Is The Bible Important Today?

“The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.” Wallace Stevens

It occurs to me that there’s something that Professor Willie James Jennings almost takes for granted in writing his book Acts.  I say “almost”, because I don’t think Professor Jennings takes much at all for granted, even as a professor at the Yale Divinity School.

But here’s one thing I wonder about:  what difference at all does Acts make if the Bible isn’t important to you?  What if the Bible isn’t a source of guidance in your life?  What if it’s all “angels on the head of a pin”, foolish academic stuff? What if you find as much or more guidance in the I Ching?  Or what if Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night first showed you how to live and you re-read it yearly?  What if the guiding voice in your head is L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz? or the musical Wicked?

What if the Bible doesn’t matter?

I know it matters to me, and I know it matters to Professor Jennings, but in a world which is increasingly secular, does it still matter to the church?  Back in the day, the rule (the guideline) was that Christian worship had to include the reading of the Bible, an explanation of what had been read, and – ideally – prayer and the observance of Holy Communion.  Is it still important for Christians to read, explain and study the Bible?

If the Bible is important, then Professor Jennings’ book is as well. Indeed, his take on Acts  has the power and clarity to change our world.  But if the Bible is an optional extra, then Acts really is only idle thought.

Is the Bible important?  Is it essential to Christian living?  I say “yes!”.  Here’s why:

First, a note:  Christians generally evaluate ideas on the basis of three things:  Scripture, reason, and tradition (some add a fourth criteria, experience).  So when I think about why the Bible is important, those are the rules I will use to the best of my ability. 

The Bible is essential to Christian living because within it is contained the record of a thousand-year effort to follow God’s call to be a community where all are welcome.  It is the story of a progressively deepening understanding of what justice and mercy and love and community meant.  

The Bible is a core part of our life together and has been since the beginning of time.  Reading and studying Scripture is not something that was added on, but has been part of Jewish, and then Christian, worship from the very beginning.  Jesus is recorded in the Bible as reading from, and then explaining, Scripture in his home synagogue.  The letters of the New Testament tell us that the earliest worship services of the nascent Christian church consisted of reading the stories of Jesus and explaining them to the worshippers.  

The Bible speaks to our minds, giving us a framework through which to make sense of the world in which we live.  It’s not the only book/play/art work to bring us that gift, but it is the least tied to contemporary anything.  The Bible is not about style; it does not use today’s experiences; instead it speaks to style, experience, life.  

Now there are other, contemporary item which open our hearts and minds to God and God’s call; movies or television shows, plays, magazine articles.  That’s always been true.  Often, we’re tempted to think of those things as a kind of scripture, as something which speaks as well as, even better than, the Bible.  That presents a bit of a challenge because what was written this week (in this current time) is often so immersed in today that it is difficult to separate its specificity from the eternal.

It’s always been true, as well, that with the passage of time, some of what spoke so well to one generation loses its power to speak to the next, while other stories, sermons, prayers still break into our hearts and minds.  As these items age, the best, most powerful among them ripen into a timeless understanding. 

At the heart of worship, we need timeless; we need the Bible.  

But the Bible is confusing, hard to understand; it talks about so many things.  How can we possibly understand something written before people had properly figured out wagons and road (though the wheel had been invented, axles were still to come and good roads didn’t get going until Roman engineers put their minds to the problems).

And yet. . . and yet. . . the Bible is indeed a good and reliable guide to a well-lived life.  It is the key to understanding and living out the Christian faith:  we can be Christians and doubt every doctrine, but if we ignore the teachings of the Bible, we will inevitably miss the mark.

Here’s one example of what I mean:  on Saturday, on Facebook, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, one of the three leaders of the national United Church of Christ, wrote:

Just a troubling observation.  So often these days the transcendental takedown is what is perceived as prophetic. Tearing down, whether that is people or things, often feels good and the “hearts and likes” are off the charts. But neither destruction nor affirmation are indicators of the prophetic. 

The ultimate Call of the prophet is to heal and restore spiritually, emotionally, and communally. Often such work requires deconstruction, which is more careful and is less popular than destruction. Hence the hatred of the prophet. Wholeness is not popular and prophets are not celebrated.

We need a Movement toward authentic relationships so we can choose again the healing work of calling one another in instead of the titillating work of calling one another out.  Where have our real connections gone? Who do you trust to call you in? Or as Queen Mother Ruby Sales asked me yesterday:  Who is a love worthy of your labor?

