Theology and Reading Scripture

Theology affects my Bible reading. When I remember God loves me, I can take even words of correction as loving. When I forget God’s love, I find it hard to accept God’s correction.

In other words, if I believe God loves me, I can accept God’s word as loving, even when it seems unpleasant. If I believe God is out to get me, even words of love can be twisted into something like a personal attack.

My theology (do I view God as loving or adversarial?) makes a big difference in being able to hear God.

Steinbeck, Worms, and Preaching

Today I am sharing a quotation from Chris Erdman’s Countdown to Sunday A Daily Guide for Those Who Dare To Preach in which he quotes John Steinbeck to illustrate how preachers should handle the text. Enjoy!

“If you want to know how to handle this text, I’ll steer you toward the novelist John Steinbeck over the mass of contempoary preachers. Stenibeck knows how to handle the kind of stories, rants, poems, prayers, commands, and whatever else makes up the pages of the Bible. Steinbeck knows nature and the human condition into which you and I are sent to preach the gospel. Here’s Steinbeck with a pretty accurate description of the preacher’s art —

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream….How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise–the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream–be set down alive? When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto the knife blade and then lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book–to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.

I’m hard-pressed to imagine a better way of handling the Bible…and opening its pages among those whose lives are as full of as much stink and noise, light, tone, and habit as those whose lives the Bible wants us to capture whole. Work too hard at getting them out and off the page, and you’ll do them damage or injustice. Better to open the page and let the stories crawl out all by themselves. That’s when your preaching will be its best, and you’ll find yourself working at your task with more wonder and a lot less chore.” (pages 49-50).

A Morning Prayer

“Let not thy Word, O Lord, become a judgment upon us, that we hear it and do it not, that we know it and love it not, that we believe it and obey it not; O thou, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, world without end. Amen.”
–Thomas a Kempis

Topical Hazards

When I was back in school I enjoyed taking a systematic theology class. Through the years I have read a number of helpful systematic theology books. I know there is a place for discussing Bible teachings topically. But having said that, there is a real danger when Bible study, and for that matter sermons and classes, are limited to topical approaches.

The expository preaching class I took years ago at Harding University Graduate School of Religion was one of the highlights of my time there (there were many). I remember discovering for the first time the importance of approaching scripture as it was written. I vividly remember the time when I was sitting in that class back in 1981 and realized, “If God had wanted to give us a topical Bible, He could have (but He didn’t).”

In spite of the fact that He didn’t, some people approach their Bible study, even their teaching and preaching, as if God had given us a topical Bible. And so if they want to do in-depth study about, let’s say for example, baptism, healing, or prayer they just look up those topics and study the verses wherein the words appear with little thought of the context.

What results is we end up reading isolated verses about baptism without reading the broader context of the story of redemption God has given us. So, for example, baptism is isolated from the broader themes of faith and grace. We know what happens when we study baptism in isolation from the story of faith and grace, don’t we? And, as a second example, what happens when we pull out the topic of healing from the story? We isolate it from the bigger story which includes suffering, trials, perseverance, and death at every turn. Finally, consider the topic of prayer. Think of how much richer and fuller our understanding of prayer if we see prayer as a part of the overall story instead of just pulling out verses. What was the situation? What was being prayed for? How was the prayer answered? Did what resulted from the answered prayer have the intended consequence?

I have found the best way to study a topic is to read the Bible. That allows us to see whatever the topic of interest as a part of the bigger story of redemption that is the Bible (Similarly, the story of the disciples’ spiritual formation that I mentioned yesterday is best understood as you read through the entire gospel of Mark). So what’s your topic of interest? Worship? Gender roles? Justice? Poverty? Sexual ethics? Whatever it may be – may I suggest that actually reading through the Bible may be a much more effective way of discovering God’s will than resorting to a topical Bible.
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And on a related note —

Skyline’s adult education curriculum was designed with special attention to the big picture of the Bible. I want to share just a few quotations from Walter Brueggemann’s book The Creative Word: Canon as a Model for Biblical Education that help explain why attention to the whole is essential in Christian education. I want to highly recommend this book to anyone who is taking on the challenge of putting together a church education program.

The discussion I propose is simply this: Attention to the process and shape of canon may tell us something about education in ancient Israel. In addition, it may provide clues for our own educational task. . . (page 4).

The three agents of instruction are identified as priest, wise, and prophet. The three shapes of knowledge are said to be Torah, counsel, and word. Each of these, I shall argue, has a special substance and a distinct mode in the life of Israel. And a faithful community must attend to all three, not selecting one to the neglect of the others, or subordinating one to make it conform to the others (page 8).

I propose that church education, both in its modes and its substance, has gone awry precisely because of the failure to hold these three parts of the canon, these three normative modes of disclosure, in balance and in tension (page 11).

Such education, such ministry rightly done is radically subversive. It evokes resistance and hostility. That should not surprise us. That indeed is the condition of church education. Any educator who hopes to avoid that abrasion by focusing on one aspect alone cannot claim to be facing the whole canon in all its richness (page 13).

Absorbed

Several years ago Lourene and I were in a movie theater watching In the Line of Fire. The movie stars Clint Eastwood as a Secret Service agent assigned to protect the President of the United States and John Malkovich as the assassin who is trying to kill him.

The intensity of the movie built as the assassin’s plan to kill the President began to unfold. As I sat next to Lourene I could tell she really was getting into the movie. But even though I knew she was getting more and more nervous, I was not ready for what happened next. In a pivotal moment in the movie where the agent is looking for the assassin Lourene actually spoke out loud trying to help Clint Eastwood, “Watch out! He’s right behind you!”

The people sitting around us laughed, Lourene was momentarily humiliated but seconds later was absorbed in the plot again. We were both exhausted when we left the theater that day. What an intense experience!

That’s the only time my wife has ever done anything like that in a movie theater. But I cannot tell you how many times I have seen her get equally absorbed in a passage of Scripture. As I consider all the things I appreciate about my wife on this, our 28th anniversary, right at the top of the list has to be the way she totally loses herself when reading Scripture. And often as she reads she will say out loud to me, “He’s right here! God is right here with us”

Every time I see Clint Eastwood I think about that moment and I give thanks for a wife who loves to get totally lost in God.

Feeding On Scripture

“Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.”
Eugene Peterson in Eat This Book, p. 18