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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Drawing the Line: Bible 1

I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I proclaim this belief out loud, almost every day, and I have professed this belief a myriad of times and in a wide variety of places. I am not embarassed by this and do not consider it to be simple-minded or deluded.

I live in (metro) Memphis. I came here in ninth grade. I was a Catholic boy in a Protestant ocean populated by lots of Baptists. There were also Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians and countless others. I was taught that Jesus died to save me. I was also taught to live right or I would end up in Hell. I was taught to pray every day and do good things for others. I was taught to go to church every Sunday and Holy Day. I was taught to obey the commandments. For the most part I bought into all of it and I tried relatively hard to do what I was supposed to do. Fortunately, I had confession available when I fell short. So there was hope.

In January, 1976, I made Cursillo. It was my "born again" experience. I went to a deeper level with Jesus and intensified my commitment to Him. I pondered faith more. I also began reading the Bible. The first book I ever read was James. I read Matthew alot. There was no bible study at my church. The typical Catholic church back then did not really do that. So I started a bible study with some friends. A bunch of nineteen year olds need guidance, which we did not have. Unfortunately we ended up in the law. I remember reading about men fighting, a woman reaching out and touching a man in his private place and the punishment. Needless to say, we all began giggling and laughing. (teen aged boys have limits!). We got clear real quick that we needed a guide. Our next effort was to listen to tapes on the bible. We got one on Revelation. It was a "Late, Great Planet Earth" reading of the Apocalypse and it was scarey and interesting. It helped me be clear that I did not want to be left behind with Anti-Christ.

For the next two years I read my bible and went to church. One day an old high school friend came by. He had been saved and wanted me to be saved, too. I was sort of happy to see him, but as we talked some of what he said confused me. I asked him where Baptists came from and he told me "John the Baptist." I asked him where Catholics came from and he said, "some drunk guy." (teen aged boys have limits!) This was not the first time I had heard anti-catholic sentiments, but it was the strongest expression of it I had ever encountered.

Over the years, my love affair with Scripture and my ecumenical nature ("can't we all get along?") have reshaped my Catholicism. I am considered quite Evangelical for a Catholic. I am told I preach like a Baptist. (I preached once at a funeral at Bellevue Baptist, a super big church in Memphis. Adrian Rogers, their pastor, was present. After the service he told me, "You are very bold.") On the other hand, in seminary, my Master's thesis was "A Catholic Response to Fundamentalism." I am not a literalist or a fundamentalist as many people use the term. My understanding of Scripture is more nuanced (and CONFUSING!).

When people read the bible today, they often read it like a modern work. I am not sure that is a good way to read the bible. My assumption is that the best way to read the bible is under the teaching authority of the church. Many of my friends believe that it is their role to interpret the scriptures for themselves. They reject any authority other than the bible and the Holy Spirit. There is an appeal to this latter view point, but as I have seen in our Episcopal church debates about issues like marriage, it seems that when a group of people sit down with the bible there is a wide diversity of "readings." One of my beloved parishioners who is left of center used to complain that I preached too much on obedience. I countered that obedience is a major theme of the bible. She did not buy that. One day I told her to read Titus and Timothy. She did. "Well," I said, smiling and assured that she now understood that true doctrine and obedience were part of the deal, "what did you read?" "Love," she replied, "all I saw was love." You will not  be surprised that some time later she wrote me a note saying that I made her sick and she was going to a church where they preached love.

This is a long introduction to the next area upon which I want to reflect. Where do we draw the line on our different readings of the bible? What about authority? What about interpretation? How do we determine issues of literal vs. figurative? When we say "do what the bible says" are we really all that clear on what the bible says? If we are so clear, why are there so many debates and arguments and endless denominations? In the post-Christian world these are vital questions. Many have wandered from the faith and not all of them are progressives and Catholics. There is a crisis of faith in the church.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Rogers wasn't the only one impressed with your boldness. Several on the staff that were there said you were the most evangelical Episcopalian they had ever heard!

    When it comes to Bible reading, Simon and Garfunkle summed it up nicely, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

    Personally - I only have to look at the lives of the disciples.. maybe more accurately - the deaths of the disciples - to realize that the message they got firsthand from Jesus was stout... convicting.. contained serious instructions on obedience and didn't seem to be too focused on personal fun or a satisfying sex life. Hard to fathom that He would expect so much from His disciples and so little from us.