The grease-stained pizza boxes were piled high in the corner of the room as youth group neared the halfway mark of the evening. A delightful assortment of teens chatted away, filling the tiny space with a cacophony of giggles, shouts and cheers as an impromptu game of Nerf football broke out under a pencil sketch of “laughing Jesus.”
Aware of a looming deadline, I called the group to order. “Okay, it’s time to plan the youth service that’s coming up at the end of the month. Before we go any further tonight, we have to settle on a Bible story to focus our efforts. Any ideas?”
Silence. Then one brave hand went up. “Ross, why do we have to read from the Bible in church? Why can’t we just read Dr. Seuss or a poem or something? What makes the Bible so special?” These honest questions have been spoken (or whispered) by many United Church people of every generation over the years. Why do we need to read the Bible in our public worship? Why the Bible and not some other spiritual resource?
In many corners of our church, there has been a loss of confidence in the authority of the Bible. Perhaps it has to do with a growing awareness of other sacred texts or the overall declining position of the church in society. And yet, our Reformed heritage — built on a three-legged stool of justification by faith; freedom of the session; and the priesthood of all believers — rests on the important claim of sola scriptura or scripture alone. Our Methodist ancestors also affirmed the primacy of the Bible, lifting scripture above reason, tradition and experience. So why have we wandered so far from our roots that the Bible has now become, in the words of one United Church congregant, “clumsy, foreign and awkward?”
Ironically, we live in a time when we know both more and less about the Bible. Today’s scholars offer us wonderful tools to study scripture, from source criticism to feminist and liberationist approaches. Yet the result has often been that people in the church feel better informed but further away from the Bible. It’s like a car that was once easy to repair on our own but now needs a specialist to run fancy diagnostic tests to fix the transmission or change the oil.
I worry that, over time, we in the United Church have lost more than our biblical literacy; we’ve lost our trust that the Triune God can and does speak to us through scripture. I love the prayer for illumination that is said before reading the Bible in public worship — the acknowledgment that anyone can read the Bible, but to truly understand God’s wisdom, we need the help of the Holy Spirit. I love the benefits that the “hermeneutics of suspicion” have brought us by raising awareness of patriarchy in the cultures in which the Bible was written (and still read in today). But I worry that we have become so suspicious that we no longer live in expectation of revelation when we approach the Word of God. Perhaps we need an equal dose of a “hermeneutics of grace.”
Years ago, a friend of mine was struggling with what God wanted him to do with his life. He had a hunch that teaching the Bible was part of God’s plan. Not long after, in a dream, he encountered a Jesuit priest walking along the beach. The priest asked, “What does God want you to do with this one life?” “Teach the Bible,” came my friend’s reply. “Hmm,” the priest paused. “If you want to teach the Bible, first you must learn to love it.”
If John’s Gospel is right, the Bible was written so that we might believe. As a mini-library, it contains poetry, law, wisdom, history, myth, sanctified imagination, apocalyptic vision and much more. As followers of Jesus, however, we hold on to scripture as our guidebook through this pilgrimage of life before death and life beyond death.
Why read from the Bible as a Christian community? It’s not just a story; for us, it’s the story. From pizza-box-filled youth rooms to stained glass sanctuaries, might we revisit the Bible with fresh eyes? Might we learn to love the Bible again, trusting it to be a faithful witness of God’s revelation to humanity? Might we have ears to hear a testimony of who Jesus is for the world — yesterday, today and forever?
Rev. Ross Lockhart is a minister at West Vancouver (B.C.) United.
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