Do you trust the Bible?
That’s why a sign in front of a church I pass on the way home asked recently.
Do I trust the Bible?
It’s an interesting question; one that leads me to other questions.
Do I trust the Bible to teach me about science? Do I trust it for medical advice? Do I trust it as a history book?
The answer to all of those questions is no. But that doesn’t mean I don’t consider the Bible important or look to it as a guide for other parts of my life.
Our collect, or prayer, for today addresses how we approach scripture.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This prayer was written almost 475 years ago by Thomas Cranmer, a leader of the reformation of the English Church, and the author of the Church of England’s first prayer book.
The words may be almost half a millennium old, but they still speak to us, and say something about the heart of the Episcopal Church — the way we read and approach scripture.
From time to time I am asked a question by a conservative Christian: Does your church believe the Bible? That question is a variation of the one on the church sign.
It’s usually asked in an accusatory tone, with the implication that me standing there with a clergy collar around my neck is a sure sign that we don’t. After all, doesn’t the Bible say women should not be silent in church?
Of course, I always reply that we do, and point out that in every Sunday service we hear four readings from scripture. That can be surprising to someone who goes to a church where the preacher selects a verse or two each week that he (and it is always a he) wants to preach on.
Although I can assure a questioner that good Episcopalians do believe the Bible, our approach to and interpretation of scripture is very different from our fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ.
Biblical literalism and inerrancy are at the heart of a what a fundamentalist believes about scripture. That means in their reading of the Bible, they believe every word is literally true with meaning that does not change over time. And they believe the Bible is inerrant, every word is divinely inspired and contains no mistakes — factual or otherwise.
I’ve never really understood this approach. The very first pages of scripture, the first and second chapters of Genesis, contain two entirely different stories about creation. There are truths about God in both of them.
But if you believe the Bible should be read literally and contains no factual mistakes, how do you explain two contradicting stories in scripture’s first pages?
No one can literally follow all of scripture’s teachings, as one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite television shows demonstrates.
In the first season of the West Wing, President Jed Bartlett, a devout Catholic, confronts a conservative Christian radio host, a constant critic of his administration, who often quotes chapter and verse of scripture in her criticisms.
“I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7,” he says to her. “She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, and always clears the table when it is her turn. What would be a good price for her?
“While thinking about that, can I ask another? My chief of staff insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?
“Here’s one that’s really important, because we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes us unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point?
“Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side by side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?”
It’s a funny scene, but a literal approach to scripture is often not funny at all. The Bible has been used, or abused, to do untold harm to millions of people.
The Episcopal Church has often been accused of abandoning scripture. That accusation came with the ordination of women, something that most fundamentalist Christians believe is against the Bible’s teaching.
The cries became louder as the Episcopal Church came to the forefront of advocating for the rights of God’s gay, lesbian, and transgender children, including ordination and marriage.
Yes, there are a handful of verses that seem to condemn same-sex behavior, just as there are verses that promote slavery, encourage anti-Semitism, and say women are inferior to men.
But those verses must be put in the context of the times in which they were written, and set against the overarching Biblical message of God’s love and mercy, and the pursuit of justice and liberation for all of God’s people.
I once read an article called “Preaching the Gospel versus Preaching the Bible.”
That may not make sense at first. Aren’t those the same thing?
Well, not necessarily.
As Christians, followers of Jesus, we are called to proclaim the Gospel, that is God’s message of good news, which is found throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Those good tidings tell the story of God’s people moving from oppression to liberation, of radical forgiveness and equality, of God’s love for all creation.
But to say that the good news of the Gospel is found in every passage of the Bible is not true.
What may in a narrow sense seem like an accurate interpretation, when seen in the larger sense of the Gospel, may be antithetical to proclamation of God’s good news.
Take those handful of verses that seem to condemn homosexuality. When taken out of context and with no consideration for the times and circumstances in which they were written they can become deadly weapons.
When Mary Lou Wallner’s daughter Anna confessed to her mother that she was a lesbian, Mary Lou responded harshly, as her church taught her to do. Anna committed suicide.
Now Mary Lou devotes her days to countering the teachings she learned in church and believed most of her life.
“My daughter is dead because of the untruth I was taught by my church,” she says.
Or take verses from the New Testament, particularly the Gospel of John, that condemn Jews for the death of Jesus. There have been times in not-so-distant history when Christians have heard John’s Gospel on Good Friday and left church to go beat up or kill Jews in retaliation for Jesus’ death.
I don’t believe that Jesus would approve.
So how do we read and interpret scripture in a faithful way?
First, we try to learn the context in which it was written. We believe that Scripture was inspired by God, but it was written by human beings for a particular group of people in a particular time and place.
Who did the words address? What was going on at that time? Why were these words important? What questions were they trying to answer?
Then we need to look at our own context. Our lives today are very different from the original hearers of scripture. What do the words say to us now? Are they still relevant in our situation?
How do they fit in with the overarching Biblical message of God’s love? Where is the good news? What do they call us to do?
This is not always easy. That’s where today’s collect comes in. We are supposed to hear and read scripture, to learn and inwardly digest it.
It’s the inwardly digest that stands out there. As one commentator wrote: “It’s a gustatory metaphor for coming to grips with Scripture. We are to ingest, to ruminate, to chew the cud of the Scripture for hours, days, years, even our lifetimes.”
In other words, we need to let ourselves be challenged by Scripture, to sometimes be made uncomfortable by it, to let it get caught in our throat as we try to digest it.
Digesting it also means that it becomes part of who we are, part of our being. It guides us and shapes our lives.
So yes, Episcopalians do believe the Bible. We may not always take it literally, but we always take it seriously.