What 40 years as a pastor have taught me: The scriptures are a gift meant for community (part VIII)
The Bible is an invaluable gift in my personal relationship with God. More importantly, it is a gift that has allowed a community of faith to be sustained for two millennium around the life and teachings of Jesus and the amazing and continuing acts of God through Jesus.
In the last post on this same topic, I noted that an important part of what I have learned as a pastor over the past 40 years about the Bible has included (1) The Biblical writers themselves saw the scriptural revelation as recording an ongoing process in the history between God and humans – they did not think that either they themselves, nor their writings had “arrived,” and (2) no part of the Bible was written TO us, but every part of the Bible was kept FOR us. Both of these truths deeply impact how we should interact with the Scriptures in our attempts to hear God speak to us through them. Now I’ll explore some of the other important things I have learned about the Bible in my years as a pastor.
ALMOST ALL OF THE BIBLE WAS WRITTEN TO BE READ ORALLY TO A COMMUNITY OF SEEKERS
Once long ago, I took the time to count the uses of “you” in the short little letter “To the Ephesians.” I did this because I was beginning to realize that most of us were reading these “you” statements as though the “you” was singular and to be primarily interpreted as applying to each person as an individual. Of course, the count would vary slightly depending on whether it was done in Greek or on what English translation was used. My count was 124, and if I remember correctly, I did the count in Greek and included the Greek noun and verb endings that signified a plural “you” as well as the pronouns. Of that 124 uses of some form of “you,” 121 were plural, and the 3 that were singular were quotations from elsewhere.
Now, your count might vary by 4 or 5, but the point would still be made: This was a letter to be heard first as a member of a community, and then, secondarily as an individual. What a difference it makes when we can remember this one simple fact as we read, hear, and preach from the Biblical materials. It is first of all a challenge to be a faithful community. So many misunderstandings and misapplications of the Bible could be avoided if we could push past our Western individualism when we attempt to hear God speaking to us through the Scriptures.
One example out of many: If we read the Bible as it was written—in a community context—we would understand most of the challenges and promises concerning “peace” to be focused not on an individual’s inner peace, but on peace between people in their relationships and peace in the relationship between God and humans. Peace does not fully exist unless those on both sides of a relationship are at peace with one another. Not that inner peace for an individual is not a good gift from God, of course it is. Like you, I value the gift highly whenever I experience it. But, it is more often spoken of Biblically in terms of contentment, lack of anxiety, and overcoming fear. “Peace” is a community relationships word.
Secondly, the fact that the Bible was written to be read orally, often to many hearers who were non-literate, means that it was written in a manner that does not lend itself to silent, speed reading. I confess, this is a very difficult habit for me to change since most of my reading is silent and rather quick. But, this modern way of reading does not help us to “hear” the nuances of a slow and thoughtful reading aloud. Even when reading the Bible alone, I am much more likely to “hear” both the writer’s original intent and God’s Spirit incarnating these words in my life when I slow down and read, pronouncing the words to myself clearly and slowly.
Third, the fact that the Bible was meant to be read orally and “heard slowly,” helps us not to resent the tendency Biblical writers have to repeat and retell. Far from being bad and simplistic writing, this was very important if people were to hear and remember an oral story or a set of oral instructions. Think how many times a teacher repeats the instructions and guidelines for a class of students! And think how many times you told and retold a story to your children, until eventually they could remember and anticipate every line! And think how many times you have watched and re-watched your favorite movie until you really do “remember” the story and the realities it attempted to portray! The Bible was written when this kind of repetitive writing was crucial if the hearers were to truly “remember” and to “hear and do.”
THE FACT THAT THE BIBLE CAN BE INTERPRETED IN VARIOUS WAYS, AND EVEN MADE TO SAY ALMOST ANYTHING AT TIMES, IS NOT A WEAKNESS OF THE BIBLE, BUT A WEAKNESS OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION
Once I faced up to how easily the Bible could be interpreted differently by different people—even very bright and knowledgeable people—I began to fear that this was somehow a weakness inherent in the Biblical materials. Only later did I begin to realize more fully that this was equally true of most written materials and most communication in general. Rarely do the nine Supreme Court Judges fully agree on how to understand and apply the U.S. Constitution, in spite of the fact that they are people who supposedly are at the top of the legal profession with regard to constitutional issues. Five minutes after the President makes a speech, experts are on 10 different TV channels telling us how we should interpret what was said, what was not said, and what was meant by both. Millions have family arguments that occur over how differently we “heard” one another’s comments about some disagreement or promise. Sadly, we have just spent the past month here in the USA finding out that various on-the-scene witnesses to the tragic, apparently quite unnecessary, shooting of a young black man in Ferguson, MO, say that they “heard” and “saw” what occurred, and yet the variations in the accounts are sometimes quite dramatic.
Of course, all of this is further complicated when we are dealing with writings that were written from different cultural, scientific, philosophical, political, and family structures and understandings—originally in a different language that even our best scholars do not know as well as the original writers and hearers did.
But, all of this does not mean that the US Constitution means nothing, even though it was written in the language and from the context of people 225 years ago in a very different world. To use the words of my previous post, the US Constitution was not written TO 21st century America, but it has been wisely kept FOR us as a founding document of our nation. Nor does the difficulty of good communication mean that human communication is a wasted exercise. It is a gift that makes community, life, and love meaningful and possible. The difficulty in clear communication does not mean that eyewitness accounts are without value. It does not mean that scholarly attempts to recreate historical, cultural, linguistic, and economic contexts for ancient writings are a waste of time. And, it does not mean that we cannot “hear” a great deal from the writings we have from the ancient world. In fact, not only the Bible, but many other ancient writings on philosophy, science, history, and religion are of great value in giving us humans a shared historical memory as a race.
God can and does speak through the ancient writings of Scripture, and seeking to “hear” both God and the original writer speak to us can be amazingly life-changing. Still, we do well to remember, that communication is not easy, and listening often requires a lot of time and effort and repetition and learning in order to really “hear.”
We certainly do well to remember that a vibrant faith community might be sustained and grown by agreeing to attempt to hear the living God speak to us yet again through the scriptures, but demanding that we agree fully on how we understand, interpret, and apply the scriptures as the basis for remaining in community will always ultimately prove divisive in churches just as demanding that kind of total agreement as a basis for oneness destroys friendships, marriages, families, and cultures.
I intend to write on the topic of the Scriptures in the community of faith another time or two. Let me know if you have related topics you would like to see addressed.
As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.