The (Un)familiar Bible

Along with teaching, I also have opportunity to fill in at churches in southeast South Dakota as pulpit supply. Since I firmly believe worship should nurture us both spiritually and intellectually–as an exercise in fulfilling the greatest commandment of loving God with all our “hearts, souls, and MINDS”–I often like to challenge congregations, incorporating information from my teaching into the sermons. Here is a sermon I preached this past Sunday, riffing on the lectionary text from Luke 4 and Jesus’ public reading from Isaiah in the synagogue.

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There was an elderly woman, full of life and love, sitting comfortably in her favorite chair. And with her was a small child, a young boy of about 5 or 6, confined to the small apartment consisting of only two rooms. As was usual, they had just completed their weekly game of dominoes. As the sun shone brightly through the window, the woman called the young boy over to her, and took him gently on her lap. She reached to the table next to her, grasping with her aged yet beautiful hand a leather-bound black book. And then she opened it, and began to read its first words to the curious child: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That woman was my great-grandmother, Ann Anderson. And the young boy on her lap, hearing for the first time the words of Genesis 1, was me. I still, obviously, remember the scene quite vividly. And as I look back on that event now some 28 years in the past, I realize how much that one moment has so fundamentally shaped who I am and who I continue to become. It is, as I think about it, perhaps even my earliest memory. My great-grandmother, Ann Anderson, who passed away two days shy of her 98th birthday, was in fact my first teacher, the first theologian to incline my heart–and mind–to the beauty and complexity of the Bible and God.

What I didn’t know then but know now, however, is how dangerous this beautiful book called the Bible can be. Have you read this thing? I mean really, have you read it? It’s incredible. It’s powerful. It’s transformative. But it’s also terribly unsettling. And upsetting. And at times even scandalous. And our gospel text this morning speaks to me in a fascinating way as a Bible professor because while themes like hospitality and the marginalized as the object of Jesus’ ministry seem abundantly clear, it is Jesus’ public reading of the biblical text that is at the center of the dramatic action in the narrative from last week and this week. Jesus reads publicly in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 and goes on to note he is the fulfillment of this scripture.

But it isn’t Jesus’ reading of the biblical text alone that is problematic; it’s the accompanying interpretation. That’s the turning point where the listeners go from marvel and amazement to anger and violence. This tells us something about the Bible. Scripture is that which unsettles the assumptions we often hold so dear, so sacred. And Jesus, when understood rightly, does the same.

They say ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ Yet at the start of our gospel story Jesus seems to be receiving quite the warm reception. He is the hometown boy made good that’s come back. The congregation readily welcomes him as one of their own. But once he opens his mouth that all changes. In Mark’s gospel a similar story occurs where Jesus returns home to Nazareth, and unlike our reading from Luke, in Mark Jesus is challenged almost immediately with questions: where’d all this wisdom come from? Where’d all this power come from? Is this just the simple carpenter? Mary and Joseph’s kid? We know this guy’s family. Pastor Eugene Peterson, known well for his Bible translation entitled The Message, rendering the Bible in contemporary, everyday language, perhaps catches the thrust of the people of Nazareth’s overall response to Jesus when he has them ask “who does he think he is?”

Indeed, who does Jesus think he is to be handling scripture in this way? The sudden negative turn in the congregation comes when Jesus dares to interpret this dangerous book in a new and unexpected way. In a way that deviated from, that challenged the presumed status quo of his listeners. And I suppose a similar case can be made recently—and I in no way intend to compare this figure with Jesus in any positive way—when Donald Trump spoke at Liberty University, and everyone lost their mind because he said “two” Corinthians as opposed to “second.” And while it pains me to defend Trump, “two” Corinthians is a perfectly acceptable way to reference the book, most commonly in British academic circles. But while everyone lost their mind at how he referenced the book, comparatively little attention fell on how he interpreted the text. Because that’s what matters—what is he saying the Bible says?

And I think the theme of “familiarity” is a vital component in thinking through not only Jesus but also the Bible. I’ve already tampered with the presumed familiarity of Jesus a few weeks ago, but the analogy carries forward into the Bible as well. Just as the crowd becomes angry when Jesus doesn’t affirm their expectations, so too we often go on the defensive when someone suggests the Bible means something other than what we think it means.

Here’s the glitch in this all. The Bible doesn’t mean anything apart from our efforts to interpret it. Whatever the original authors, whoever they were (and they were many different folks from different times, places, social locations, facing very different historical circumstances) intended for the Bible to mean, those meanings are lost to us now, or at least the certainty that we’ve gotten a particular text “right” is no longer possible. And yet there is a passionate certitude many feel about the Bible, albeit a certitude not mirrored by actual knowledge of its contents. Famous quotesman of the early years of our country, Thomas Paine, describes the Bible as a book that has been “read more and examined less than any book ever written.” We treat the Bible as familiar. We expect it to coincide with and speak to our problems, our concerns, to defend our causes. We treat it as familiar, but in fact it could not be more foreign. The Old Testament is originally written in Hebrew, with splashes of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. It contains literature that is upwards of 3200 years old and covering a time period of nearly 13 centuries. It is written by ancient people with ancient ways of thinking about the world and addressing ancient issues and concerns. And it exists in a variety of forms, having been translated into nearly 1900 different languages and dialects. The Bible is anything but easy, and it is anything but familiar. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Case in point. Let’s tackle a familiar story. Noah’s Ark. We all know this story, right? We love this story, right? We decorate are children’s rooms with Noah’s Ark themed wallpaper and stuffed animals. It’s a wonderful story of God’s grace in saving Noah and his family. Well, this is the part where you cover your children’s ears, because I’m about to challenge how you understand this most cherished story. What does it mean, for example, to read the story of Noah’s Ark not only as a beautiful story of a floating zoo and of God’s grace in saving Noah and his family but also as a story in which in a fit of uncontrolled rage God wipes out the entire human race (a decision, the biblical text says, God regrets afterwards; and what does it mean for God to ‘regret’ something?)? Or, to put it another way, Noah’s Ark is a beautiful story . . . if you’re on the Ark. How we read matters. Meaning in the Bible is not self-evident. Reading the
Bible entails more than just reading words on a page. The Bible can be not only a source of faith but also an assault on faith. I’ve often thought the Bible should come with a warning label of some sort: WARNING – READING THIS BOOK MAY CAUSE FAITH. IT MAY ALSO, THOUGH, BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR FAITH. READ WITH CAUTION.

