Wineskins Archive

February 4, 2014

The Bible Matters, But How? (Jul-Aug 1998)

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by Mark W. Hamilton
July – August, 1998

You may have had an experience like the one I recently had. My wife and I were visiting a church in my home town. The folks I had known since babyhood embraced us and our none-too-quiet children. All seemed to be going well – until the sermon began, that is. Then the preacher launched into a forty-minute talk on the current generation’s lack of respect for God, sound values and so on. He concluded by saying that “change agents” in the church lacked respect for the Lord, and the great preachers of the past, and were in fact handing the church over to the devil! Never was I more steamed about a sermon, and despite the fact that my brother minister was of my gransparents’ generation, I in my righteous indignation was ready to take him on. How dare he indict people I respect this way? How dare he insult ME? All the years of training in exegesis, languages, theology and the rest were about to pay off in overwhelming arguments and blistering quotations of everyone from Isaiah to Barth.

And then a funny thing happened. After the service ended, as we all shook hands in the foyer of the little building where I had first sung “Jesus Loves Me” and believed it, the preacher took me and my wife by the hand, touched our children’s heads, and wished us well. Graciousness flowed out of every pore, and it was obviously genuine. I was floored! How could anyone be so spiteful one minute and so genial the next? Why the disconnect? And how could I have been so ready to answer in kind, to make all our religion an intellectual problem to be solved?

I tell this story becaus I think it represents on a small scale where we are in our tradition. All the informal and formal ties binding us together are soiled and frayed, but they do still connect us whether we like it or not. We often live better than our rhetoric. How, then, can we find ways to mend the cords? Can we stay together? Everyone knows by now that we cannot and will not go back to a past in which a few manipulative ministers did all the thinking (if that is the right word) for all of us. Yet, many of us across the spectrum of Churches of Christ pray and hope for unity, even as we despair of its happening. We cannot go back to the sectarian past, but are not very interested in the evangelical future with its bright lights and vacuous theology. Nor does the call of some of our obviously well-intentioned leaders to stop talking about differences and start evangelizing make much sense: how many film strips can you show before you need to grow yourself? Is there another way?

Fortunately, many people of all persuasions seek a way forward. Few really want divided churches and families, and many wish that the acrimonious, uncompromising (because ill-informed) sermons streaming from some of our more tradition-minded folks would grow silent. We also wish the evangelicals among us were more biblically and theologically self-aware, even as we admire their ministerial accomplishments. We need dialog, cooperative efforts of all sorts-and we need them now!

Where do we begin this dialog? The first place where it needs to occur – and indeed has occurred for several years now, even if with megacalories of heat and picowatts of light – is concerning the nature and function of the Bible. When my preacher friend spoke, he cited the Bible. Not always very well, not always very carefully, but still with a reverence that I and the rest of us share. Perhaps, then, we can talk. Let’s begin with some things on which we all agree. In any conversation where emotions are fiery, reachnig agreement on some points, any points, is valuable. And we agree on far more than we disagree. First, everyone agrees that the Bible shapes our moral behavior. No one is calling for anarchy, a life without rules. We have learned well the lessons of the Corinthians: grace forbids, not inspires, a life without boundaries. Sometimes Scripture does this subtly. It narrates the evils of society and individuals without didactic comments. King David is a bandit, a poor father, and an adulterer. Abraham tries to fob his wife off on Pharaoh for money, and in the narrative order of Genesis 12 does so just after his call to follow God. When under pressure, Peter excludes Gentiles. Paul loses his temper with John Mark. Jesus excepted, no one in scripture wears a halo. The Bible is not a textbook for family values, for there are not exemplary families in it. (I encourage you if you doubt this to produce one.)

Having said all that, though, there can be no question that the Bible, often subtly but powerfully, articulates a moral vision. David pays for his adultery. Abraham incurs Pharaoh’s anger and must wait and wait and wait for God’s promised son. Peter courts embarrassment, and Paul must admit his own shortsightedness. The Bible’s vision of appropriate human behavior asserts itself in laws, in stories, in the psalms (see, for example, Psalm 1). This moral vision challenges the easy assumptions of human virtue, mocks human pride, and calls everyone to a life of humility, detachment from material goods, and the quest to bring all humanity to God.

