Criminally insane is what we would call a medical professor who, in order to teach about the liver, would cut open a live person strapped to a table, rip out and then, with blood-spattered hands, hold up the organ in order to describe its characteristics. Yet, Sunday-by-Sunday, we benignly watch ministers open the Bible, reach in, cut the arteries and nerves connecting it and then extract a story or teaching, holding it up for scrutiny. Gratefully, this is a bloodless exercise, but the consequences for the Bible, as for humans, is a gross violation of life.
Of course, I have just engaged in a wee bit of hyperbole.
The books of the Bible have lasted because they are great literature containing inspirational words. Each Gospel, for example, is tightly structured, and each passage has meaning in itself, but more essentially, takes its meaning from the context in which it is found. To lift a passage out, and not take the whole book into consideration, is to automatically and absolutely misconstrue the passage's meaning--automatically and absolutely.
For example, Paul did not write his famous chapter on love (I Corinthians 13) as a 'nice' statement to be read at weddings. Paul's letter was written to a church in deep, deep trouble, far worse trouble than any church I have ever known. Paul's words address the issues and then state some fundamental principles of church life, for both resolving the issues and strengthening the community.
Paul writes that the Spirit endows people with gifts (charisma)--preaching, teaching, etc. But, instead of such gifts endowing individuals with status and power, they are to be exercised in service to others. Then Paul makes one of those incredible statements: overshadowing every gift (charisma) is the gift of love.
Paul writes that so radically essential is love that if one could roll together the preaching ability of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Billy Graham into one person, and then multiply that ability by ten, only noise would result with love's absence. Paul writes that if a person is so dedicated to a cause that he or she gives away all money and possessions, and even life itself, but does it without love, that person gains nothing. Paul writes that a person can have fifteen doctorates and also be a person of the very deepest spirituality, but without love all that is of little worth.
Such a view of love shatters the chapter's usual feel-good, even syrupy, understanding. The sharper, more incisive view of this passage comes as the result of seeing the chapter in its larger context.
With this in mind, I better understand our ancestors, the Pilgrims, calling the reading of brief passages of scripture in churches--"dumb readings." They were on to something.
Of course, reading a whole book of the Bible each Sunday is not practical; reading manageable passages is. Thus, ministers perform surgery and extractions each week but leave worship with bloodless hands and untroubled conscience.
Yet, when I am sensitive to the tension between faithfulness and honesty, on the one hand, and practicability, on the other, I find myself walking forth arm-in-arm with Martin Luther's helpful advice accompanying me: "Sin boldly."
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