We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, December 16, 2013

Now, About the Bible ("Decline & Renewal" V)

A series of guest postings coming out of the Churches of Christ on Jason Locke's Blog, raises important points concerning church decline and renewal.  This is true of the fifth article in the series written by Dr. John York and entitled, "The View from John York."

York argues that the crux of the problem of church decline among Churches of Christ congregations is the way they read the Bible, which in the past was shallow and blinded them to the larger contents of the scriptures.  Pastors and other church leaders focused on proof texts and argued over inconsequential issues about what they could and could not do in worship.  He concludes, "Yes, one could certainly argue that Biblical literacy in the last 30 years has sharply declined among us. But I wonder if actual Biblical literacy—knowing God and the story of God revealed in ALL of scripture, not just privileged proof texts to support our particular practices—wasn't already in decline back in the heady days of packed auditoriums on Sunday."  York calls on Churches of Christ leaders and churches to go back to the Bible with fresh eyes that will lead to "more authentic ways of living the story of scripture."  Rather than using the Bible to justify and preserve the narrow concerns of the Churches of Christ tradition, he writes, "perhaps we should invest in the mission of reconciling all things to God. Perhaps then we could move beyond the noise of our arguments about silence to a healthier engagement with God, God’s story, one another, and the world."

One value of this longer series of postings on decline and renewal is that the various commentators throw a variety of issues and concerns into the larger mix.  It is a grab bag of ideas that invites us to look at decline and renewal with fresh eyes from a variety of perspectives without having to decide which issue or concern is the most important one.  That is to say that the way we read the Bible is an important issue but has to be considered in the larger context of the times we live in, the ways we embrace or fail to embrace change, and the depth of a congregation's spiritual life—among other things.  But, yes, the Bible is important.

Speaking from a progressive mainline perspective, the key idea in York's argument is his observation that Churches of Christ congregations are and long have been biblically illiterate.  That is certainly the case among mainline churches where there is a widespread disinclination to do the hard work of grappling with the meaning of the scriptures in their ancient setting and in our contemporary world.  And because we are biblically illiterate, we are content with a shallow faith that does not lead us toward deeper fellowship, more meaningful engagement with worship, and living the more difficult and exhilarating life of faith called for in the Bible.  In mainline churches, at least, biblical literacy of this depth requires engagement with biblical scholarship, group study, and a commitment to do the hard work of teaching and studying the Bible in its ancient and modern settings.  It also requires a dialogical attitude that seeks to bring personal, scholarly, ancient, and contemporary meanings into play.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, biblical literacy requires motivation and perseverance, which come only when churches and their pastors are on a deeper spiritual journey.  Renewal, that is, does not begin with Bible literacy.  It begins in revival of one kind or another and moves from that beginning point to a concern to know the Bible more deeply.  Or stated in another way, it is not the Bible that is inspired but rather the student who has been inspired to study the scriptures just as the original inspiration of the Bible's contents was in the hearts of those who wrote.  The Bible is inspired only to the extent that the Spirit has moved us to engage ourselves in its study and learn the hard and exciting lessons that study entails.  Amen.