Another quick example. I came across an article this week entitled “Stop Taking Jeremiah 29:11 Out of Context.” Jeremiah 29:11 reads as follows: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future hope.” This is a favorite verse for those going through a difficult time—and it certainly can be read in that way. But it isn’t the only, or even the best way. Because this verse is actually spoken by God not to an individual but to a community (the “you” in Hebrew is plural). Some context. God is here speaking to the exiled community of ancient Israel, who had been defeated by the pagan nation of Babylon, seen their land and homes destroyed, their king humiliated, and the Temple (where God was believed to reside) destroyed. This was a moment that shook their faith to the core. And the larger context only makes things messier. Verse 10, immediately preceding this favorite text, has God sharing that it will be seventy years before he appears to them again and fulfills his promise. 70 years. That’s nearly a lifetime now, let alone then. And even when God does finally make good on this promise, it is not in a way many Israelites expected. Many opted not to return from exile, which explains the sizeable Jewish population in Iraq to this day. And those who did return struggled to reestablish life, to rebuild the Temple, and continued to live under foreign oppression for centuries (in fact, it isn’t until 1948, with the establishment of the modern day state of Israel, that they are independent again save for a brief moment in the 2nd century BCE). This favorite text becomes something very different, but it also moves toward being more in line with what it actually is. And in so doing, I think it becomes something even more insightful and profound. And challenging.

Sorry, but the Bible just isn’t that into you. The danger now, as it appears to have been in Jesus’ public reading and interpretation in our gospel text, resides in what I call the dangerous familiarity of the Bible. We no doubt know and hold dear many texts and stories, and that is a wonderful thing. But there is also likely a lot we don’t know, and we need to fess up to that. More importantly yet, the challenge is to let the Bible become foreign as opposed to familiar; to love the Bible for being foreign as opposed to familiar; to see on each read the Bible becoming more strange and provoking more questions; to see the Bible’s foreign-ness as a gift, an opportunity. The challenge is to let the Bible speak to us as opposed to us speaking for the Bible. Because once the Bible becomes familiar, once we think we know what it means, the Bible ceases to be a living, life-breathing document; it rather becomes little more than an antiquated relic of the past. It no longer can speak a new word to us in new situations of need but becomes irrelevant, outmoded . . . dead. But the Bible I read, the Bible we have, is alive! On every read it challenges me, indicts me, teaches me, frustrates me, angers me, and nurtures me. On every read I discover something new, even about familiar texts.

Timothy Beal, a biblical scholar, has recently said rightly that “The Bible is not a book of answers, but a library of questions.” This is the heart of what a living Bible, the type Jesus read in the synagogue in a new and unexpected way, must be for us. Not a book we read like any other book, but one rather that provokes in us new and perhaps even uncomfortable ways of thinking; ideas that maybe push against everything we thought we once knew. The Bible, in fact, questions itself, argues with itself, wrestles with itself. The Bible doesn’t speak with a single voice on almost any issue! It is rather a conversation over time, a conversation on which we eavesdrop. But also one in which, remarkably, we also participate. But this conversation is not easy, and should not be easy. Reading the Bible rightly should provoke us, interrogate us, and unsettle us. Or, as I sometimes tell my students, when you’re reading the Bible, if it seems easy, if you feel comfortable, you’re probably doing it wrong. After all, what good is reading the Bible if all it does is confirm what you already thought?

This isn’t easy, to be sure. The Bible is a dangerous book, as Jesus’ own reading demonstrates, because sometimes what you find runs contrary to beliefs or ideas you’ve held sacred. And change is difficult. We like familiarity. The Bible, however, doesn’t give us familiarity. But reading the Bible in this way is worth it. Affirming these things about the Bible is not an abandonment of God or his word to us; it is, rather, an opportunity to reimagine it. A fitting concluding analogy, I think, can be drawn by appealing to my favorite biblical character, Jacob (from Genesis). If you don’t know much about Jacob, one of the most fascinating scenes in his life sees him attacked in the night by God, with whom he wrestles until daybreak (Genesis 32:23-32). In the course of the wrestling match—which Jacob, interestingly, wins—his hip is dislocated by God, resulting in a perpetual limp. And so I think it is the same for us with the Bible and wrestling honestly with the tough questions of reading it well. We may ignore them and walk upright, though in ignorance. Or we may, like Jacob, walk away from the confrontation, from the wrestling, limping . . . but it will have been worth it, for in the process we, like Jacob, just may catch a glimpse of the face of God.

Faith is a journey, not a destination. And as I look back on it all, one image overpowers the others: I can still see my great-grandmother’s face, smiling, as she reads those words to me . . . “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Even with the questions, doubt, struggles, frustrations in reading this unfamiliar book she first shared with me . . . ,she gave me that first glimpse of the face of God. A glimpse I’ve been continuing to pursue ever since. In many respects, it’s as though I’ve never left her lap. AMEN.

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