Taking the Bible seriously: John Thomas
Here is John Thomas' paper delivered at the Dunkirk Colloquy on October 10, 2000. Thomas is General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.
Gary Dorsey is a journalist who spent a year watching, living with, and eventually growing to be a part of a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut. In his book about the experience titled, Congregation: The Journey Back to Church, he includes many delightful observations of the pastor and people of this ordinary and remarkable church. One Sunday morning, peering down from the balcony, he described the preacher as follows:
His hearing aid sounded off like a pitch pipe at times, and one Sunday. . . I noticed him speaking from a set of notes all typed in red. I realized that his jackhammer typing style finally had frayed the black ribbon on his Olympia, and rather than spending a dollar to replace it, he had jumped the cartridge to pound on the red side alone, making every word look like the scarlet verse of Jesus.
I may read Dorsey saying more than he intended, but his observation, playfully joining the preacher?s eccentricities with those familiar red letter editions of the Bible, provides me with a good starting point. Sometimes, here and there, now and then, when the preacher, accompanied by the Spirit, is able to take the Biblical text seriously enough, as well as the gathered community seriously enough, what emerges is not merely an oration, or a set of moral platitudes, or a ringing call to action, but the presence of the living Word itself, to which the Bible always points, but which it can never quite contain.
Many years before Dorsey, a more traditional theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, put it this way:
I am sure you will gladly testify, dear friends, that from the time you received the milk of the gospel in your first instruction in Christianity, right up until the present day, every such encounter with scripture was like a new, joyous, and powerful appearance of the Lord himself.
Schleiermacher?s enthusiasm may sound like wishful thinking to ears assaulted by the noise of our secular world at the dawn of a new century. Far too often in our own experience the Lord fails to appear, at least in ways that seem fresh, joyous, and powerful, and the scarlet verse remains what at one level it always is, the product of the eccentricities of pastors who are no better than the Christians sitting in the pews waiting for the concluding ?amen? that never seems to come soon enough! But a church that takes the Bible seriously always expects more, and sometimes receives it, which in the midst of our jaded world view and its scientific straightjacket is news that comes as a marvelous surprise, perhaps even as the Gospel itself. Like the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus, belief is mixed with unbelief, and even the skilled Biblical interpretation of the mysterious stranger does little to overcome cynicism in the face of dashed hopes and human tragedy . . . until. Until something happens and we get what we hadn?t quite dared to expect - the red type truly becomes the scarlet verse of Jesus, and the Lord himself appears with fresh, joyous power. So that the first word about taking the Bible seriously is expectation - approaching the text expecting more than mere written text, more than bare words to confront us. And while there is much more to be said about taking the Bible seriously in our day, perhaps this is the greatest challenge of all.
According to the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Church of Christ, ?we look to the word of God in the scriptures.? Another way to say this is that our expectation is an honoring of the Bible?s ?transparency.? Frederick Buechner uses the image of a picture window to describe this task:
If you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where Junior?s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond. Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
In the line of the familiar hymn, ?Break now the bread of life,? we sing, ?beyond the sacred page, I seek you Lord.? Not apart from, but beyond or through the sacred page we seek the Lord and sometimes see God?s face. Taking the Bible seriously means recognizing its transparency, expecting to see beyond mere text to the mysterious presence. It is to see the Bible not as the ultimate object of faith in a kind of fundamentalist biblicism, nor as mere literature expressing pious religious themes or fixed moral values be they liberal or conservative, but as the penultimate instrument of mediation through which the ultimate living Word encounters us full of challenge, comfort, judgment, grace and truth. Encounters us, I hasten to emphasize, because this transparency works both ways, and allows the Word to ?see us for what we really are,? to see ?the depths of ourselves? as Buechner puts it.
To read the Bible expectantly, honoring its transparency, enables us to avoid what Walter Brueggemann and many others warn us about:
To say that the Bible mediates God is not to say that the Bible ?hands God over? to the reading community as possession or as prisoner. The reading community has been wont, on occasion, to imagine that it possessed or imprisoned the God of the Bible. Such a self-deception takes a Protestant form in bibliolatry and a Catholic form in magisterial infallibility.