Second, we all agree that the Bible is the touchstone of our understanding of God. Not that Scripture portrays God always in the same way. God comes off as a warrior (Exodus 15), a husband (Hosea), a king, a farmer (Isaiah 27), and in countless other ways. Sometimes he is the only deity (Isaiah 40-45 and Jeremiah), and sometimes he has a court of subordinates (Deuteronomy 32, Psalm 82). Most of these portrayals operate at the level of metaphor, which the Bible resorts to because it realizes that God is not ultimately comprehensible or describable. This is not to say that we should not try; indeed, we must try if we are to serve the “Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” Still, the very variety of Scripture’s pictures of God makes it clear that He will always be just outside our cognitive grasp. Third, we all agree that the Bible describes religious experience and molds it. The Holy Spirit has worked in the community of believers throughout history. No single period of time has a monopoly on this experience. During the same week I visited my childhood congregation, where the worship runs toward Stamps-Baxter and a stereotyped carrying-out of the “five acts” of worship, I also shared in an evening devotional with college students at my alma mater. The contrast in worship “styles” could not have been greater. Whereas one place stressed continuity, tradition, custom, the other emphasized personal emotion, innovation, and commitment. Who was right and who wrong? Who was more “biblical”? Could not God be in both places, as well as in my current congregation, where the songs are more likely to be by Bach and Beethoven than by Amy Grant? Frankly, the question is hard to answer. Spontaneity does not guarantee genuineness; sometimes careful planning can be a way of bringing days of genuineness to bear in a single moment. Traditiona is also no guarantee of biblicalness, for it can be staid and unreflective – or it can be sensitive and thoughtful. Why can we not place a premium on variety and thoughtfulness, rather than pretending that personal psychology and cultural experience do not impact our worship?

Experience always counts for something, especially if we are allowed to define “experience” broadly enough to encompass every aspect of human life, the emotional, the intellectual, the relational, and the spiritual. But what we might call reflective experience counts for more. Appealing to the importance of experience is not a desperate search for the warm fuzzies, for God often offers us the cold pricklies, as Job and Jesus on the cross discovered. No, the appeal to experience is the recognition of the fact that as beings made in the image of God and now wearing the face of Christ, the realities of our lives have religious merit. Theology is, in part, reflection on God’s unfolding of his will in the specifics of our lives.

Most of us, I think, can agree that the Bible does these things, at a minimum. We might wish to quibble over some of the ways we express these basic ideas, but we could probably find wording to describe our fundamental agreement. So why state the obvious? Because in times of crisis, of superheated rhetoric and line-drawing, people who disagree with each other need to find pints of contact; otherwise there can be no hope even of continuing the discussion.

If I could talk about the Bible with my friend whose sermon contrasts so unfavorably with his exemplary life, what could we say? First, we would have to talk about the humanness of interpretation. All of us interpret Scripture; the only uninterpreted books are forgotten ones. All of us must decide whether, when 1 Timothy 2 simultaneously commands lifting hands in prayer and forbids women to wear jewelry and hairdos even as they are “silent” in church, we do none, some, or all of those things. All of us operate out of our cultural experience, and none does or can take the Bible “as it is,” for there is no “as it is” separate from the people who read it and pray to the God whom it reveals. Second, we have to talk about history, about how the though processes and events of ancient times shaped the Bible itself, and how the though processes and events of today shape us. Third, we must talk about the Christian tradition of interpretation, and the profound ways it bears on how we read Scripture. And finally, we should agree that interpretation is valuable only in so far as it leads us to godly, joyous, and generous lives. Readings of Scripture that make us more cramped, less kindhearted, more judgmental are wrong on their face. Perhaps my friend and I could read St. Augustine together, who once said that Scripture is all about “faith, hope, and love.” Or to take an older source, we could remember that the statement “Narrow is the gate, and straight the way that leads to life,” is a lament and not a call to action. Perhaps we could be known for our ability to compromise and agree rather than for our fascination with division. We can hope.

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