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Reading the Bible in Context and Community

Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1956 “The 10 Commandments.”

The Bible is a beautiful and mysterious gift to the Church but an admittedly hard book to read. In it are stories dating back as many as 3400 years about people and customs we don’t understand, and that we question the relevance of for our lives today. Moreover, carry a lot of baggage into our reading of the Bible. We should want to read the Bible, we tell ourselves. We should know why this is important for us, we say. If we were more faithful, reading the Bible would be easier, we think. Underneath all of this, I suspect, is a lot of confusion and maybe a little bit of guilt.

 

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read the Bible:

Ned Flanders, beloved Fundamentalist of Simpsons fame.

The Bible was written by believers for believers. It’s a resource of faith for faithful people, not a blunt object to tell people what to do or to help us judge who’s good and who’s bad (in fact, the Bible tells us, specifically, not to do that in John 8:1-11). The original authors wrote their texts for communities who already believed, or at least wanted to believe, but who needed encouragement, understanding, and sometimes correction. The Bible makes more sense when we hear it with the ears of “faith seeking understanding,” (in Latin, fides quaerens intellectum, as the theologian and philosopher, St. Anselm, wrote). Thus, our reading should begin, first and foremost, with love for God. Sometimes this looks like the bereaved man who said to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

Reading the Bible is a spiritual practice for Christians, and one that is best accompanied by other spiritual practices rather than done in isolation. All spiritual practices are meant to direct us to God and help us grow in our love for God (see #1). Thus, reading the Bible helps us see a pattern of God’s love and mercy in people’s lives, which helps us to better see it in our own life. In this regard, faith seeking understanding means “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God” and is best situated with other practices such as prayer, worship, and service to others.

The Bible was written for communities to be read within communities. We know that our Hebrew ancestors only heard the Torah read in the Temple or Synagogue as only the priests and scribes had access to the scrolls it was written on. In the Christian tradition, people didn’t have copies of the Bible for private use until after the Reformation (16th century), but most only heard scripture read aloud in church even well after that. Moreover, holy scripture was traditionally accompanied by a teaching about it by a rabbi/priest or minister. We should keep in mind both the context in which it was written (what was going on in the community it was written for that necessitated this particular message) and the context in which we hear it now (not just my individual life, but the common life of all faithful people, ie. ‘the church’) as we try to understand it.

In the Book of Nehemiah, the Jewish priest, Ezra, finds the Torah scroll and reads it for all the Israelites to hear.

The Bible is the inspired word of God, which contains “all things necessary for salvation,” but it is not the literal word of God. In the Episcopal Church we believe the Bible is one of three elements of faith that provides authority for the Church, the other two being reason and tradition. It is neither traditional nor reasonable to believe the Bible is the literal word of God, but it is also not necessary for it to nevertheless be sacred and true. Episcopalians believe the Bible is the source of God’s revelation, as it is inspired by God, and is therefore the source of all Christian teaching. So what is the truth of the Bible?

The Bible is fundamentally a story about God’s love. This is the truth of the Bible. Throughout both the Old and New Testament, God reaches out in love to care for and guide humanity. God made the world perfectly good but humans distorted that goodness by turning away from God, preferring our own perceptions of what’s good. But again and again God sent prophets to call us to repent of our sin and return to God’s goodness. Eventually God sent Jesus Christ to live among us, to proclaim God’s love, and to show us how to love one another. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that don’t sound very loving but we shouldn’t read those passages as though they were isolated from the many contexts in which they were written, intended, and heard by the first recipients.

All of the principles that I’ve articulated here have pointed to the fact that the Bible must always be situated–whether in the context of faith or in the midst of other spiritual practices, or within community or among other sources of authority. But the most important context in which to read the Bible is that of God’s love. Incarnation exists to be a community that reads the Bible together and that tried to live according to God’s love. We do this every Sunday at House Church where I am continually amazed at the depth and sincerity of both questioning and striving that everyone brings to our conversations. It’s a real joy to be a part of it.

What do you think is important to keep in mind as you read the Bible? In what communities and contexts do you read the Bible? Share your comments here. If you’re looking for a community to read the Bible with, give us a shout.

The Four Questions

For the past several months I’ve been intentionally asking intimate questions of friends, acquaintances, and cooperative strangers. The questions are simple but they have led down some deep paths. They are:

  1. What do you think about church?
  2. What do you think about God?
  3. What do you think about Jesus?
  4. What is community and where do you find it?