Rev. Blackmon reminds us that while contemporary habit might raise up calling people out, Biblical life calls us to invite people in. In doing so, she reminds us why we need the Bible. Contemporary writing — well, the evils of our current time call forth our anger and in the immediacy of our emotions we can be carried away. But the Bible, while not ignoring our angers, helps us remember that we build more strongly when we build with love.

This is all about the overarching theme of the Bible – how to live together in community in a way which is marked by love, justice, mercy, extravagant generosity, radical hospitality.  

Any secular force might well say “we need to fight racism”.  But it is the Bible which calls us to struggle against racism with love, with a willingness to turn our world from me to we.  Calling folks out is a secular move, one that is built on a framework of power and authority.  Calling people in is a Biblical move, one which is built on a network of love and mutuality.

Studying the Bible is our life’s blood.  True, it requires some time spent learning a little of the background of the Bible.  Any good study Bible has the additional material to give us what we need.  Any pastor worth her salt can teach a basic introduction that’ll get you going.  It’s not a lot, not to get started:  just learn that the individual books were all written at different times, by different people (and not always those whose names are attached), and while the books can have radically different ideas about what to do in specific circumstances, every one of them is, at its base, about how to build community.

The Bible is not written to support particular theological ideas.  You won’t find the Apostles’ Creed in the Bible; you won’t find teachings about the meaning of Communion.  Those sorts of things came later.  Those ideas are fun, and they’re important, but they’re not essential.  What’s essential is understanding that this book can help us build community, can teach us how to love a world that is often unlovable.  

The Bible tells stories of broken people, folks who choose the wrong, and try again.  It’s not a book about perfect people who make one good choice after another.  Sometimes it tells stories about the mean, the angry, the hate-filled (and the hate-ful).  Sometimes the stories are filled with love.  Sometimes, they made great sense when they were written, but in today’s world, not so much.  

Some folks tell us that the Bible is worth reading because it is true, and it is true.  But it is not factual; it is not scientific.  It’s truth is not about history, or mechanics or science.  It’s truth is about human beings, about our relationships with one another, with the world, with God.  As Wallace Stevens writes, sometimes the greatest thing is to read something that you know is not factual and yet believe in its truth.  

That is the power of the book about which Professor Jennings writes.  That is why it’s worth our time and effort to read it, to understand it, and allow it to be our guiding star.

Arguing with the Author

Acts: Willie James Jennings, ACTS

Further Reflections:  Christians, Jews and Nationalism

Jennings writes:

  • Nationalism is a seductive way of understanding collective existence.
  • Nationalist vision is weakness and fear masquerading as strength and courage, because it beckons the world’s peoples to postures of protectionism and leans toward xenophobia
  • To think toward national existence is already to be thinking toward captivity and death.
  • We struggle to imagine collective life beyond nationalist form
  • God, however, overturns what we might anachronistically call Israel’s nationalist desire through nationalist form—the son of King David, King Jesus, will not form nationalists even as he forms a new people, but disciples.
  • Desire for a people and desire for a place belong to God, having been born out of the divine life expressed in the gracious act of creation. What belongs to God, God seeks to direct. God seeks to direct such desire in us toward holy ends and not the ends of statecraft or global or local markets. 
  • This is why the book of Acts is a direct, unequivocal assault on nationalism in all its forms. God from the very beginning of the Acts drama will not share holy desire with any nationalistic longing that draws borders and boundaries. The Holy Spirit will break open what we want closed and shatter our strategies of protectionism for the sake of a saving God who will give back to us precisely what we cannot hold onto with our own efforts and power, the continuities of our stories, our legacies, our hopes and dreams for a good future and a thriving life. God who will be all in all desires to bring all into all, the many into the many, just as the One is now in and with the many. Nationalism give energy to the false belief that only by its own single efforts can a people sustain its story, its hope, and its life. Such belief is unbelief for a Christian, because we know that God offers a new way found in a new life, a joining that brings stories, hopes, and life in a shared work of knowing, remembering, and testifying.[1]

Today, I’m reading a small sidebar essay inserted between two sections about Chapter 1.  In it, Jennings asserts that all of Acts is a condemnation of nationalism, the act of being a country.  Nationalism is impossible for the Christian, Jennings says, because the very acts which are central to Christian faith are impossible to the nationalist and the very acts essential to the survival of nationalism are antithetical to Christian faith and action.

