THREE WAYS TO READ THE BIBLE
The three books reviewed here are excellent examples of how one branch of the Christian church reads its sacred book – the Bible – and may be ignorant of other ways of approaching the Scriptures.
The Evangelical/Holiness method is practised during one’s daily ‘Quiet Time’ (in what Catholics have traditionally termed the ‘oratory’) where one asks ‘What is the word of the Lord here for me today?’ The great Evangelical missionary
Hudson used to
read the Bible right through regularly to spot any command he was not obeying. Taylor
The ‘Signs and Wonders’ approach asks ‘How can a Word from the Lord bring deliverance/ healing/insight to this ministry situation here/now?’
In the Academy/Seminary one of the key questions about the biblical material has to do with ‘provenance’ (a term the other two groups never use). They ask: how did the Bible get to be like it is?
1. Oratory (locus: my life as an obedient servant of Christ: a good NT example might be the author of the Epistle of James);
2. Ministry (within the Body of Christ and elsewhere – eg. Agabus and the itinerant prophets, Acts 11:27ff.);
3. Academy/Seminary (focusses on the mind – eg. Apollos?).
Each has its own culture/language/cliches/ideas.
There is hardly any overlap between these approaches in many/most churches. For example, if Agabus rocked up to an Evangelical or Progressive/Mainline church and announced he had a ‘word from the Lord’ for that congregation today, they generally wouldn’t know what to do with him. If a theological teacher asked the Evangelicals or Pentecostals about understanding the Torah in terms of the Documentary Hypothesis, they’d respond ‘Please explain!’.
(My own view, for what it’s worth, is that each of these broad approaches has value, and in fact describes the church’s historical transition from a first/second generation charismatic era, through a ‘routinization of charisma’ phase – where creeds and laws replace fervour and ‘life’ – to the mostly intellectual stance of the Academy, and the predictability of mainline churches’ worship rituals).
(Of course there are other ways to read the Bible, one of the best being the Lectio Divina approach).
1. Australian Baptist pastor Rex Hayward’s Daily Readings (2010) are pure ‘Evangelical’. There’s a Bible reading for each day of the year, a page of questions, brief paragraphs with challenging ideas for prayerful thought, and everywhere a call to holiness and serious commitment. There are no quotes (that I could find) from biblical scholars, but quite a few from hymns and sacred choruses. The readings are mostly from the Gospels and epistles (we journey right through Mark and James), with a few Old Testament prophets tossed in, and, I think only a couple of Psalms, and nothing that I recall from the Torah. The flavour is hortatory: and the target for Rex’s homilies is an ‘open heart and a teachable spirit’. Good for anyone, of any theological persuasion, who is willing to humbly submit to the Word of God in Scripture and be challenged to live a life of obedience to the will of Christ. You can order it from Wycliffe Bible Translators (Kangaroo Ground,
or from Rex himself (rexhayward [at] hotmail.com ). Victoria
2. Rachel Hickson’s Eat the Word Speak the Word: Exercising a Bible-based prophetic ministry (Monarch Books, Oxford UK, 2010) ‘takes us on a journey that will train you to respect and handle the word of God correctly, and then equip the prophetic gift within you’ (says the author on the back cover). Rachel Hickson and her husband Gordon run a ministry called Heartcry, training local churches ‘in the area of prayer and the prophetic’. They serve also as associate ministers at the respected St. Aldate’s Church
(where Canon Michael Green was rector for a decade 1975-86). Oxford
When one hears that phrase ‘the prophetic’ you can be sure the flavour is Pentecostal – not ever, or hardly ever ‘liberationist’: though, remarkably, there is actually one paragraph in this book about the great biblical/ prophetic emphasis on social justice.
These chapters comprise the essence of Rachel’s teaching – which she gives to churches and conferences around the world. She expects miracles, and we have a couple of examples here which ‘blow your mind’: (1) In
she had a
‘word’ for someone in her conference about ‘two zebras’ which she hesitated to
deliver because it seemed so crazy. But the Spirit’s pressure persisted: and
lo, a mixed-race couple came up to her very excited about their desire to have
children, and they’d used this term to describe their future offspring. (You
guessed it: the mother conceived about that time and nine months later twins
were born). (2) A crippled beggar-man in New York , paralyzed from the hips
downwards, was prayed for, then anointed regularly to remove the dead
skin from his legs. Ten years later she met him again: ‘He told me how after
being massaged with warm oil, his legs had begun to move more and more until
all the dead, hardened skin was removed, and now he could walk perfectly’. Malawi
Have any of my rationalist readers got a decent explanation for these?
