Friday, April 28, 2017

The Bible is Not for the Lazy

Image result for chicago transit authority albumI was walking through the halls of a senior living facility in Belgium on my way to visit the elderly father of a church member.  Over the speaker system came the chant “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watch….”  Then the musical group Chicago transitioned into the song “Someday” from their Chicago Transit Authority album.  One of the verses goes:

Would you look around you now
And tell me what you see
Faces full of hate and fear
Faces full of me
Do you feel the rumblings
As your head comes crumbling down
Do you know what I mean

Run, you better, run you know
The End is getting near
Feel the wind of something hard
Come whistling past your ear

As I listened, I wondered how many of the elderly Dutch-speaking residents knew the context of this song.  Some of them would have understood the words they heard and been able to make sense of the sentences, but I doubted they could glean the meaning of it all.
The chant was a recording of the protests during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in late August of 1968.

On April 4th of that year, Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis TN.  His death sparked riots in more than 100 US cities, Chicago being one of them.

Robert Kennedy, a candidate in the Democratic primary that year, had been assassinated on June 5th.
As the Democratic Convention takes place, the country is still tense over these two assassinations and is bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam.  The current Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, who had vigorously pursued the war, has announced that he will not run for reelection.  Within the convention hall that week, the Democratic Party is deeply divided over its stance on the war.

The song is about this turbulent moment in American life.
I doubt that  even the elderly residents who understood English would have made this connection, thus the meaning of the introductory chant and the lyrics that follow would have been lost on them.  Understanding the literal meaning of the words would not have opened a door into the deeper message of the song for them.
Reading the Bible is a bit like this.  We may understand the literal meaning of the words and get the gist of each sentence; but without some knowledge of the author, the intended original audience, and the social, political, economic, and literary context, much of the meaning is lost on us.  To read the Bible in a literally wooden way without contemplating these broader questions diminishes the rich and transformative message of the scriptures. 
I know Leviticus 19:19 forbids the wearing of clothing woven of two kinds of material, yet I find poly-cotton blend shirts save me time ironing.  An uninquisitive literal reading of Leviticus would condemn me for this convenience.  Is there something else going on in this text that would permit me to save some time at the ironing board?
What is the attraction of a simplistic literal reading of scripture?  It is easy, and we are lazy.

 It takes a lot of effort to read large passages of scripture, indeed whole books, and then set a particular passage in its broader literary context.  Proof texting is attractive to those who want the Word of God to work like a Twitter feed.
The next step beyond the literary context of a passage is the canonical context.  The canonical context is the place of a book within the broader landscape of the Bible.  We take what Jesus said about the law in Matthew’s Gospel, what Paul wrote about the law in Romans, and what James wrote about the law in his letter and then filter all that through what Moses said in Deuteronomy.  Within this broader field of reference, we discover a more maturely nuanced understanding.
A reader does not need to go to seminary to have more than enough work for a lifetime of Bible reading.  The Bible itself will keep us by simply immersing ourselves in all its diversity and grandeur.
If one is going to teach a class or preach sermons, some good research books in the biblical material can certainly enhance our work. (Can we get extra credit for this?  Moses seems to imply this might be possible.  Paul seems to assert “no way,” and Jesus tells some great stories that teach us not to be anxious about extra credit in any case.)

Reading the Bible is serious work.  An uninquisitive uninformed wooden literalism sidesteps that hard work.  The Bible is not for the lazy.
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Truth About Everything

Richard Neuhaus begins his book Death on a Friday Afternoon with the words:

Good Friday is not just one day of the year.  It is relived in every day of the world, and of our lives in the world.  In the Christian view of things, all reality turns on the “paschal mystery.”  [Paschal refers to the Passover meal that was instituted in Egypt.  For Christians, this paschal mystery is also embodied in the sacrificial death of Jesus.]  As Passover marks the liberation from bondage in Egypt, so the paschal mystery marks humanity’s passage from death to life.  Good Friday cannot be confined to Holy Week.  It is not simply the dismal but necessary prelude to the joy of Easter, although I’m afraid many Christians think of it that way.  Every day of the year is a good day to think more deeply about Good Friday, for Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained…If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

I particularly like the phrase:  for Good Friday is the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained.  The self-giving love of God is what sustains our every moment.  The events we remember on Good Friday are the clearest and highest demonstration of God’s love.  This is why Paul writes about actually boasting in the cross (Gal. 6:14).

The death of Jesus was unique; it was singular.  The writer of Hebrews says Jesus’ death and what it accomplished was “once for all” (chapter 9).  On the other hand, it is the quintessential expression of what happens every day.  God reaches out to creation in self-giving love, and creation snubs God.  Ever since God walked through the Garden calling out to Adam & Eve “where are you,” we have been fleeing.  The story hasn’t changed much over time.

The cross says some uncomfortable things about us.  But it says some wonderful things about God.  Good Friday is not a necessary hurdle on the way to Easter.  It is, quite simply, the truth about everything.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State