Monday, March 10, 2014

"About', "Knowing," and "Using" the Bible

Ladies, on the scant chance that any of you might think I would be some kind of ‘prize’, let me dispel such nonsense by outing myself as a channel surfer.  Yes, I hold the remote control in my hand and flick away.  I am told women find this behavior to be incredibly annoying.  I channel surf for two reasons.  First, I find it challenging to pay attention to television for extended periods of time, especially during commercials.  And second, there is some pretty fascinating content being broadcast on other stations.  Nowhere is this more true than on the Christian networks!

One day I happened to surf into a program called “The Bible Bowl”.  It was a game show of sorts that pitted teenage teams against each other in a quiz show format of bible trivia.  Each team had three members and there were teams from three different churches.  One team, it appeared to me, might have struggled to answer the question who was born in a manger.  Clearly, their youth minister and Christian Education director were in for a rough personnel review at the end of the year.  The second team appeared to be confident in their knowledge that Noah built the ark, Moses parted the Red Sea, and Paul wrote a lot of letters.  But the third team – ahhh – this team had done its homework.  They knew their stuff!  In fact, I wondered if they did anything else in life but drill for bible trivia. 

Within a nanosecond of each question, one of their youth smacked down on the buzzer and blurted out an answer.  And I am not talking about basic level bible here.  Question: “Name the daughters of Zelophahad.”  Buzzzz!  “Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah.”  “Correct.  20 points.  Next question:  Who became king of Jerusalem at the age of seven?”  Buzzzz!  “Joash!”  And so it went.  I trust you can imagine the look on the faces on the other two teams as obscure question after obscure question got devoured by this one church’s walking, talking, teenage biblical concordances.  It was the kind of television experience that encourages me to keep the remote close at hand!

It strikes me that most Episcopalians know about the bible.  We are familiar with some of its basic stories and content.  Most of us know others who know the bible, perhaps not to the obsessive level of that quiz team, but pretty darn close.  We know folks who can quote chapter and verse and in a matter of seconds can open a bible to the exact passage they are looking to find.  So there is knowing about the bible and there is knowing the bible, but there is also third level.  It involves knowing how to use the bible.  We see each level at work in today’s readings.

Think back to the first lesson.  God speaks to Adam and gives a command: 

“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

The text plainly indicates that this word was given to Adam and to Adam alone. 

The scene shifts and now the crafty serpent is talking to Eve.  Both are aware of what God said to Adam so the implication is that Adam passed along what he had been told.  The serpent: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’”  It is a calculated distortion to see if Eve knows about God’s word or if she knows God’s word.   Notice her answer.  She is partly right and partly wrong: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” 

While not touching the fruit God has told you not to eat makes sense, it was not what God said.  Did Adam add this to what he told Eve or did Eve make it up on her own?  Either way, this difference between knowing God’s word and knowing about God’s word opens the door for the crafty one to challenge the entire notion.  Eating the apple becomes the greatest misuse of God’s word in Scripture. 

And then we have the Gospel reading.  Three times the crafty one tempts Jesus.  Jesus repels the first temptation to turn stone to bread by quoting Scripture.  The devil sees an opportunity for a second temptation - throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple - and then makes the case for doing so by quoting not one, but two passages of Scripture.  The devil knows his bible!  There is no doubt he could tear it up on that quiz show.  What the devil doesn’t know is how to use the bible.

Now when I say “use the bible”, of course I mean “use it in the right way” (whatever that means).  Most people who know the bible well know how to use what they know.  I knew a guy in college who really knew the bible and he could use what he knew to justify pretty much everything he did.  Do you remember the movie Oh God staring George Burns?  Well, my college friend thought it was blasphemous so he cobbled together a couple of verses from the bible taken from here and there as a pretense for setting off a smoke bomb in a crowded movie theatre.  I hope you have never encountered a person that extreme, but I am confident each of you knows someone who knows the bible and knows how to use what they know.

I am sure we could all tell a story about someone who used the bible in the wrong way, but how would we describe what it looks like to use the bible in the ‘right’ way?  Maybe the place to start is to change the question.  Perhaps the question is not how we use the bible, but rather how does the bible use us? 

Both Paul and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews use the image of the bible as being like a sword.  This image in particular gives rise to the idea of using the bible as if it is something we command to affect an impact on others.  I knew a Korean seminary student who dreamed a putting together a bible study using “just the right verses in just the right way” that it would reunite the two Koreas.  His was a vision in keeping with the image of the bible as a sword.  At least he hoped for something positive.  Others use the sword-like bible to cut their adversaries to the quick.  Their go-to approach is to use the bible as a weapon that wields the message “I am right and you are wrong and here is why”.

But what if we shift the image from sword to scalpel?  And what if we see ourselves not as the surgeon but as the patient?  How would we see the bible differently in this light?  How would we see it if we understood it to be an instrument to open up us (as it were) to affect our greatest healing; if we used it not to see what we could do to others with it, but rather what we allowed it to work in us?

Or what if we shifted to another image… Scripture as being bread?  What if we thought of the reading the bible as a way to nourish and nurture our lives?  What if its primary purpose was to give us strength for life’s journey?

Speaking of life’s journey, that suggests another biblical image… Scripture as a light.  What if we understood the bible as being like a lantern, a means to help us move forward in life when the path seems dark and uncertain?

Or what if we saw Scripture as being like a letter; perhaps a love letter from One who has invested everything in us?  Or maybe like a letter from a parent who guides, corrects, chides, inspires, teaches, and encourages us – all written from the perspective of One whose connection to us can never be shaken.

Or what if we saw Scripture as being like a shot of adrenaline… something that energizes and motives us to move, to take action, when we see that things are not as they should be?

Of course, some words of Scripture cannot be sugar coated.  Some of what it has to say is deeply critical of our individual condition as well as the way our culture expresses its values and concerns.  From this perspective, are we justified to use it as a sword; as a weapon that wrecks havoc on everyone whose ways we find objectionable?  There are times in extreme when Christians must stand up, proclaim the Truth, and be willing to suffer the consequences.  But most often we need to think of Scripture as a being like a beacon in the night that illuminates not so much right and wrong as it points out danger while guiding the way to safe passage.

Last Wednesday, I spoke the words of the faith encouraging each one of us to observe a holy Lent.  One aspect of this calls on us to read holy Scripture and to meditate upon it.  This directive is meant to encourage us to participate in a more intensive, more focused practice during these forty days.  Certainly it is not the only time during the year when we read the bible, but this is a time for us to grow from knowing about the bible toward knowing the bible, and from knowing the bible to allowing the holy Scriptures to use us.