Is he correct?  Surely.  If, and it’s a big if, if we understand his claim to be that there are no moral nations anywhere in the world, that conflict and war are part and parcel of the nature of countries, if we believe that it is wrong for Christians to engage in commerce with the intention of making money, and if it is impermissible for a Christian to compromise, then nationalism in all its forms is forbidden to the Christian.

Can anyone point me to a group of Christians who have successfully lived as community outside the bounds of nationalism?  That’s right:  the Amish do so, and so do many Mennonites and some other groups of Anabaptists.  Some Quakers would say they live in that way as well.  Looking at their lives, it’s clear that those folks abjure more than buttons on their clothing.  Life for the faithful Amish person may well mean no electricity (at least at home), very little formal schooling, making a living by farming, factory work, or other low-skilled local industry.  Few Amish folks go to college, become physicians, etc.  If they do, they most likely move their affiliation over to the Mennonites in the area.

It’s clear that living in this way, following the path of such modern monastics as Shane Claiborne, is more than we can expect most folks who claim Christian faith to buy into.  While I respect Professor Jennings’ naming of the challenges of living in a world framed by nationalism and driving by capitalism, I am concerned that by presenting this as a binary choice (either give up your country and remain a Christian, or give up Christianity and remain part of the system)… we will drive more people to see Christianity as unrealistic.

To me, this smacks of a kind of perfectionism, a call that says since our faith will be affected if we live as citizens in a country, then we must give up citizenship.  Here’s the problem I have:  the safety of those Amish folk, those conscientious objectors, depends on the willingness of others to stand in the way of danger.  And by removing the most powerful critics of dangerous nationalism from the public voice, it gives the voice of toxic nationalism more bandwidth.

Nationalism always lives in tension with our faith.  There’s always a pull towards putting too much faith, too much power into our vision of our country.  But communities need structure, and that structure needs to be completely separate from our faith community, not because of the American political doctrine of the separation of church and state, but because combining a particular faith with a particular political community concentrates too much power in one place. 

Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  If we do not recognize this, we’ll find ourselves expecting unending self- effacement from our faith community and it’s just not going to happen.

I think that, from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, folks have always recognized that he was calling us to a way that was close onto impossible for most people to follow, at least all the time.  In fact, I disagree with Professor Jennings that Acts is primarily about avoiding nationalism.  I think it is rather about living within the reality that is the intersection between nationalism and Christian faith.

That’s because I think Acts is about tough choices.  I do not think many of us have the calling to leave it all behind, to live as some sort of monastic, or in an intention community like Amish life.  For most Christians, life is complex.  We live enmeshed in a society that – lacking our witness to the importance of every life, would step on its own elders on the way to more  — more money, more luxury, more for me, less for you.  In other words, the world in which we live is soaked in self-centeredness. 

The challenge of existing in our present world will not be solved by saying we should step away from nationalism. Exiting would give unfettered self-centeredness the freedom to grab it all, and let the rest of the world die.  Who hasn’t seen that happening over the last four years in plain sight, and behind closed doors for centuries?  The challenge of today is how do we maintain a kind of dual allegiance which makes our Christian faith the rule against our secular loyalties are tested (and not the other way round, where we construct a faith which comports with the selfishnesses of the civic world).  

For that matter, who can’t see the sins of nationalism (power grabs, domineering behavior) among ecclesial organizations of every stripe?  Nationalism is not the exclusive province of countries, after all.  Churches want to maintain their eminence; church leaders want their perks, someone wants to control the endowment, someone wants things to be done their way and no others.  It is impossible to retreat from the sins which are part of every organization which attempts to control its members.  Even the loosest of organizations like the component parts of the United Church of Christ, fall prey to this sort of power-grabbing behavior from time to time.  We’re just not very good at it, unlike other more strictly organized denominations.

Last Sunday, Winston Baldwin, in his sermon, reminded us of the story of the time King David decided to build God what he thought would be a decent house.    He decided that he was the one who would make that decision.  God thought otherwise, and Winston reminded us all that though we’re always trying to put God in a box, to bring God’s call under control, to make it all about us and we and what we want, God has other goals, other aims.  And following God is not easy.  One of the things that makes it hard is that there are no hard and fast answers.