Not only does this violate what Brueggemann describes as the ?elusive, odd character? of Yahweh which defies human definition, it also enables those in power, those in the ecclesial center, to use the Bible to violate or exploit those at the margins, an all too familiar approach to the Bible in our own day, an approach which, in the end, is far more cavalier than it is serious.
Both divine revelation and human disclosure
To begin taking the Bible seriously, then, is to approach it expectantly, to honor its transparency, and to discover that it not only discloses Yahweh, God, the Word made flesh, it also strips us bare before that same Word to portray us in all our grandeur and all our depravity. So in a peculiar way, the Bible is both divine revelation and human disclosure. Beyond the sacred page we seek you Lord. Yet beyond the sacred page, from the other side we might say, God also seeks us, and in so doing allows us to look over God?s shoulder, as it were, to see ourselves as God sees us. But in order to do this, we must first read the Bible, or perhaps better, we must listen to the Bible.
Taking the Bible seriously means to read it. This may sound like an incredibly mundane stating of the obvious, the kind of comment that elicits from our teenagers the marvelous rejoinder, ?Duh!? In one sense, of course, we do read the Bible. We read it in order to preach about it. We read it in order to seek answers to troubling question. We read it in order to justify our opinions, wielding it against our theological or ecclesial enemies like the ?sword? it used to be called in some conservative Christian circles. In other words, far too often our reading of the Bible is really an effort to make use of the Bible, and in the process the Bible tends to lose its transparency, becoming opaque or worse, a kind of mirror reflecting nothing more than our own devices and desires. The reading that takes the Bible seriously is of another sort altogether. It is a kind of attentiveness to the narrative in its broad sweep, and to its text in all its intricate detail, that makes of the Bible more of a companion than a tool, something we listen to, attend to long before there is anything we can ?do? with it, and long after its ?usefulness? has become dated. Jews catch something of this spirit in their worship when the scroll is taken from its place and paraded, even danced around the sanctuary like a long lost friend. The worshipers move to touch it, sometimes to kiss it. There is nothing magical in the mood; the scroll is no talisman. It is a friend to be embraced, a voice to be honored. ?In this scroll is the secret of our people?s life from Sinai until now,? the liturgy announces as the Torah is taken from the Ark. ?Its teaching is love and justice, goodness and hope. Freedom is its gift to all who treasure it.? ?Shema Yisrael. Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God, the Lord is One! Our God is One; our Lord is great; holy is God?s name.?
Justo Gonz?lez suggests another dimension of the reading we are called to engage in when he describes the reading that takes place Sunday after Sunday in churches in poor barrios throughout the Western hemisphere. Unlike the modern historical critical reading, and the fundamentalist reaction to it, the reading he describes retains ?a sense,? he says, ?of the activity of God, of the openness of the universe, of the possibility of mystery.? In this reading the ?future is in control,? which means life, and the text, is ?constantly open to surprise, to astonishment, to real and radical revolution.? A reading that is ?open to astonishment? is how Gonz?lez puts it, an astonishment that
allows Hispanics today to read Scripture with a profound sense of connection with the people who actually wrote the text. We are well aware of the geographical and cultural distances that stand between us and the original writers and readers. But we leap across the distance by sharing a sense of astonishment, a sense of openness to God?s activity, that was very much part of the writing and the intended reading of the text.
This astonishment does not rule out close, critical readings of the text, and does not react in a fundamentalist form of literalism. But it moves beyond the modern reading to encounter the astonishment of the writers who themselves have been encountered by the amazing and liberating future of God.
Those who take the Bible seriously have grown acquainted with it, befriended it and like any good friend, look for it to tell them the truth, the hard truth, the whole truth, astonishing truth, the Gospel truth. The friend is not there to be used, manipulated or wielded like a set of tools or an armory of weapons. Nor is the friend there to lock the present into a comfortable and secure past. This ?friend,? this text is there to be heard, listened to, attended, embraced. Buechner, in his Beecher lectures at Yale, speaks of the prophet-preachers of the Bible. ?What do they say?? he asks.
