Friday, December 12, 2008

Scripture and God's People: Redux

The following is the final paper I wrote for an introductory class called Thinking Through Theological Education. In it the goal was to struggle with the "sacred texts" of Christians. In the first couple weeks we wrote a short paper sharing our view of the role of the Bible in Christian faith and practice, and you can find that here. This follow-up, answering the same question, is intended to chart any changes in our view. I'm interested to know what you think! Enjoy.

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In the summer of 2007 I spent two months in Tomsk, Russia, serving the church there in a missions internship with two of my best friends. Our main evangelistic practice was to meet with young Russian students interested in the Bible and study it with them. Usually they were interested enough as it was, but they also appreciated being able to practice their English. After getting to know them and where they were coming from—but before we opened a Bible—we would tell them what came to be infamously known by us interns as (humbly), The Story of God.

I was the designated storyteller, and the first time’s organic happening evolved into a regular practice: before opening the strange and particular texts of Scripture, our fresh-eared friends had to hear the story from beginning to end. What other way to evangelize is there? The life of the church and its story—that is it! So I told the story. Though certainly not always fully faithful, it painted the canvas broad before we went small. Beginning with creation, through Abraham and Moses and Israel’s exodus, through covenant and land and monarchy, through disobedience and destruction and exile, through prophets and homecoming and new promises, to Jesus and new covenant, death and resurrection, Spirit and church, discipleship and mission, community and peace, hope and new creation. One response was right on target: “That is a good story!”

So the Bible is a story; and Christians believe it is the story, the true story of God, creation, life, humanity, the past and present and future. In what ways ought this true story—with all of its strange tales and archaic texts, antiquated laws and uncensored violence, dreary failures and dazzling visions—to inform, guide, root, bound, and free Christian faith and practice?

First and foremost, the Bible cannot be divorced from the church. That may sound axiomatic, but the story Christendom tells is Christians using the Bible everywhere but the church. If the Bible is “the” true story of God and his creation, yet given to God’s people, there are two places equally unfit as “home” for the Bible: the state, and the academy. Both may benefit from the leavening of Scripture through the church – for example, the end of slavery or the study of the literature of antiquity – and neither ought to be “kept” from it; but the home of the Bible is the church. When it is the product or possession of the state, theocracy and oppression and anti-witness blossom; when its abode is the academy, it drops dead, lifeless and devilish. Scripture and its story cannot live, cannot flourish, outside the mediation of the church’s communal life and worship.

Second, dogmatic absolutes as requisites to biblical belief are unnecessary, precisely because the Bible makes no such claims for itself. Thus words like “inerrant” and “infallible,” though attempting to name the great truth that is God’s revelation, are misplaced insofar as they miss both the meaning of Scripture and what Scripture understands itself to be. Here Christians would do well to follow the example of the Jews, whose intimate, familial, unapologetic wrestling with the text (like Jacob with God) takes Scripture more seriously without allowing naiveté about what Peter Ochs calls the “woundedness” of the text to creep in. While forsaking such dogmatic claims may hurt the church’s ability to name exactly “what” the Bible is as God’s truth, it also frees Christians to simply be the people who believe and live into that true story.

Because, third, the Bible is unfinished. Christians, together as the people of God, continue to live out the “final, unwritten act of the play” (as N.T. Wright puts it). The future has already come (in miniature) in the death and resurrection of the Messiah; God’s newly reconstituted people, Jews and Gentiles, live out that future in the present as the vanguard of the coming kingdom. This will call for improvisation both formed by the Bible and moved “beyond” it. Not “beyond” in the modern sense of “progress,” but rather so constituted and shaped by the witness of God’s true story in Scripture that truly new things happen. This comes about because God is the God who does new things, and because his Spirit is the witness, advocate, and guide for the church; no interpretation or reading can be divorced from the leading of the Spirit.

Eugene Peterson offers the wonderful image of what formation by Scripture ought to look like in his Eat This Book. We take the Bible into ourselves, communally and individually, chew on it, digest it, receive nourishment (and possibly indigestion!) from it. Importantly, in the context of the metaphor, we usually do not eat alone. Sometimes we do, but food is meant for fellowshipand the same for Scripture. Not all are literate; not all literates can read the Bible; and, as Stanley Hauerwas would remind us, each individual, beginning at age 12, reading his or her Bible alone in a room, divorced from the virtuous habits of the church as well as from the authority of its tradition, is a recipe for a disaster—one that already happened in the terrible tragedy of the denominationalism following the Reformation.

As someone belonging to a tradition called Restoration, I both know intimately the tragedy of which he speaks and the power of the formation he demands. I was raised in a church of Christ that trained me in what it meant to be part of a community that claimed the status of “family” over any other; that cared for every single member in any situation; that worshiped and learned and ate and laughed together every week of every month of every year; that heard and read and memorized and ate the words of Scripture with a ferocity of hunger wonderfully inimitable; that called its young people to leadership and faith and discipleship from day one. Before I ever met the works of Hauerwas, Yoder, Wright, Hays, or anyone else, I knew their "daring" ecclesiology because I grew up not knowing it was odd or unique—only that it was that holiest word for us: biblical.

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