Mark 14:3-103 While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him the money.
Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone is dumb enough not to open it, while Andy and Jim cover the back, Pete will use the Big Key – bam! – and I’ll be coming in to party with a takeaway and a six-pack.”
Revelation 3:20, Original Autograph
This post is not a cheap shot at the “please read your Bible more” brigade, but an exploration into the truly transformative effects the Bible brings to bear on an individual or community. Furthermore, this is not about bibliolatry either! When Thiselton, from whom much of what follows is derived, talks of Transformative Bible Reading, he is referring to the work of God in Christ by the Spirit at work via a proper hermeneutical use of the Bible.
P. T. Forsyth lamented, 110 years ago, about the “…the decay among our churches of the personal use of the Bible.”
And there is good reason for this.
Anthony Thiselton rightly talks of the “transforming effects of the Bible”:
“The Bible does not spoon feed us as if we were babies, but provokes us to do some adult thinking of our own.” And this is why the Scriptures lead to transformation after God’s purposes.
And this is precisely why I think the Bible is a mere dusty heirloom in many homes, including some Christian homes. I think we kind of intuitively know why, Martin Luther certainly did, “The Bible confronts us as our adversary, demanding response and transformation.”
So we know it is generationally neglected. We know it is powerful and transformative. We know it is God’s written Word-in-the-words-of-men to us. Yet we are beguiled into taming it so that it accords with our own prior wishes, concerns and expectations. And I am not alone in thinking a tamed Bible makes tame Christians.
A reason why the Bible is marginalized and attacked is suggested by Professor Anthony Thiselton, “The Bible can transform and enlarge our vision, so that we are no longer trapped within our own narcissistic selfhood or within our own limited tradition or limited community.” In other words, God uses the Bible to shatter our illusions about pretty much everything, which explains in part why it is attacked, marginalised and mocked. We human beings simply don’t like having our illusion bubble burst, but the Bible is the pin that pops it. In Flowers that Never Bend, Paul Simon sings,
“Through the corridors of sleep past the shadows dark and deep
my mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don’t know what is real, I can’t touch what I feel
and hide behind the shield of my illusion;
So I continue to continue to pretend
that my life will never end
and the flowers never bend with the rainfall.
In other words: God will not allow us to “continue to pretend” forever! The Bible forces us beyond ourselves/communities into a truer vision of reality: GOD. Thiselton again, “The social reality of our everyday life is structured in terms of relevancies. Yet the truth of Romans 5:5 and God’s love being poured into our hearts “will constitute a new set of motives that redefine criteria of relevance for the believer.”
In other words: God’s loves changes us by changing what we think is relevant in our everyday life. Thiselton continues: “The goal of transformation into the image of Christ is to see the world through the eyes and interests of God’s purposes for the world.”
God’s love poured out does not give us personal fuzzy feelings of religious vagueness, but rather it turns kittens into lions, and babies into adults, and people, like David, after God’s own heart – a dangerous thing indeed!
So no wonder we struggle with it. We’re fallen, fallible and finite. And within church should be the exact place where we hear this challenge.
We need to man-up and woman-up so that our kids grow-up truly transformatively Bible-savvy.
Lest we join those in Mark 7:13 who “…nullify the word of God…”
We nullify the Bible in so many ways. Ludwig Wittgenstein says this is why struggle and judgment include “a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
And it is this “language” of the text that, according to Thiselton, “delivers us from self-preoccupation or self-centeredness, as we open ourselves to what is “Other”, “beyond”, or to the voice of God.” For when we are not “open” we prove our own “bewitchment of intelligence.” Another way to say we actually allow the bliss of ignorance to facilitate the theological-cognitive dissonance that maintains the social relevancy of our oh-so-busy everyday lives.
Yet the Bible is not an encyclopedia of information on all subjects, but “a source of transformation that then shapes readers in accord with God’s purposes for them”, for if it was merely an encyclopedia of information, devoid of a relational “I-Thou” reading, then the text becomes “merely a mirror of the self, which bounces back what the reader desires or expects to hear, [thus] it will hardly transform the reader” (Thiselton). For me, this chimes with Forsyth who wrote in his outstanding 1907 book Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, the Bible is “…so much more than literature, because it is not merely powerful, it is power. It is action, history; it is not mere narrative, comment, embellishment or dilution. It makes history more than it is made by history….It is news to the world from foreign parts.”