Two of her mentor/heroes are the great Pentecostal giants-of-faith Smith Wigglesworth and Reinhard Bonnke: two people I’d encourage anyone to get to know. (I remember being a fellow-speaker at an Australian charismatic conference in Adelaide with Bonnke: and I’ve never witnessed, before or since. an auditorium filling up from the front backwards as early and as quickly as in Bonnke’s healing meetings!).
This is a balanced book, so Evangelicals and ‘Mainliners’ won’t be confronted with too much Pentecostal craziness (!). Sample: ‘Never accuse people of not having enough faith if they are not healed. We may not understand why people are not always instantly healed, but it is OK to admit we don’t know why’ (p. 183). I like that.
Highly recommended (with the couple of caveats mentioned earlier).
Linda M. MacCammon, Liberating the Bible: A Guide for the Curious and Perplexed (Orbis, 2008).
Professor MacCammon teaches theology and ethics to College students, and these chapters read like her lecture notes (and at the outset I want to record my envy of her students!).
Her first sentence in Chapter 1: ‘The Bible is a dangerous book. It is without question one of the most misinterpreted, misunderstood and misapplied books on the planet. Over the centuries, it has been used as a rationale for economic and social exploitation, the oppression of women and minorities, slavery, war and genocide. It has fostered anti-Semitism, misogyny, racial animus, homophobia… and every sort of crackpot cult imaginable. Yet the Bible has also been the driving force behind numerous social and political reform movements…’
More… ‘There is often a mistaken assumption that Biblical teachings can be extracted and applied directly to contemporary situations… [People cite] biblical texts on questions of divorce, homosexuality, stem-cell research, the status of women… the validity of other religions, and other complex issues…’
The old adage that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ comes to mind. As does this quote from Terry Eagleton: ‘If it is true that we need a degree of certainty to get by, it is also true that too much of the stuff can be lethal!’
So with a professional theologian and ethicist we proceed with humility and a teachable spirit! But don’t let me discourage you: she inhabits ‘simplicity the other side of complexity’. And her mentors are the best of the best – people like Paul Ricoeur, John Bright, E P Sanders, Leander Keck – and the evangelical F F Bruce.
And she applies the Bible to life. Like this: in the reflection questions at the end of the chapter on Genesis (and a discussion of the story of Cain and Abel) she asks us to ‘recall the last time you were really angry. Write down how you felt. Why were you angry? What did you want?’ Etc. Beautiful!
And this: How would each of the three Isaiahs assess some contemporary issues, such as global warming, the war in Iraq, HIV and AIDS, the growing gap between rich and poor…?’ (etc.)
(I hope I’m whetting the appetites of any reading this who’ve not yet had the privilege of studying theology with a good teacher! You can’t do better than to take a year or more off to do that – with no other distractions).
Three Isaiahs? Yes, and the validity of the documentary hypothesis for understanding the authorship and provenance of the Torah etc. Some stories in Genesis belonging to ‘sociology’ rather than ‘history’? Yes, maybe. But our good professor has a lively faith, and her purpose in raising these questions – which are everyday puzzles for professional biblical scholars – is to help us tread carefully through hermeneutical minefields, and come through on the other side with an ‘examined’ faith. In her Questions for Discussion and Reflection she guides us gently into some complex issues.
Like this one on p. 205: ‘Matthew’s anti-Judaism is not unique to the New Testament. How do you think anti-Jewish passages should be treated by contemporary interpreters? What does this phenomenon suggest about other biblical biases, such as sexism, homophobia, and intolerance of other faiths?’
The last paragraph is a comment by the Hindu sage Ramakrishna on the wisdom that our grasp of the Sacred is always partial and limited:
Mother, Mother, Mother! Everyone foolishly assumes that his clock alone tells correct time. Christians claim to possess exclusive truth… countless varieties of Hindus insist that their sect, no matter how small and insignificant, expresses the ultimate position. Devout Muslims maintain that Koranic revelation supersedes all others. The entire world is being driven insane by the single phrase: “My religion alone is true.” O Mother, you have shown me that no clock is entirely accurate. Only the transcendent sun of knowledge remains on time. Who can make a system from Divine Mystery?
If it’s not too late, order this one as a Christmas gift and spend a month dawdling through it on your annual holidays! It will open your eyes to the wonders of a biblical faith.