“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.