Progressive Christian’s Love of the Bible, Old First E-pistle 12.08.11
“The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.”
— Harold Goddard, English Professor at Swarthmore College from 1909 to 1949 and author of The Meaning of Shakespeare
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Standing in for Bob Robinson at last Sunday’s Advent Bible Study, I revisited an lesson I had already learned: leading bible study is different than preaching, even preaching a pointedly text-based sermon.
With bible study, you need all sorts of details at hand, and to be ready for questions –about the history and the Hebrew, the composition and its transmission.
Preaching can be more — God forgive! — allusional, pointing worshipers to something greater, beyond your words… insinuating a way. As well, in worship, there’s usually no chance of immediate or public questions — thank God! And the whole homiletical endeavor relies on the Holy Spirit to help people make the connections they need — again, thanks be to God!
I enjoyed the challenge nonetheless. It provided me with new clarity on the importance the Bible holds for progressive Christians… and why that’s sometimes hard to name.
I opened the bible study by referring to a post I made on the church’s FB page a few weeks earlier, the tenants of a group that has named itself The Progressive Christian Alliance. I captioned that post with the question, “Does this list represent what or how you believe?” I hoped to help prompt our considering, articulating, defining our own faith better.
Quickly Old Firsters noticed: the listed commitments did not include any explicit or even implicit reference to the Bible!
One of you quoted pilgrim pastor John Robinson’s promise: “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from thy Holy Word,” reprised recently — though “not so poetically,” she pointed out — as “God Is Still Speaking.”
Another agreed, saying, the list was missing any reference to the relationship progressive Christians have with the Bible. Dave Reppert’s insight, offered in a sermon at Old First, was recalled — not word for word, but in spirit: “the bible is inspiring words, even if not the only word.”
We Progressive Christians may not be sure of, able to explain, or even in agreement about our relationships with the Bible. Still, it is among the most important resources of our faith. Most of us appreciate the Bible as a primary form of God’s inspiration for our reflection on the meaning of our experience (as has been the case for millenia!).
The conservative wing of the church makes a different and dramatic claim– the inerrancy of Scripture, and from that an insistence that to be authoritative the Bible must be taken literally.
One might question whether they meet their own standard. Or if that’s even possible. (I can’t figure out how a contemporary community can apply an ancient sacred text’s meaning to their current, much less changing context without some interpretive mechanism!)
There are, to be certain, ideological differences around how various traditions and communities deal with interpretation, and how much authority they afford earlier understandings of the text as compared to either new meanings… or other resources, sacred or profane.
But what seems unquestionable is that conservatives’ unbending boldness condemning all living, growing, changing meanings of Scripture often leaves progressives lacking confidence and feeling ambivalent about their own faith… apologetic… doubting themselves.
But, beloved, people at Old First do look to and find significant meaning in Scripture. And most of us don’t claim its literal meaning! (Do any of us?)
When we come across the “difficult texts,” I am impressed by the variety and sophistication of people’s interpretive principles and skills. Everyone may not be able to explain his or her “hermeneutics,” but we know how to listen, wrestle, humbly wait on, as well as draw deeply from the stories in Scripture.
Let’s use Christmas as our example. Don’t get all worried if you can’t swallow every detail. It’s not a realistic novel, or a historical textbook, or top rate scholarship. The holy story can nevertheless touch and change you.
Because it’s a story fashioned in faith as it was lived out, developed and passed down lovingly by generations. Its meaning points to truths deeper than its literal narrative. It’s religious myth. Or better, it’s the Jewish practice of midrash, liberally illustrating, interpreting and expanding on a sacred truth.
Many of the details we include as part of the story don’t even come from Matthew or Luke’s accounts. They have been gleaned from earlier Hebrew prophecies and added into our faithful imaginations.
The two tellings of the nativity themselves are distinct and sometimes contradictory. They don’t even agree on exactly what happened! Did Mary and Joseph come from Nazareth or where they residing in Bethlehem? Did they go to Egypt or return to Nazareth? Were the infants of Bethlehem massacred or not? Was there a star? Were there Kings?
Or another instance: tracing Jesus lineage back to King David through Joseph, Matthew lists 28 generations and make’s Jesus’ grandfather Jacob. Luke lists 41 generations and names Jesus’ grandfather Heli. Their discrepancies can cause the most committed traditionalist to wonder. And tradition asserted the Gospels are eyewitness accounts!
The Gospel’s history doesn’t quite sync either. King Herod the Great and the Governor Quirinius — they never ruled at the same time; their leadership was separated by ten years. That means if a census took place, the Magi could not have visited Herod… he was already dead. A census would have only applied to the Roman citizens of the Empire, not Joseph, a Galilean anyway.
And Jesus was not born on December 25. That date was not added to the story until the mid-forth century (so we Christians might have our own winter solstice celebration to rival popular pagan festivals). Scholars now believe Jesus was probably born sometime between 4 and 12 C.E.
If the virginity theme is your stumbling block, know that the the Virgin Birth was not part of the teaching of the early Christians. Paul, the first chronicler of Christianity, said that Jesus “was born of a woman” and “descended from David, according to the flesh.” And Mark, the earliest Gospel writer, didn’t even think Jesus’ birth was worth mentioning. John ignored or rejected the birth stories provided in Matthew and Luke.
And if it seems too coincidental that three centuries before the birth of Jesus, the Virgin Isis had a son, Horus, thought to be a living God, who was born on December 25, in a humble cave, and whose birth was announced by a star in the East and attended to by three wise men… Know that humans have to search widely to find words that can begin to point to God!
The birth narratives were later developments and part of an evolving Christology. They sometimes do not even make sense with the accounts of Jesus’ later life and ministry. For example, if Jesus’ birth was so extraordinary and clearly designated him the Messiah, why didn’t his family always recognize him as such? (Actually, at times they thought he was out of his mind!)
The Christmas story, as we know it, is an allegory to explain Jesus’ divinity from the moment of his conception (not just from the time of his resurrection as claimed by Paul, the first Christian writer or from the moment of his adult baptism as claimed by Mark, the earliest Gospel.) Beloved, even if guiding stars and choirs of angels feel as incredible as talking barnyard animals or Santa and flying reindeer, let the story speak to you nonetheless.
God has called us to celebrate and live by the spirit, not the letter. Instead of mistaking the nativity stories for literal accounts, love and believe them as stories of faith. With a truth deeper than fact.
They are powerful repositories that embody our faith. They can touch your heart and transform your soul. …God’s attempt, through human hands, to put into words some conception of a momentous, Divine event. They do so in a manner that made sense to credulous people in ancient times. They still have that power today.
Maybe you want to go back and read them in preparation for Christmas? Not like text books. Or law books. Or history books. But like sermons… pointing to more than we can say, much less know!
I’ve always loved Fredrick Beuchner’s explanation: Scripture is like looking out a window and seeing a group of people looking up over the roof of the building you are in. You can’t see what they see. You can hardly imagine what they are witnessing. But you can tell from their expressions, and excitement, and the weird things that they are saying that it’s something wonderful. And you are glad, even blessed, to watch them and hear the faint echo of their responses.
See you in church (where, in love and belief, we try to act out the Story),
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