The Bible tells me so

An appeal for humility and diversity characterized the respondents at tonight’s Face2Face community panel event entitled “The Bible Tells Me So...Or Does It?” But what stood out to me most – what, in fact, surprised this cynical girl the most – was the love of Scripture that emanated from the various respondents.

“I cannot separate my academic study of Scripture from my devotional work through it,” one panelist beautifully framed what the others also hinted at.

Each of the students on the panel had an Anabaptist connection – one or more of the following: a current affiliation with a Mennonite (or Hutterite) church, a name that could be classified as ethnoculturally Mennonite (or DGR/S, as Bruce Guenther likes to say), or a childhood spent in a Mennonite church (because I’m getting old and I know their parents) – but they represented a diversity of traditions: MB, MC, Catholic, Pentecostal (and Anglican dilettante). And each spoke of the importance of wrestling with Scripture, in so many words or not.

One student cautioned against the rigidity of “taking the Bible seriously” (which is code for assuming it is a rule book for your life), against using it as a weapon to “throw things” (shame, guilt, reproach) at others, and against using it to impose comfort (a bit of an oxymoron, yet...use of Romans 8:28 comes to mind).

Her closing remark was that we need to balance the head and the heart in our study of the Bible so we can find hope and healing in the Scripture for both the individual and the community.

Our Catholic friend opened by joking that in the Reformation, to which the event offers a nod, we’d’ve been tossing out epithets like “Papist” and “Re-Baptizer.” (I suspect those epithets were far more harsh in their time than they sound to our ears now), but today we can sit on panels together. He extolled the liturgy of the mass as a framework for repeated Bible readings and a tool for developing good habits.

He spoke of two imperative readings of the Bible: communal and eucharistic. “Communal reading transcends our situatedness” (while also recognizing it, I daresay), while the eucharist reminds us that all of Scripture points to Christ. “Our encounter with Christ is the point of the Bible,” he said.

The Mennonite panelist grew up in China while her parents served a mission organization; her reflection on Scripture featured “the grandparents” – often new believers – who had such reverence for Scripture as something so new and life giving to them. Furthermore, without access to ready resources in their language – books, sermons, podcasts by a variety of theologians – these grandparents are deeply investing in doing their own hard work of interpretation, instead of letting the experts do it for them. (Mea culpa!) Rather than certainty, the grandparents have conviction, she said. “They know they believe this for a reason.”

Drawing on her English studies, she also invoked reader response theory, positing that whatever the Bible is, it cannot be just an infallible text because each reader brings something of themselves to it as they read. Not each individual word, necessarily, but “it carries the Word of God,” she quoted C.S. Lewis.

Our Pentecostal friend insisted that humans are meaning-making creatures, therefore we interpret. “We don’t want objective truth,” he said; “we want to find ourselves inside something that is meaningful” – with the assumption that the biblical narrative accomplishes that.

When challenged that his moving-with-the-Spirit, interpret-what-you-will approach belied the fact that Jesus did sometimes indicate there was a “right answer,” he replied that “within commonalities, there is room for tension.” Nice dodge...but also a realistic description of what unity must look like.

I’ve left the Hutterite for last because – by virtue of coming from a subculture that not only gives lipservice to but truly practices sacrificial and dedicated community living – he has special insight for us, particularly on the communal reading of Scripture. And, by virtue of this particular individual being wise beyond his years and gifted with a sharp mind, he spoke the most prophetically (despite being ready to collapse from a touch of the flu).

The question (I’d call it “problem”) of certainty of interpretation of Scripture may be of greater importance for our day than that of authority, he said. We tend to wring our hands about the authority of Scripture and how others do or do not value it, but our Hutterite friend suggests the problem may actually lie in our doggedness in believing our particular understanding of the meaning, significance and required action re that authority must be the right one.

He continued to gently make audacious challenges to our received wisdom by suggesting (as I have to a friend, in what we like to call, tongue-in-cheekly, the Karla Pentilateral) that the marker of discernment for what the Holy Spirit has truly said to or through the community is “Does it result in the flourishing of humankind?” (Or, less eloquently, “what’s the fruit?!”)

“Trust people’s care of you,” one panelist urged a conservative question asker who wasn’t quite sure how to translate the things he was learning back to a church community with a more rigid interpretation structure. Our Hutterite friend demonstrated what that might look like: He is quite literally sent by his community: to his knowledge, the first Hutterite studying for a degree in theology. That means responsibility. “I have a responsibility to be careful in what I bring home, but the community also has a responsibility to me,” he said. “They need to care for the tension I am in” between what he is learning at CMU and what he has long been taught in the colony.”

One questioner poked at what rankles me: “Why even take it seriously at all?”

(If the Bible is such a hot mess of stories [“it’s got it all from sex to Jesus!”], one contradiction after another, rife with inaccurate understandings of geology, biology and astronomy, and firmly located in a cultural mindset so far removed from ours as to make many statements nearly in comprehensible [and increasingly so in a society where change keeps happening faster], what is even helpful about it at all? Why bother with this troublesome book?)

There’s a spark of redemption in it, one panelist said, referencing Rob Bell. In this age, things go quickly, but not deeply. The Bible requires that we slow down, to hear the sustained bass notes in a world of frenetic treble eighths.

It’s compelling but not entirely satisfying. The Bible is not the only story with a spark of redemption. Humans are always looking for that hope, always seeking that spark of redemption, and I daresay it is shot through many of the stories and myths and legends that shape us, both the historic epics, more recent classics (Les Miserables), and today’s films and television (Joss Whedon’s Firefly).

But then there’s Jesus. I retain the conviction that the hope of his story goes beyond anything that can be found.

If you start with the true or the good, our Catholic friend invoked the teaching of Bishop Robert Barron, you are simply foisting morality. Instead, evangelize through beauty. 

Allow yourself to be encountered by what is unknown.  (Wild, uncertain, yes; but hopeful, true, good, and beautiful.)

Edited Feb. 22, 2018


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