They say things that are relevant, lacerating, profound, beautiful, spine-chilling, and more besides. They put words to both the wonder and the horror of the world, and the words can be looked up in the dictionary or the biblical commentary and can be interpreted, passed on, understood, but because these words are poetry, are image and symbol as well as meaning, are sound and rhythm, maybe above all are passion, they set echoes going the way a choir in a great cathedral does, only it is we who become the cathedral and in us that the words echo.
Truth echoes for those who take the Bible seriously. The truth of a God who knows what it means for a parent to see a beloved child go off to a far country, cut himself off from parents, squander opportunity and betray parental trust, and yet in the midst of all of that to stand at the door wanting only to embrace. The truth of an aging Sarah who has suffered all manner of indignity including her barrenness, a condition which seems only to mock the divine promise, yet a woman still ready to be told in the most unimaginable way that God remains faithful to God?s promise. The truth of Job whose life is destroyed before his eyes and who must then suffer the foolish advice of friends before discovering that God wants us not only to be faithful, but perhaps also to rail against the injustice of it all, even against the Creator of it all. The truth of a Jonah who cannot bear to offer the word of judgment for fear that it will be heeded, leaving the hated enemy spared. The truth of David, grown bored with governance, finding himself consumed by lust for Bathsheba and setting off a sequence of murder and lies that follow his dynasty from one generation to the next. The truth of a people liberated and of exiles sustained. The truth of a woman so overwhelmed with devotion for Jesus that she is willing to risk propriety and expose herself to criticism by anointing him in an act of extravagant intimacy. The truth of a man touted to be tough as nails and resolute as the rock he bears for a name, yet who finds himself weeping for the ease with which he denied what he had pledged to follow. The truth of bones living and of streets like gemstones lined with trees whose fruit is for the healing of the nations. The truth of a God who becomes vulnerable to the point of sharing in solidarity our deepest sorrow and being inflicted by the most profound wounds that our own journey into death might not be the last word and might never be traveled alone.
But what do we do?
None of this tells us exactly what we must do in a given circumstance. None of it enables us to definitively sort out the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy. It won?t solve our dilemmas over homosexuality or abortion or euthanasia or genetic engineering or the economy. In other words, none of it is terribly ?useful.? Indeed, it is often more like a confusing cacophony of conflicting testimony or, as Brueggemann puts it, of ?core testimony and countertestimony,? of ?hiddenness, ambiguity, and negativity.? It simply tells us the truth about the way we are with ourselves and with each other, the way we are with God, and above all the way God is with us. And those who take the Bible seriously hold these texts that issue forth in echoing voices like a companion, a friend, who means more than anyone or anything else because this friend tells us the truth. A companion, yes, but never an easy one, for the God, the Word seen through its transparency, who sees us through its transparency, is often, to use Brueggemann?s language, ?the Wild One who lives at the center of Israel?s life, who in sovereign severity will dispense with Israel and who with impervious resolve will begin again.?
To take the Bible seriously is to read the Bible before, or perhaps rather instead of, quickly rushing to make use of the Bible. We are, to use the old Reformed language, ?servants of the Word,? not masters of the Word, because the Bible is quite literally ?out of control.? Again, Brueggemann?s colorful rhetoric presses the point, summarizing in a recent article what he exhaustively articulates in his Old Testament theology:
The preacher stands up to make utterance about this odd, problematic God in a society that is flattened in a-theism, and has on her hands a quality of the irascible, the elusive, and the polyvalent. Almost none of this, moreover, is available to or recognized among most of our listeners. Because it is too unsettling and difficult, we tend to fall back on more familiar ground of safe practices, blessed ideologies, scholastic closures, or liberal crusades. Don?t we all!
Tamed. Proof-texted. The living Word is often preached to death and used to distraction, our own distraction that is, because we would rather be distracted from the truth not only about God but also about ourselves that this transparent text reveals. Read the Bible expectantly, honoring its transparency. And read the Bible, listening, attending, as one might attend a dear companion who can always be counted on to tell the truth.