When I invite people to talk with me about these topics I make it clear that I am not trying to recruit or proselytize, but that I genuinely want to understand what they think and feel about these subjects.

What I’ve learned has been fascinating and, at times, inspired. People express their misgivings about church. The share their difficulties and wounds. They share doubts about being part of something that seems quick to judge and slow to help. Some with church backgrounds see the church as boring or confusing. Some without church backgrounds aren’t sure what it means to be part of a church. Many speak wistfully about having a spiritual community for themselves and their families.

When we turn to talk of God and Jesus the mood lifts and most people who have had negative experiences with church feel differently about God. Though I intentionally do not ask what people “believe,” many confess a belief in a higher power. Many describe God as all-loving, ever-present, and all-powerful. And many say they can’t help but believe in God when they see the beauty of creation or look into the faces of their children or loved ones. People often see God at work in the quirks and coincidences of life.

Most believe Jesus existed, that he was a loving teacher and maybe a prophet. But there are a lot of questions. Was he really God? Did he die and rise again? If so, what happened to him after that? I share that people in the church have been struggling with these questions for ages, and even though we believe we have some answers, there are always great clouds of mystery surrounding Jesus’ divinity.

People unequivocally shared their desire for connection and belonging. Lots of people get this kind of connection through affinity groups. (Many of the people I talked with are part of my wonderful running group, Trail Roots.) One common desire is for community that doesn’t depend on interest or ability or demographics, and many lamented not having a community where they can “go deeper” or explore their spirituality.

Particularly as I work to start this church, I am aware of what I hear people telling me they need:

  • Friendships that go beyond “being polite”
  • Spaces where they can feel safe and “go deeper”
  • A place to explore their spiritual side
  • A community that includes all and doesn’t feel judgy or require you to call yourself a Christian in order to be a part of it

What do you think about church, God, Jesus, and community? Please share in the comment section below. Better yet, find a spiritual friend and talk with them. Need a spiritual friend? That’s what we’re here for. Incarnation is committed to creating deep spiritual community for people who want connection, purpose, and belonging. We’d love to have you join us.

Praying the Daily Office

The Daily Office is patterned off of an ancient practice of prayer that traces back to our Hebrew ancestors. The Old Testament tell us, “Seven times a day I praise you” (Psalm 119:164), which was also taken seriously by many of the first followers of Christ. Eventually, small numbers of women and men fled from towns and cities to live in the wilderness or deserts so they could dedicate their lives to praying and working for God. When some of them gathered together in communities, which we now know as monasteries, they, too, prayed and recited the Psalms seven times a day.

An icon of the Desert Fathers

The first bishops and priests in the early Christian church, many of whom came from monasteries, themselves, recognized that stopping for prayer seven times a day would be hard for ordinary women and men so they combined the various prayers and readings into two principle forms of prayer–Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. This is what Episcopalians call the Daily Office. The word ‘office’ comes from the Latin word for duty, thus, the Daily Office was our ‘daily duty.’

When the Book of Common Prayer was created, shortly after the Church of England split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, these forms of prayer were included in it so that individuals and families could use them in their homes if they weren’t able to attend church services where they were said. And, until the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was published, Morning Prayers was considered the main Sunday service.

We prayed together at a bar in South Austin and got some pretty funny looks.

Praying using the Daily Office, whether occasionally or every morning and evening, is a robust way to adopt a personal pattern of prayer. The words are beautiful and evocative and there is great comfort in having language already given when our own words fail us. Moreover, they say what we believe to be true about God and ourselves, but they also help express our desires as people who yearn for connection with God and each other.

Below are a few of our favorite online resources for exploring this practice. Let us know in the comments what you’ve found to be the most helpful for your own prayer life, or if you have questions about how to get started. And, if you are looking for a community to pray with, contact us to find out about Incarnation ATX.

Mission St. Clare has a website and an app that includes each day’s scripture readings, as well as the prayers and psalms for the day. You can find the app in the App Store or on Google Play.

Forward Movement has a number of resources, including the full format of prayer and scripture readings, or just the readings–for when you want to use your actual Book of Common Prayer to say the rest of the prayers.

The Book of Common Prayer, obviously, also has the forms for Morning and Evening Prayer (as well as lots of other prayers). It does not include the readings, but it does list them, starting on p. 934, in the Daily Office Lectionary, so you can look them up in your Bible. An online version of the whole Book of Common Prayer can be found here.