March 1, 2010

Hearing and Teaching the Real Bible

Here's a great quote by Frederick Buechner, from the opening lines of "The Magnificent Defeat" in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons:
When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being said but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen—and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.
What do we expect to hear in the Bible? Tales of moral heroes? Seven Keys to a successful spiritual life? Or passages that say only what we already think they say? More than that, I hope.

More troubling is the question of what to do when we can't make sense of the Bible, or when a "plain reading" of the text contradicts what we expected to find. Move on to something else? Ignore the differences? Harmonize everything into a nonsensical porridge? Run to the footnotes, as we would the solution to a crossword puzzle beyond our ability, and rest in the arms of whoever wrote the opinions commentary we find there?

Our experiences with the Bible from earliest childhood shape our response to both these questions. If Bible "training" in Sunday School consists of Quiz Bowl drills and fill-in-the-blank responses, then confusion when we try to read the Bible for ourselves should be a too-familiar occurrence, a sort of purgatory in which we must patiently wait until someone more spiritually gifted delivers the unintuitive-but-correct-somehow explanation; and a view of the Scriptures as an unappealing blend of Dick and Jane stories, fortune cookie wisdom, and esoteric riddles would be the natural result of our experience. And if Bible study for adults resembles the kiddie version.... No wonder we sound like the Israelites when they insisted they would much prefer God speak only to Moses. Why try to read the Bible when the pastor is so much better at it? Why bother raising your hand when you're probably wrong? Spiritual pablum goes down easier when it's all we've ever had.

At what age are children in most churches told that parts of the Bible are actually ambiguous, even to the "initiate," or that it doesn't provide satisfactory answers to some very serious questions, or that equally-saved Christians interpret some of the same passages in very different waysand what those differences are, and how this could happen if we all read the same Bible and have the same Spirit? At what age are they told that the Bible has any purpose beyond "right answers" and that they are allowed to question? I suspect that the age is somewhere between "after finishing Sunday School" and "never." 

But why? What do we gain by creating the illusion of a uniform and perfect interpretation for every verse in the Bible, and suggesting that only our people have it figured out, and ignoring the reality of normal and even healthy diversity within the church, and treating the Bible like a magical dictionary or cookbook to be consulted from time to time? Other than a convenient script and a Quiz Bowl answer key for the harried volunteer in the classroom, that is.

I know what we lose when we engage in this perhaps unintentional mythologizing, when the children figure out that their church is sending them off to college or the workplace "equipped" with a grab bag of Bible trivia, Chick tract theology, straw man scientific arguments, and prejudice against those who don't believe exactly as we do: credibility. We appear gullible and ignorant, if not dishonest and biased. We lose the right to be heard when they have real questions about faith, or when they discover the rest of the Body of Christ. And as a result, and even if we do manage to keep them until they finish high school, the church loses most of its next generation.

We need to do better. We need to be honest about the Bible, the church, and our faith. Messy and complex though they may be, that is what the Lord has given and left for us. Do we doubt that he knew what he was doing? Do we really think he needed us to tidy up his mess and package things better for the little ones? O we of little faith.... Suffer the children. Let them come!

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