Taking seriously the origins of the text
John de Gruchy, a Reformed theologian writing out of the context of the struggle for liberation in South Africa, offers a third dimension of what it means to take the Bible seriously, which is to recognize that ?the spectacles of Scripture require the eyes of social victims.? ?We need,? he writes, ?the spectacles of the victims of society in order to discern the liberating and living Word in Scripture itself.? This should come as no surprise; a serious reading or interpretation ought to take seriously the origins of the text itself which is to be found primarily within the experience of the enslaved, the nomad, the exile, the peasant, the imprisoned, and the persecuted and which is, for Christians, ultimately articulated from a center that can only be found in the Christ of Calvary, the Crucified One dying outside the gates. Without these ?spectacles? a kind of demonic and dangerous nearsightedness almost always occurs. Thus we are shamed by a history of entrenched white economic interests reading support in the text for slavery; we are humbled by the remembrance of powerful colonial interests reading support in the Bible for the physical, spiritual, and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples; we are confronted by the memory of Christendom in the West reading support for anti-Semitism in the text; we have men reading support in the text for the subordination and silencing of women. And on and on it goes.
I am not suggesting that there can be no serious, legitimate, or faithful interpretation of Scripture by those whose social location allows them to occupy the cultural centers, in other words by folk like most of you or like me. Nor would I suggest that those at the margin always get it right. The same Reformed tradition to which de Gruchy appeals in his argument would remind us of the need to have a healthy regard for the sin that is no respecter of persons. de Gruchy acknowledges that ?neither the poor nor other social victims automatically understand the Scriptures simply because of their social location or experience.? But what feminists have described as the ?hermeneutic of suspicion? needs to be brought to bear in any serious reading of the Bible. And we ought, I think, to be particularly nervous, and especially suspicious, when readings by those in the center disadvantage those at the margins. If there is, as many today recognize, a kind of ?preferential option for the poor? embedded in the Biblical text itself, then there may also be a ?preferential reading of the poor? to which anyone desiring to take the Bible seriously must attend. De Gruchy borrows a Lutheran phrase to make his Reformed argument:
We encounter the grace of the saving presence of God not in Word and sacrament isolated from human suffering and the struggle for justice, but ?in, with, and under? it. This is precisely where God?s grace was encountered by Israel and the early church, according to the biblical record. The Word of grace addressed the people in their historical struggle and journey; indeed, the Word gave redemptive, liberating meaning to that history.
There is, for this reason, a theological ?appropriateness,? even a moral brilliance in the fact that almost every service of daily evening prayer includes the Magnificat. We ought never come to the Scriptures without hearing Mary, and Hannah before her, singing of a God who ?scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. . . , brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. . . , filled the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty,? (Luke 2.51-53). Even if Mary doesn?t always get the ?first word? in the church?s liturgy, the church has rightly intuited that she must always get ?the last word!? And even if one is finally not persuaded that there are ?privileged readings? of the Bible, there can be no denying the fact that there is never a ?disinterested reading? of the Bible. The ?spectacles of social victims? warn us, ?beware!? Taking the Bible seriously, therefore, always requires a communal reading lest our own location blur our sight or distort our hearing of the living Word, and that community called Israel and the Church can never be narrowly construed lest our reading be done by a clique of the like-minded rather than the whole people of God in their rich and agonizing diversity. Moreover, that communal reading must be an ?engaged? reading or listening, shaped by the Cross that is not only to be found in the words of the text, but also in the world of human struggle.
When interpretations collide
To honor the Bible?s ?transparency,? expecting it to reveal a living Word to us even as it allows us to peer over God?s shoulder while God sees us for what and who we really are. To read the Bible before we try to use the Bible, allowing it to echo and resonate in astonishing ways with its ?irascible, elusive, polyvalent character.? To engage the text communally and ecumenically, acknowledging that the spectacles of Scripture, indeed the very origins of Scripture, require the eyes of social victims and that engaging the text must never, therefore, be separated from a passionate engagement with a suffering world. This is what I believe it means to ?take the Bible seriously.? And here, of course, is the rub, and the tremendous pain of the Church today. For there are many, including some in our own United Church of Christ, who ?take the Bible seriously? in very different ways. No doubt you have ?heard? them on the other side of my argument. But let me offer a recent personal experience as a kind of ?case study? to make their presence more obvious, cautioned by the recognition of course that you are hearing them through me and my own ?interested? reading of the text.
