The Bible is a window through which to see God

Two longtime friends were arguing over who knew the most about the Bible. The first finally said, "OK, prove it, you think you know so much. I'll bet you $50 that you don't even know the Lord's Prayer!"

The second friend thought for a couple minutes, and then said, "Sure, you're on. 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep …'"[1]

The first friend was astounded. He took $50 out of his pocket and said, "You sure surprised me. You win!"

Fifty years ago, preachers presumed that their hearers had some familiarity with many biblical passages and stories. That is no longer true. Incidentally, in case you are wondering, the Lord’s Prayer begins “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Survey after survey shows a huge gulf between the large percentage of people who say the Bible is important and the small percentage of people who actually read the Bible, even occasionally. Don’t worry – I’m not going to ask for a show of hands to indicate how often anyone reads the Bible.

Admittedly, reading the Bible is hard work. It’s a thick book, full of strange names, set in unfamiliar places and eras. Additionally, the Bible cannot be accepted at face value. That approach commands us to stone blasphemers, banish women during their menstrual periods from the community, support chattel slavery, and so on. Thousands of Christian denominations exist because believers strongly disagreed over the meaning of one or more Bible passages.

Today’s epistle reading commends Scripture reading as an excellent way to learn about God and to grow in godliness.[2] People desperately need the Bible’s message of hope, justice, love and abundant life. Since 1960, the Episcopal Church has controversially revised its traditional reading of some texts in order to proclaim the good news more completely. Illustratively, we now ordain women, affirm the equal dignity and worth of all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation, acknowledge that divorce can be an essential step toward healing and wholeness, and confess that Christianity is but one of many paths to God. How do we explain and justify these interpretative shifts?

Critics in America’s cultural wars often accuse Episcopalians and their allies of reading Scripture in a way designed to suit contemporary culture. Thomas Jefferson did this. He abridged his Bible, physically removing parts with which he disagreed, leaving only the parts with which he agreed. Many of us informally follow his example, reading only passages that we like or think we understand.

Three practices preserve Scripture’s integrity while avoiding the Jeffersonian trap of trying to make the Bible say what we want it to say.

First, treat the Bible as part of a massive jigsaw puzzle that consists of all knowledge, known and knowable. Humans are slowly assembling this puzzle without the advantages of knowing what it looks like or even where the puzzle’s edges are. Unsurprisingly, puzzle pieces are placed in the wrong location and need to be moved in light of fresh, more accurate knowledge. For example, science has shifted from a geocentric to heliocentric view of the universe, thereby shuffling multiple puzzle pieces. Puzzle pieces are frequently shifted at points where knowledge from one discipline intersects with knowledge from another discipline. Both Christians who argue for the primacy of Scripture in all areas of knowledge and persons who argue that Scripture and science are separate domains of knowledge are wrong. All knowledge, rightly understood, fits together into a beautiful jigsaw picture puzzle of the cosmos, God and everything that exists. Therefore, Christians should embrace, not fear, reading the Bible in dialogue with other sources of knowledge; theology’s dynamism and changing shape move us deeper into the mystery that is God.

Second, rely on interfaith dialogue as a means to clarify and confirm spiritual and ethical knowledge. All of the world’s major religions share a common ethical core. If there is only one God (or ultimate reality), then to think God has spoken only to a narrow slice of the world’s population is unbelievable. Thankfully, narrow Christian exclusivity has yielded to a healthier inclusivity. Christian theologians, with Anglicans in the forefront, now read texts such as John’s gospel reporting that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me,”[3] as the language of love rather than the language of logic. We unhesitatingly tell a parent, child or spouse, “You are the best,” even though we have no objective proof. Love, not logic, is speaking. Similarly, the language of love characterizes exclusivist biblical passages.

Third, develop your biblical literacy. Stop feeling guilty about not reading the good book. Instead, learn how to read it. For example, participate in the Bible Workbench that meets Sundays at 9 am or enroll in Education for Ministry. Take a college or university course in religious studies.

Presbyterian minister and novelist Frederick Beuchner has observed:

The Bible is like a window. When one looks at the window, one sees dust, flies, smears, etc. But when one looks through the window, then one can see the vista beyond, behold a world that lies outside the room in which one stands. The same is true for the Bible. Look at the Bible and read an all too human book, with bad grammar, errors historical and otherwise. Look through the Bible and one can see the living God.

Sermon preached the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2019
Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] In The New England Primer, 1750 ed., p. 28, the full text of the eighteenth-century classic children’s prayer is “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I 'wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
[2] 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.
[3] John 14:6.


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