We are now in week 2 of the Advent season. Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas. What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.
This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity. Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.
This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Bible.
For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life. Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.
Williams takes pains to remind us that the picture many evangelicals, and perhaps other Christians as well, have of someone all alone in a quiet room with an open Bible in front of him/her, studiously devouring every word, is a relatively modern phenomenon. For the vast majority of church history and all of Old Testament history prior, people did not have their own personal copies of the Bible. Scripture was something that was recited, usually within the context of a public worship service. The same is true for Christians in many parts of the world today.
This is not to diminish the importance of personal Bible study. And Williams does not either:
Now I say this not to deny the importance of all Christians having a Bible in their pocket with which they are familiar, but to point out that very often we make a set of assumptions about what is central and most important for Bible reading, which would have been quite strange in many parts of the Christian world for many centuries. And it still is strange to many of our fellow Christians today.
The Bible in the hands of individual believers was a needed corrective for many abuses that had arisen during medieval times. But the benefit of having easy access to our own personal copies of Scripture to read and study at any time comes with some side effects that I do not think we have fully considered. First, a book is impersonal and the emphasis on individual Bible study that is pervasive in evangelicalism leads us to believe that our primary responsibility is to study, parse, and analyze independently. Reading Scripture in corporate worship personalizes it by emphasizing the I-thou dynamic that is present in conversation. Second, it leads us to prioritize our own study and interpretation of Scripture–apart from and independent of the community of other believers–over hearing the Word in the context of community.
When you do get around to reading and studying the Bible, you will find that it is a very complex thing which resists any attempt to cast it as a simple, straightforward “Thus saith the Lord…”. The Bible is a collection of texts which span several centuries and represent a bewildering diversity of perspectives and literary forms. You think the Bible is one thing and then lo and behold, you turn the page and it is something completely different.
According to Williams, the best way to understand the Bible is as a parable. It is a record of how a certain people saw, heard, and responded to what God was doing in their midst. The operative question is the same as it is for any of Jesus’ parables: Who are you in the story? Where are you in the story?
Ultimately, this brings us back to Jesus. Says Williams:
It is all very well to talk about finding yourself in God’s story, about reflecting and imagining; but, as we do all that, how can we decide what a good or bad interpretation of that story might be like? What criteria do we have for discerning truth from falsehood? The Christian answer is, unsurprisingly, in terms of Jesus Christ. As Christians read the Bible, the story converges on Jesus. The full meaning of what has gone before is laid bare in Jesus. The agenda for what follows is set in Jesus. And, without trying to undermine or ignore the integrity of Jewish Scripture in itself (a complex question that needs the most careful and sensitive understanding of the experience and reflection of our Jewish brothers and sisters), the Christian is bound to say that he or she can only read those Jewish Scriptures as moving towards the point at which a new depth of meaning is laid bare in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
As we read the Bible, we place ourselves in the story. We understand from the perspective of the people who are living out the story. We attempt to make sense of their words, attitudes, and actions, and relate and evaluate it all in terms of Jesus Christ. What we learn of him helps us to evaluate what constitute a faithful response and what constitutes an unfaithful response.
Williams gives an example from the development of the Tanakh (the Jewish law/prophets/writings). Jehu was anointed by the prophet Elisha to become king of Israel and purge the evil legacy of king Ahab from the land. Jehu does this by slaughtering en masse Ahab, his family, and his supporters at a place called Jezreel. The story is presented and celebrated in 2 Kings as a triumph of God’s righteousness. But only a few generations later, the prophet Hosea takes a much different view of things:
For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1.4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.’
Williams brings it all together by emphasizing that the Bible is a thing which we read together:
The Bible that we read is a Bible that has already been read by countless Christians before us, and is being read by others today. And so we need to listen not only to what the Bible is saying, but to what it is saying to those around us and those in the past. That is one of the meanings of ‘tradition’ in the Church. You listen to the way in which people have been reading the Bible. And it is one of the crucially important things about the Church now: that we listen to one another read the Bible…
So we read together, we hear together. And instead of that picture of the Bible as a book held in the hands of a solitary reader alone in a room, have in your mind another kind of picture, one in which somebody is proclaiming God’s story to a gathering of diverse people – and all of them asking themselves, and asking one another, ‘How do we find ourselves in this? How are we going to be renewed together by this reading?’ Because when that happens, the Bible is an essential source, as well as a sign, of the Christian life.