My participation in a religious leaders statement on issues related to human sexuality had particularly enraged one local church which, while already quite distanced from the wider fellowship of the United Church of Christ, now felt alienated enough that it determined that it would do more than send me a letter of protest. Under the leadership of their pastor, the church prepared a resolution for their Association to formally ?censure? me for my action and call on the United Church of Christ to ?repent? of its positions on homosexuality and reproductive choice. As a result, I spent an evening at a gathering of about two hundred members of this congregation along with representatives of other local churches in the Association. I was there to listen and in both a personal and representative way to make an ?account? of the positions held by our General Synod along with many others in our church, on these difficult questions. It was not, as you might imagine, an easy evening; we managed for the most part to retain a sense of respectfulness and civility, but just barely!
Many of the people at the meeting arrived carrying their Bibles. They were well acquainted with the six or seven passages in the Old and New Testaments around which the debates on homosexuality often center. We went back and forth over what is by now very familiar terrain on this well-cratered battlefield, for the most part to little avail. My effort to enlarge the conversation and, in my mind, enrich it with pastoral and theological dimensions was not only unpersuasive, but met with deep resistance and, at least in a few cases, open derision. Finally a young woman put the essential impasse in stark relief by standing with Bible in hand and challenged me with a question: ?Show me a verse.? Don?t talk about pastoral experience and challenge. Don?t waste our time with alternative readings of contested texts or with hermeneutical insights about Scripture interpreting and critiquing Scripture, or with historical illustrations about how the Church has often been led to reverse itself on matters of faith and practice, or even with theological reflection about the nature and meaning of baptism. ?Show me a verse,? which is to say from the perspective of that gathering, ?take the Bible seriously.? Show me a verse where it says that what you want to affirm is acceptable from the standpoint of the Bible.
I, of course, could not show them a verse. Nor would I, in part because that kind of exchange usually ends up in an ecclesiastical winner takes all battle where casualties abound and where the Bible is turned into a weapon in a way that, from my perspective, dishonors its integrity and its intent. In short, for me it is not a way to take the Bible seriously. This meant that most left the meeting that night confirmed in their conviction that neither I, nor many others in the United Church of Christ, take the Bible seriously. I, on the other hand, left the meeting for my drive to the airport and a late return home, yearning that my audience that night would also take the Bible seriously. Not that they weren?t, of course, in their own minds, taking it very seriously, very faithfully. To differ radically is not, at the same time, to imply a lack of respect, though of course that is, for many in our climate of alienation and distrust, a distinction that is hard to maintain. And, to be fair, I need to acknowledge that in lifting up this one comment—?show me a verse?—I may not do full justice to the depth or sophistication of my opponents? Biblical engagement. Nevertheless, I still yearn for a more ?serious? reading.
I wanted them to talk about the Bible in a way that pointed to its transparency, that moved beyond selected words and texts, which they clearly took very seriously, to allow the living and liberating Word to be encountered and which might allow all of us to see ourselves with greater clarity and honesty. The Bible was very much in view that night, and was the center of our conversation. But there was, at least for me, no sense of Presence ?in, with, and under? the texts in dispute. The book became opaque as the ?sacred page? became the ?end of discussion? rather than the doorway beyond which we ?seek God?s face.? I wanted them to take the Bible seriously.
I wanted us, together, to read the Bible that evening. Yes, to look at those six or seven verses; they?re there and cannot be ignored. But also to read, listen and attend to the rich narrative from creation to new creation, to the testimony and countertestimony that bears witness to an ?irascible, elusive, polyvalent? God who cannot and will not be contained, who will not be used, and who is constantly seen in the text breaking into the life of Israel and the Church in ways that judge the community for drawing its boundaries too close. I yearned for a reading that evoked astonishment, that leapt across geographic and cultural distances not in order to use ancient writers to answer modern or even post-modern questions, but to encourage in us an openness to God?s activity in our world that is as much about hospitality as it is about purity. I wanted the parables of welcome and embrace, of wedding feasts for unusual guests, the stories of an Ethiopian returning through the wilderness of Gaza, the dreams of what is unclean becoming clean, and the visions of glory coming into the city borne by the nations, the strangers - I wanted all of this to echo and resonate in our midst along with the words of judgment and the invitation to disciplined, covenant life. I wanted the Biblical witness to a just economy, to faithful stewardship of the earth, and its critique of militarism and power to be given at least an equal hearing as its admonitions about sexual behavior. The Bible was used all evening. But it didn?t seem to me as if we were really reading it, listening to it. Our gathering never achieved what Buechner described as a ?cathedral? in which the poetry, symbol, and image echoed. Ours was a tiny closet that night, where the words of life fell with a depressing thud. I wanted them to take the Bible seriously.