Instead, we are called to a more complicated relationship at the intersection of world and faith, nationalists who don’t worship nationalism, Christians who meet the world humbly, aware of our tendency to worship things and structures and people and power, instead of the God who has loved us.

[1] Jennings, W. J. (2017). Acts. (A. P. Pauw & W. C. Placher, Eds.) (First edition, pp. 23–24). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Easy Come, Not So Easy Go. . .

Part 2: a close reading and my reaction to Prof. Willie James Jennings’ commentary on the Acts of the Apostles:

We are going, heaven knows where we are going  (Woyaya – UUA Hymnal)

Acts 1:1-12

Because I most often read Acts as someone who knows the end of their story, it feels to me as if it’s all certain and sure.  Prof. Jennings calls me back to a time and place where the endings are totally unknown.  He reminds us that in the world of Acts, the apostles know only where they have come from and what happened back then.  But they do not know where they are going, and they’re not yet clear as to what “there” will be.  

In the last years of Andover Newton’s life in Newton, Mass, the song Woyaya was popular in chapel services.  Listen to it here <;, and you’ll hear why… for the song speaks of an “Acts” time, when all that is sure is yesterday, and tomorrow is completely unrevealed.  In those days, all we knew for sure was that change was coming; all we had to hold on to was a past of blessed memory.

And here’s a big problem:  everything that is tied to yesterday is tied to death and decay.  I don’t think that means that everything from yesterday is bad; it simply means that it was part and parcel of a time that is gone and that when we focus on that, we lose sight of this present day. When we hold on too tightly to yesterday, we find tomorrow is more and more frightening. Jennings reminds us of God’s constant presence in the in-between times.

My father’s family lives on a farm in northeastern Connecticut; we’ve owned the land, parent to child, since the late seventeenth century (though not always with the same last name, as the farm has had a habit of passing from father to daughter).  In my father’s mind, the farm was always sort of like the first photo – in my mind, it’s more like the second…. In reality, it’s a constantly evolving place.  Barns go up, barns come down.  Porches are added, then removed; the cows are a constant, but they’re not always the same breed.  The farmer who sticks to the first picture farm is a farmer who’s about to go out of business.  

So, to get back to Professor James’ book, are we still listening for yesterday’s word, or are we open to today?

Acts is a testimony to the way that Jesus – and Jesus’ Resurrection – changed the world.  So we do look back, we do pay attention to the past, but we do not stay there.  Jennings suggests that the reality of Resurrection is that Jesus is right here, right now; we are not left with dim historical stories, but are companioned by a living reality.

Jesus’ presence with us calls us into our present and asks us to face forward into the future.  In following Christ, we are not trying to reanimate the past but to see and really understand what living here and now asks of us.

The story of the Ascension reminds us, again, that it’s a waste of time and effort to look for Jesus in the past, to stare hopefully up to heaven as if it’s his job, and his job only, to live in that way which makes for community, builds peace, creates love.

In ascending, Jennings says, Jesus pulls us up after him, raising us up into heaven – if we can only see it.  

As I read this I wonder, just how much of my beloved past will I have to leave behind to follow Jesus into this new future?  It’s easy to write that all I have to put aside are those things which prevent me from seeing the future, but which are those things?  I can put aside racist attitudes (or at least I can aim to do that) and I recognize that those are bad things, but do I have to put aside the kind of music I’ve always loved, the music which brings me close to God?  I can leave behind my cultural attitudes about tattoos, but what about my love of peace, my desire for intellectual stimulation in worship?  

Is this only about those major, public issues such as racism, or is it also about the teeny household idols we hold in our hearts?

Everything I read in Jennings’ commentary tells me that replacing Jesus Christ with “me” – my likes, my family, my town, my country,….. my race is wrong, wrong, wrong.  All my life tells me that it all becomes enormously hard when you’re faced with giving up something that you really really love; all my faith tells me that sometimes that’s required.  And all my experience tells me that knowing when to hold on and when to let go is never going to be easy.

The Beginning of the Journey

Reading ACTS, by Willie James Jennings, WJKP, 2017

ACTS  Willie James Jennings, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017

During the next few weeks, I’m using some of the time freed up by “July at South Church” to do a close reading of Professor Willie James Jennings’ superb commentary on the Acts of the Apostles.  It’s my hope and plan to periodically add an essay on what I’m reading and how it affects me to this site.  

