Note To The Reader: This is the first post in a series of musings on being honest about the Bible, especially as a pastor. To keep things simple, each post will have thoughts about only one aspect of the Bible and its use in our congregations.
For many years I have taught an undergrad course in the Bible, mostly to freshman as part of a required run of classes within the College of Biblical Studies at the university. Mine is also the first class students take within that required list, making it their first academic engagement with the Bible. This has given me a front row seat in watching students learn new things (and often disorienting things) about the design and storyline of the Scriptures. The experience has also informed the way I think about the role of the Bible in the local parish, and about the mistakes we pastors have made in how we so often present its stories and teachings and messages to our people. Furthermore, and most uncomfortably, there are ways that our presentation of the Bible has been the cause of all sorts of confusion, disillusionment, and, in many cases, of people giving up on it altogether. Our willingness to be honest and upfront with our people about the Bible just may be a positive way forward. And so, what follows is the first of a run of personal epiphanies that I’ve experienced in being both an instructor of the Bible to college students and also as a pastor of a local parish.
No. 1 – The Bible Is Complicated
My running joke is that the Bible shouldn’t be read without supervision. The reason is simple: the Bible is quite complicated. Yes, there are running themes and storylines throughout the Bible that help us latch on to its overall purpose(s) – which can help us survive the journey – but when we read closer and more attentively we find ourselves dealing with very complicated writings.
It reminds me of the beginning of each new semester when I have students open to Genesis 1:1-2:3 and instruct them to count the words (in the Hebrew version), to find the repeated words and phrases, to see if they can “see” the patterns and even graph the story. There’s also the work of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 alongside the much older Babylonian creation story – Enuma Elish (“When God On High”) – and to compare the similarities and differences of the two stories, and to begin to figure out what the writer of the Genesis creation story may have been trying to accomplish.
It gets complicated. Students find themselves swept up in a current of study that pushes them well beyond the familiar shores of simple devotions and sermon series. They’re thinking now. They’re processing past understandings. There’s an un-learning that’s taking place.
The role of preaching in many traditions has become a sales pitch to get people on the right side of eternal history, and a sales pitch is famously simplistic by design: here’s the problem, here’s the solution, sign here. To be fair, these three ideas do run through the pages of the Bible. It does not hide its belief that the world is broken, that God is working to bring healing, and that all people are welcome to join in the work and the life of God here and now, and forevermore. (There is a great line from Duke University professor and theologian Stanley Hauerwas that reads: “Jesus is Lord, and everything else is bullshit.” I will talk about this in a future post!)
A lot can be said about the limitations of preaching and its inabilities to house all the necessary elements needed to gain a fuller understanding of the Bible. And that may not be preaching’s role anyway – it may instead be but a piece of the fuller liturgy, a thing that leads us to the Eucharist where we see and hear and taste the Gospel once again.
- What we can do, however, is help create a parish environment where hard questions about the Bible are welcomed and embraced, and also where we provide educational spaces for people to engage with the Scriptures at various levels.
- We can also be honest from the pulpit and name the ways that the church has gotten certain passages wrong and how it has used those in destructive ways.
- We can do a better job at pointing out the different genres that exist within the Bible’s writings, teaching our people how to understand the differences of application between poetry, parable, history, apocalypse, prophecy, wisdom writings, correspondence (the epistles), and the Jesus biographies.
- We can invite professors in to lead workshops on various topics related to the Bible.
- We can provide reading lists and theological essays for people to access.
- We can get better at saying, “I don’t know.”
The Bible tells a wonderful story, but it is also wonderfully complicated. As preachers we can learn to take complicated things and say them simply, but with enough depth to shine a light on those untraveled paths of learning that many have been afraid to take. And that begins with us.
“There is perhaps hardly a theological student who has not been earnestly and emphatically warned by some pious soul against the dubious undertaking taking of approaching Holy Scripture with scientific tools, against studying all “doubtful questions,” and against casting himself into the arms of that omnivorous octopus, the unbelieving professor. Here I need only to appeal to your memories. What lies at the root of these warnings, these anxieties of the quiet in the land that forever trouble us?”
– Helmut Thielicke –