on actual personal service and cooperation.” Moede quotes H. Richard Niebuhr who pointed out that “voluntaristic theories, both of government and theology, filtered into the American mind in a way that produced as many new churches as movements; there developed the tendency for parties which state churches in Europe had held together to organize now as separate denominations.”

What has emerged, especially in America where freedom of religion is a basic principle, is the denomination with characteristics that are drawn from both church and sect models and with others that are “different from either Church or sect. In some respects it has combined the weakness of each of its predecessors.

The established churches of Europe tended to become sectarian on American soil, while the sects became full-fledged churches.” The result is that all of the churches have to win “adherents by persuasion, revival, and nurture” and necessarily depend upon “the loyalty and activity of its members for ministerial support, institutional growth, and mission outreach, thus usually setting rather sharp lines between those who were in and who were not.”

In all of the churches in his unity organization, Moede concludes, vestiges of church-type and sect-type remain, and these “must be identified and questioned in a uniting church.”

He points to the hardening of juridical structures. Initially, Christian “fellowship is perceived more in a mystical-organic fashion, with fluid, relatively unstructured relationships pervading the group. . . . But with an apparent inexorability, fellowship needs and builds structure, governance is necessary, a juridical organization grows out of the original organism becoming in the process, more ecclesiocentric than christocentric.”

Moede comments that it is highly ironic that after the churches represented at the consultation had reached agreement on theological issues, matters of organization were keeping them separated. His question bears far more urgency that the simple words can convey: “How are we to move beyond this impasse?

In answering his own question, Moede draws upon the language of Catholic theologian Avery Dulles. “The Church is a manifold entity; it contains both mystical and societal elements; koinonia always exists in the form of a politeia.

What the recognition of baptism/members intends to do is open up what have become exclusive polities by agreeing that we are truly members one of another, based upon our baptism.” Our challenge is to find a way to be faithful to our communion in the one body of Christ that exists always and everywhere, the body into which we were incorporated by our baptism, without having to deny the variant of Christ’s body in which we live.

“To find a way of ‘double belonging’! This is the need that mutual recognition of baptism/membership addresses.” Later in his paper, Moede offers suggestions that could express this double belonging: joint confirmation services, dual membership, ecumenical baptisms, transformed liturgical rites, simultaneous membership in several congregations, and intermingling of juridical and bureaucratic systems of the churches.

Moede concludes his paper by acknowledging that he was keeping the pressure on his colleagues in the unity movement. His closing words were a quotation from Karl Barth: “Better something doubtful or over-bold, and therefore in need of forgiveness, than nothing at all . . .”