Last week I posted about ringing in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the beginning of the death of mainstream evangelicalism. All of this needs to be considered when we ask ourselves, “what is next for the Church?”
I don’t listen to a whole lot of worship music, however Mars Hill Bible Church put out a two disc CD in the early-mid 2000’s that I just adore. It is a mix of readings, benedictions, and various songs that span the 20th Century. I love this CD. Specifically there is one point (track 7 disc 1) where everyone reads the ROOTS paragraph:
We see ourselves in a long line of generations. Taking part in the endless conversation between G-d and people. We believe the Bible to be the voices of many, who have come before us inspired by G-d to pass along their poems, stories, accounts, and letters of response and relationship with each other and the living G-d. To know where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.
This always strikes a cord with me. How can we progress if we don’t evaluate or look at how the stone started rolling?
So let’s look one of the main issues that helped kicked off the original reformation five hundred years ago. Martin Luther (who was by almost all accounts a terrible person, for example a horrible anti-Semite but you can look that up yourselves) was probably the Bible’s number one fan. We Protestants opted out of the person pope (sole authority for what is right and good in the Christian world) for the paper pope (the Bible being the only authority on what is right and good in the Christian world) and we’ve had no idea how to handle that. While more Reformed, Lutheran, or Baptist churches push Sola Scriptura (scripture is not only infallible but the sole rule for our faith and practice of it), many of the traditions and denominations that have sprung out of them have a light affirmation of it in some form. After all, we have one holy text in Christianity and for some, G-d is no longer speaking, so how do we move forward in this world? What does it mean for the Bible to be infallible when there are so many translations and languages in which it was written? Which version of it is infallible, the one with Maccabees or without?
Our relationship with the Bible is worth reconsidering in light of reconstructing not just the Church but ourselves. It is full of what can be triggering stories and oppressive world views in the wrong hands. So how can we approach this document that is thousands of years old and experience new life and breath? Well, we start at the beginning. In order to know where we are going, we have to know where we’ve been, and looking at our tradition that is born out of ancient Judaism is a good start. Judaism is full of rich and wonderful views on the Hebrew Bible (a version of the Old Testament). It is extremely popular in mainstream evangelicalism to think of Jesus as an unqualified guy going around learning people new stuff and sticking it to the priests of the day, which is just not true.
During Second Temple Judaism (the time Jesus would have been growing up), school looked like children attending the local synagog to learn the Hebrew Bible. If they were deemed very good students they would then progress to the next level, while others would have been sent back home to learn the family trade. Finally if the student was top tier they would be picked by a teacher to be discipled (FYI this is description is an over simplification of the process) to learn their views on the text. When the discipleship was complete, they would be sent out into the world to chose a disciple(s) to teach. Jesus’ actions in the New Testament reflects this tradition. Spend any time studying ancient Judaism and you’ll find the great Pharisee Hillel and Jesus have a lot in common (it is accepted by some scholars that Jesus was a Pharisee and a student in the House of Hillel).
If we look at the traditions that came before us, the daunting idea of what to do with the Bible becomes less terrifying and honestly more exciting. Biblical literacy opens the world up to greater depths. For example, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra (Genesis 18) has been historically used to oppress our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, however a reading of that coupled with the chapter before it will reveal that it is a story of hospitality. Abraham in chapter 17 reveals how we should treat our neighbors and foreigners as far as hospitality goes, Sodom in 18 reveals how we shouldn’t do that. This is reinforced in Ezekiel 16:19:
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
When we approach the Bible with an openness and asking the question my friend Don likes to drill in, “what is the author of this text trying to say to us?” we have the ability to get a little more playful. We get to look at it and respect and honor the time it was written, and see how it can apply today. All while opening up to new light. While scripture alone is an idea, it isn’t the only one. It’s a fine guide on how people have related to G-d, and emulating Jesus’ love of the poor is very important Rebuilding our faith hopefully means making more room for doubt and uncertainty. Doubt that the translation I am used to may not be the best interpretation of the Bible. Uncertainty in that, the tradition we’ve been handed may not be the best way to express our beliefs in what the Bible teaches us.
While we will never know if the original language of the Bible was G-d breathed, or literal line what happened (as scholarship will continue to refine what the historicity of the Bible is versus the story that’s written) what we can hope to agree on is the Bible is still absolute truth. When I say that, I am paraphrasing something my friend Don said. Not that I believe that Noah’s flood is true, I believe that the stories that are found within the pages of the Bible speak truths about humanity in very deep ways. Ways that as Jared Byas pointed out on the Bible for Normal People, Aesop’s fable about the Tortoise and the Hair is true. How we approach the Bible during this reconstruction will be different for everyone, and we will forge a way together. What is important, is that we are open and willing to engage in this ongoing conversation.
So, when we are reconstructing the Church, what do we do with our relationship with the Bible? Even though we (Protestants) do not have a pope and have to guess at whether or not we are doing the most right thing as we walk this path, it is very easy to weaponize the only physical tool we have to check how we are doing. While I think it is important to study the text and to get to know it, I do not believe it is through it alone we can engage in the active kingdom of heaven which is at hand. In order to opt into the kingdom of heaven, part of that may be (for your community) holding the traditions around Biblical interpretations a little more loosely, or rebuilding them from the ground up and dance with it. The idea of a uniformed faith, or tradition around the Bible is a fantasy, how I hold my relationship with it and you do is going to be different and that is okay. We just both need to be open to conversation and being able to argue in a healthy way that ideas and interpretations come second our relationships with one another come first.
Unless of course you are, or a part of a church that is using it to hold one or more groups of people in oppression and you are in the position of power because that is unhealthy and against the general idea of Christianity. Don’t be that asshole.