Reflection for Sunday 24 October (Bible Sunday)
I know I go on rather a lot about how wonderful the Bible is, but I readily admit that it’s also pretty odd. This is probably why so many people and so many good, faithful Christian people amongst them, aren’t sure how to relate to it. Research I carried out a few years ago showed that many church folk people are hesitant to read the Bible and some are even a bit scared of trying to do so.
Maybe those of us who preach on it haven’t helped much. We surround it with numbing ‘theological’ language and reveal its secrets like magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat. I don’t think I’m exaggerating, or not entirely.
The oddness of it strikes me most often and vividly on those mornings when I rouse myself to say Morning Prayer, and am confronted by great long tracts about warring tribes and a God whose nose could be put seriously out of joint by what seems to me like ordinary human foibles and failings.
The culture of the Bible is irreducibly foreign and strange. It’s another world and one in which I, for one, more often than I care to admit, don’t feel very much at home. Some of it makes me shudder, other bits make me cringe and a lot more seems to make not much sense at all.
And yet, every now and then, and often when I really don’t expect it, the poetic power of what I read stops me in my tracks. No matter how familiar the words may be, they have the unpredictable power to move me and they help me to see the world around me in new and unexpected ways. They speak to me profoundly. Sometimes they encourage and reassure me. Sometimes they disturb my complacency. More often than not, this encounter happens when I read longer passages, whole stories, especially, but not invariably, in the Gospels.
It’s important, I think, to let the Bible speak to us on its own terms. It may, of course, help to bridge the cultural gap between so much of it and us if we understand better its background – or backgrounds. This is where a good biblical commentary can be hugely helpful.
A deeper knowledge of how a book or passage has been put together and the nature of its cultural and linguistic references do not, in themselves, however, bring it alive any more than an understanding of harmony or counterpoint makes a piece of music more moving. Of course, they may add to our enjoyment and appreciation of a piece, but they aren’t the whole truth, any more than is knowing that Luke’s writing is rather more literary in style than Mark’s.
But the analogy of listening to music has more legs to it. For example, just as there’s no substitute for listening to music, live in concert, so it is that reading the Bible when faintly distracted, as if it’s a kind of religious muzak playing along in the background will definitely reduce its impact. We need to give it our proper attention.
In some instances, but not all, reading it together may deepen our appreciation of it and increase its impact – just as it does for music in concert, but we have to do it well. I fear that listening to someone mumble through the lesson in church (not that that happens in the Moorland Group – of course!) – a ‘lesson’ which is often little more than a bleeding chunk, taken out of context, can be a bit like hearing your favourite piece played by the Saint Trinian’s School orchestra.
We need to give the Bible our attention, and like reading any other poem, maybe read it through again slowly and thoughtfully. But that said, I don’t want to make anyone feel any more hesitant about reading the Bible than they already may be. The Bible is for everyone without barriers and I strongly disagree with one commentator who said that you need to be ‘humble and of a contrite spirit’ and to ‘tremble at God’s Word.’ Heaven forbid!
Nor do you have to read the Bible as if it always has a hidden, secret message that can only be unlocked if you have the right code. That’s not true either.
For this reason, I also get quite queasy when some people try to insist, and I quote again that, ‘it is important to understand [how] any part of God’s Word in terms of the book, corpus, and entire canon, drive[s] toward Jesus and the gospel.’ It simply isn’t – and it really doesn’t.
I’m a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is the fullest expression we have of the true nature of God and of what matters most in the world and in our lives, but I see no conflict between such a declaration of faith and an honest recognition that, for example, long passages in the Book of Leviticus drive us nowhere near Jesus and the Gospels.
I am also quite clear that while the poetry of some biblical passages is far more valuable than others, it doesn’t any of us any favours just to select our ‘essential classics’ for re-reading while we ignore everything else.
I say all this today, because, of course, it’s marked in the Church’s year as ‘Bible Sunday’ and I’m sad and distressed that so many people find the Bible not, as the old prayer says of God’s Word, a lantern to our feet and a light to our path (it’s actually such an old prayer that it’s a quotation from a Psalm) but a puzzling and confusing distraction.
The Bible is the poetic Word of God, but it’s not perfect and it’s not consistent. It offers us a fascinatingly wide range of perspectives and points of view. Let’s open it and enjoy it.