« Biblical Literacy »

The following is a message to the Mission Hills UCC young adults group which I somewhat unwittingly took the reins of early last summer. Starting at about the same time, I was elected to the Christian Education commission at church and when asked what my interest was, I answered "biblical literacy." The young adults group is something I lay out some vision for, but don't particularly steer; it is primarily through emails like this one below that I offer some idea of what we might work towards. (And then, who knows what happens when we really meet up in person a couple times a month.) This one tried to speak to a growing readiness to do some bible study, but in a way that doesn't put the answer before the question.

I'd like for us to answer a call that has come from a few of our number to address some type of bible study effort. Before we start naming any particular books or themes to work on, I was thinking we need to take a bit of time orienting ourselves to what the Bible itself is, how we feel about it (love it, reverence it, misunderstand it, fear it, shrug it off). This is important stuff for Protestants, since it is a foundational belief that the Bible ("sola scriptura") coupled with individual conscience—and not church authority and dogmatic pronouncement—is the key to salvation. There are too many ways to draw great things out of the book. Some can read it to extract literature, others to glimpse a dose of history or age-old wisdom, but our interest of course, as Christians, is to let it lead us to transformed lives aligned with God. As a more liberal bunch who believes God is still speaking, we can read it however we like, letting it touch us at whatever level we are ready to be touched at.

There is a wide open space between the conservative and liberal poles of the bible study debate: ours should be a task to walk through the middle and not be drawn in by the absolutism and literalism of the conservative position nor should we fancy it rendered quaint and old fashioned by modern standards, a handy guidebook at best, but essentially a footnote from the pre-scientific age that has nothing much to offer a generally liberal culture. The fact is, we can take the old text to task and ask it to reveal itself to us in our time and place. And we should. Read in the right frame of mind, and given the right tools to help, I assure you the power it has to shock members of both polar sets. It is primarily about human nature and struggle. So far it has not expired in that regard. When one reads it, one should begin to feel smaller yet paradoxically empowered by the realization that none of what we experience now is new; already by the time of its writing, the biblical text was struggling with age-old dilemmas. Jesus and his approach to life was the big answer to the big questions for them and for us.

In a practical way, we owe it to ourselves to know this stuff just so we can know when other people are using it dangerously. And there is plenty of that going on now. It is our text, our revelation of God as much as it is theirs, so it is incumbent upon us to step up and claim it as unabashedly as they, and hopefully put it to better use. Wallowing in ignorance of it won't help. Our aim should be to read what they brush aside and hopefully wrap new meaning around the stuff that has served their position too well for too long. This is not left-right dichotomous thinking here; just a way of clarifying that this text obviously can be put to good use or ill. It belongs to neither side and yet both sides at once. This is where one brings in personal conscience. The Protestant reformation (our UCC predecessors going pretty far back in that history) was powered by the belief that individuals ought to have their own relationship with the text in their own language, to liberate souls one at a time. (Depending on your starting point, you can be liberated from a conservative position or a liberal position!) To ignore the text is to dangerously flirt with reversing that revolutionary ideal by neglect. Hence, my interest in promoting biblical literacy among you and others I meet.

There are plenty of people at church, and even in our midst [a couple pastors/chaplains in the making], who can teach the stuff, but it would make for good conversation now to see how we feel about it. What sort of histories do we have in relation to the Good Book? What do you think is in there that you need to uncover? What are you sick of already? How much of it is true? What is true about it? Why is it so complicated? Why does it exist at all? Why do we need it now? Why not chew on those things a bit before we meet again, and in the coming seasons, and maybe we can establish some direction. Even if the actual study doesn't happen within our bunch, then at least we can be clearer in appealing to [our church CE staff] as to what needs to be taught. For now, let's allow some of these questions to shape part of our time together.

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