And perhaps most urgently of all, I wanted them to put on, with me, ?the spectacles of the poor,? or in our case that evening, the spectacles of those who were almost completely absent, or more likely silenced in that gathering. With the exception of one or two references to distant family members or coworkers who are gay, there was no real evidence of any serious engagement with or listening to gay and lesbian Christians as part of the Biblical discernment. This was a privileged, safe reading of texts from the secure centers of life in which the margins were afforded no voice. While my censurers of course vigorously disagreed with, even resented my suggestion of parallel situations, if felt to me like a discussion of the Bible and slavery, without any time on the agenda to hear the voices of the enslaved, like a discussion of the Bible and patriarchy without any time on the agenda to hear the voices of women, like the Bible and economics without any agenda time for the poor. Such readings always involve a set of lenses; there are no disinterested engagements with texts. Taking the Bible seriously requires, it seems to me, at least a recognition of our ?interest,? and a readiness to put on the ?spectacles of the poor? even if, in the end, we are not finally persuaded. I wanted my audience to take the Bible seriously just as much as they wanted me to take the Bible seriously.
Herein lies the anguish and the difficulty of church life today. It is obviously an ecumenical problem, but it is also, and perhaps most painfully, a problem within communions, fueling much of the contentious debate and deep estrangement that can be found in denomination after denomination. Most Christians believe they ?take the Bible seriously,? though we must admit the truth of one radio preacher I recently heard who said that ?the Bible is in danger of becoming America?s best selling coffee table book!? Most Christians believe the Bible has ?authority? in their lives. But in our widely divergent convictions and commitments about ?how? to take the Bible seriously, we are quick to deny seriousness to those with whom we disagree. And in our Protestant ethos, shaped by the sola scriptura principle of the Reformation, to claim that someone fails to take the Bible seriously is about as close to excommunication as we can get. This, in fact, was precisely what was at stake in the formal dialogue between the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ initiated by those in the Reformed Church who desired to resist and then to abrogate the Lutheran-Reformed full communion relationship adopted by our two churches and the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The dialogue came to a hopeful conclusion, in spite of remaining differences that were and are significant, by saying the following:
The question was framed, ?How is it that two churches of the Reformed tradition, honoring and reading the same Scripture, can come to such different conclusions? By the end of [our dialogue] it was agreed by all participants that the Bible has been and continues to be the foundational guidance for our churches on the issue of homosexuality, though we come with differing hermeneutical and interpretive principles. Both sides agreed that both churches seek to take the Scripture seriously.
While the Report has been received by both churches, it is clear that its conclusions are not universally embraced, particularly in the Reformed Church in America where calls for distancing or dissolving the full communion relationship persist at each meeting of the General Synod. Behind all the other issues in dispute, the suspicion lingers: ?You don?t take the Bible seriously.?
Is there hope for moving beyond the impasse?