Professor Jennings’ book is thin, by commentary standards.  I own two other commentaries on Acts; each of them is at least an inch thicker than this one.  Each of them is filled with page after page of detail about the words, the context, the social situation, and even the condition of the oldest manuscripts.  In other words, each of them is all about the words.  Jennings writes about what the words mean for us today.

Each type of commentary is important – essential – to the scholar.  However, it’s possible to read Jennings’ commentary without ever touching the other; it is not particularly fruitful to read an analytical commentary without proceeding on to one which examines meaning.  

Jennings begins, in his introduction, by talking about why the Acts of the Apostles is important.  (I’m not going to go over his whole argument; but rather, just raise some thoughts which struck me as I read.)

In my childhood as a Hicksite Quaker, as I remember the lessons, we were the ones who followed pure, original, apostolic Christianity.  Everyone else was flawed; not so much that they weren’t really Christians, but enough that they were missing the “good stuff” that only we had.  “Look”, we were told, “at the Acts of the Apostles.  There you’ll see the model for how we do things; there you’ll see the proof that we are right, or at least the rightest, of all the Christian churches.”  Even the most modest of mid-twentieth century Quakers engaged in sometime triumphalism.  This is one of the most common ways we use the Bible:  look, we say, here’s proof that I’m right.  

The thing is, as soon as we say that, we’re wrong.  There’s a lot to be found in Jennings’ introduction, but the first thing is this: the Book of Acts is not a simple list of facts, like a tide table.  It is a story, and moreover, a story of how God has acted, is acting and will continue to act in our future.  History is not really about facts; facts are tools which storytellers us to help us see the meaning of history.

If we think of history as nothing but facts, it ossifies into something as solid as my grandmother’s gravestone.  There you can read her name, her birthdate, death date, and the name of my grandfather (they share a stone).  Those are the facts, but they are not the story.  The same kind of ossification takes place when we read Acts as a flat recitation of facts.  We know when Paul made his second missionary journey, perhaps, but we never look to see what that journey meant then or means now, where it points us into the future.

Jennings suggests that when we reduce history to “history for history’s sake”, we turn it into something that must be preserved without question, a source for answering “right way” questions, and thus something like the experience of the colonial life which seeks to recapitulate life in the world from which they came, without regard to current need.  (Think of the Congregational missionaries to Hawaii, trying to get the inhabitants to wear wool clothing, because, in their colonialist mindset, that’s what decent people wear.)

History is a story which lives in the spaces between the haves and the have nots.  Jennings calls these two poles empire and diaspora:  for Acts that means the Roman Empire and the scattering of Jews across the world (the Diaspora).  History, too often, tries to get us to choose between empire and diaspora.  We’re asked to either be the ones who have it all, or the ones who’ve lost it all.  The empire-ists in Acts only want actions and religions which support the hierarchies and structures of the Roman Empire; the diaspora wants to live as a body totally unconnected to Empire, turning away from anything which might cause the Jewish community to be assimilated.  Those two poles cannot be reconciled; they must live in constant opposition to each other.  

But, Jennings posits, Christianity lives in the spaces between Empire and Diaspora.  Christianity tries to build what he calls “the common”; a community which says there is something more important than being right; it is being loving.  It doesn’t matter where you originally belong: to become Christian is to abandon the values of each of those communities.

The common is a place where we all can meet, where we are not fixated on the one right way, not the right Diaspora way and not the right Empire way, but rather coalesce around the Christian way, which has many right ways.  The story of the birth of the common is the story of Acts.  It is the story of moving away from the life of total disconnection while avoiding moving into the lifestyle of the Empire.

I think of this and remember so many arguments in church life that, in the light of Jennings’ introduction, are arguments about power, not arguments about carpets, or what kind of music to play.  It makes me think that in many ways, all life is a struggle between those who have power and those who don’t.  

The central concerns, the rightnesses of Christian faith, at its best, are about how we behave with one another and how we interact with the powers and principalities of our world.  They’re not about matters of taste or custom; those things can be important to believers, but they are adiaphora…. things that, however personally important, are not essential.  One of the most challenging tasks of the believer is to discern which things matter to our faith and which do not.  The Acts of the Apostles is the story of a beginning effort to figure that out.

What things do we think are central?  What matters to God?  When are we acting out of our sense that ours is the right wayand when are we acting as if we’re totally cut off from things? When are we bringing it all together?

Next time:  Chapter 1 – how it all began.