So we are left with the question, ?Is there any hope for moving beyond the impasse, or are we destined for a prolonged, bitter, and divisive ecclesial struggle in which the Bible becomes both the terrain and the weapon of battle?? Two things will help. First, we could concede that those who differ from us, who distrust our reading of the text and the implications we draw from it, are in fact attempting to take the Bible as seriously as we are. Condemnation has always been the first step toward division, and in our Protestant milieu dismissing the seriousness of another?s engagement with Scripture is the heaviest form of condemnation. Second, we could attempt, as I have attempted here, to give an account, literally to ?be accountable? to those who challenge us, sharing as candidly and as forthrightly as possible how the Bible speaks to us. In one sense that is what this lecture seeks to do for my accusers in the Association gathering. There are theologians, preachers, and Biblical scholars who would give a different and in many cases far more sophisticated accounting than mine. But each of us, I believe, is called to offer that account, to say to sisters and brothers in the faith, ?this is what it means for me to take the Bible seriously,? and of course, in that account, to evaluate, challenge, and critique the accounts of others. To concede that someone takes the Bible seriously is not the same thing as accepting any and all approaches as accurate, valid, helpful, or even faithful. Borrowing the ecumenical language of the Lutheran-Reformed dialogue, I assert that with mutual affirmation comes mutual admonition. I do respect the seriousness of those who gathered to dispute with me at the Association gathering. But I disagree with them sharply. Nevertheless, much will be advanced if we join at least the occasional affirmations to our frequent admonitions. All of this will help, but with the stakes so high, I suspect it will only help; it will certainly not solve our problems.
Ultimately I suspect what will be more important than resolving disputes over how different ones among us take the Bible seriously, will be a commitment to engage together in what I would like to call a liturgical reading of the Bible. A liturgical reading is not simply, or perhaps even primarily, a reading of the Bible in the sanctuary. It is a reading that occurs in the shared context of our Baptism, a recognition that we come to the Bible together as ?children of God, disciples of Christ, as members of the Church? and as a Body whose head is Christ in which no part can say to another, ?I have no need of you.? Thus, a liturgical reading resists privatized reading, reading that is always subject to the ?interest? of a particular location or station in life. A liturgical reading takes place around the communion table, which means we always read in the presence of Christ, crucified and risen, in the company of all the saints, and that in the sacrament our reading is done against the horizon of God?s rule and reign which is both signified and enacted in the breaking of the bread. A liturgical reading is always shaped by the Table?s re-presentation of God?s mission in which all will ultimately be reconciled in Christ. A liturgical reading takes place before the Cross which confronts us with our personal and corporate sin, sin that always twists and distorts our reading, even as it lifts our eyes to those who suffer in the world and, in so doing, invites us to read along with the slaves, the exiles, the nomads, and the peasants from whom the text has been received. In other words, a liturgical reading invites us to read with those who not only are able to be astonished, but with those whose oppression causes them to desire the astonishment that turns the world upside down.
A liturgical reading honors the seasons of our worship life, reading the text through the anticipation of Advent with its judgment and hope, the celebrations of Christmas with its sense of presence and fulfillment, the expansiveness of Epiphany with its global and cosmic dimensions, the penitence and discipline of Lent and the astonishing victory of Easter, and finally through the Spirited and ordinary weeks of Pentecost. Thus a liturgical reading rescues us from our personal preoccupations and exposes us to the whole of Scripture with the full array of Biblical themes. That is to say, a liturgical reading is a sustained reading, a reading not for the moment, or for resolution of the current dispute, but is a reading over time, engaged in by those who share the experience of grace, who know themselves to be in the Presence of the crucified and risen Christ, and who seek to be in solidarity with those whose poverty provides not rose colored glasses, but clarity about both the astonishing evil in the world and, even more, about God?s astonishing activity and amazing grace. In that kind of liturgical reading over time, even the unschooled and the eccentric, the flawed and the imperfect will discover that the words on the preacher?s page do become the scarlet verse of Jesus, and the daily encounter with scripture can be, as Schleiermacher said, ?a new, joyous, and powerful appearance of the Lord himself.?
At the Bar Mitzvah of a son or the Bat Mitzvah of a daughter, a Jewish parent is invited to pray:
Into our hands, O God, You have placed Your Torah, to be held high by parents and children, and taught by one generation to the next. Whatever has befallen us, our people have remained steadfast in loyalty to the Torah. It was carried into exile in the arms of parents that their children might not be deprived of their birthright. And now I pray that you, my child, will always be worthy of this inheritance. Take its teaching into your heart, and in turn pass it on to your children and those who come after you. May you be a faithful Jew, searching for wisdom and truth, working for justice and peace. Thus will you be among those who labor to bring nearer the day when the Lord shall be One, and His name shall be One.
Such is the prayer of all who would take the Bible seriously. May it be our prayer as well.