Bonhoeffer offers a superb analysis of how our nature interacts with relating with God through the Bible, “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found. If it is I who says where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds to me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever will find God there must draw near to the Cross in the manner which the Sermon on the Mount requires. This does not correspond to our nature at all.”
We are constantly in danger of reading the Bible as though prescribing medicines “in accordance with the patients whims” and this is to be first noticed or observed; then named and finally and decisively tackled in a deliberate intention towards what Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship” which includes transformative Bible reading as a central aspect. Forsyth again, “The theology of the Bible is but the moral adequacy and virility of the word of the Cross, and the thews of a powerful Gospel.”
It is the Divine promise that shapes both the nature of reality and how the present is to be understood. T. S. Elliot may be right that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, and this may explain the reason behind Forsyth’s lament that opened this post, and it also explains why the Bible is often maginalised within and attacked without the Church. But if Thiselton, Bonhoeffer, Wittgenstein and Forsyth are right (and they are), God somehow uses faithful interpretive reading-in-relationship of Scripture so as to transform, save and renew. It is dangerous; it is necessary and it is so very vital.
In two separate articles by two different theologians, separated by continents (America and Europe), and 100 years, I read the budding frustration of what was happening within Sunday School education, followed by the flowering of the present state of adult education in the Western church today.
P. T. Forsyth was suspicious of the effeminate in contemporary religion in his day. The same charge has been levelled at the church today: a place for women, children and the deluded. I’ve heard that said with my own ears.
In an address to the Sunday School Union in 1900, Forsyth set his sights on the shapelessness of what passed for Sunday School teaching:
“The Sunday School is too much left to well-meaning and hard-working people, who, with all their earnestness, have no experience of controlling others, and no sense or power of discipline. The teachers are . . . . gentle and fear to hurt feelings; or they are too tender about ejecting black sheep . . . . They have young ideas about what Christian love means. They are too anxious to be loved and not enough concerned to be obeyed . . . . I am afraid that many teachers have more interest in the affections of their scholars than in their souls.”
P. T. Forsyth ‘As Congregational Minister’ by Clyde Binfield in ‘Justice the True and Only Mercy,’ pg. 172-3
Admittedly, some of his language needs qualifying today. I would want to rephrase notions of control and discipline; ‘ejecting black sheep’ is a little mysterious; and finally what would mean to obey in this context? I am not afraid of these notions, just that my 21st century conditioning requires that of me, as any misreading/misapplication of this could quite easily slip into authoritarianism. The thrust of Forsyth’s comment is about right, and continues to be about right for today.
What Forsyth bemoans in the bud, Michael Hardin bemoans in the flowering. For if Forsyth was right (and he was), the inevitable consequence will be what Hardin observes in today’s church:
In his ‘What The Facebook’ (pg. 65-66) he writes,
“…I have met thousands of Christians and have been in countless churches. Sadly, most of those I have met do not know their Bibles….How can we encourage Christians today to take the Bible seriously enough to pay attention to its narrative flow, to its novelistic detail, to its story or plot line? . . . . .
. . . .We desperately need more and better Bible education in the churches. Adult Sunday School classes in so many churches teach little more than pabulum. There is no real thinking going on or engagement with the actual text of Scripture. Often education in the church has become a mushy squishy touchy feely “what do you think?” as though the pooling of ignorance is beneficial. It is time for the rest of Christianity to knuckle down and for everyone to learn how to read Scripture, to learn its story and reap its benefits. If we don’t get serious about our biblical literacy we might as well cede the Bible to the Fundamentalists and that is something I will never do. Will you join me?”
Obviously there are exceptions here and there. These comments are macro-observations by two sharp cultural critics who have a high value on theological and biblical literacy.
‘Let your light shine’
A Devonshire Summers day
I recently discovered this among my study notes and thought it belonged in the light:
The Five Rolls
The Five Rolls (Hebrew, Hamesh megillot) refer to five books of the Hebrew Bible that, following ancient Jewish tradition, came to be read on five of the Jewish annual festivals. In the oldest periods, all biblical books were written on scrolls, and these five (along with the Torah) are commonly written on scrolls even in modern times. In the Hebrew Bible, all five are found in the third major section of the Hebrew canon, the Kethubim (= the Writings). In the Masoretic tradition, they are grouped together in chronological order (though in some Hebrew Bibles they are grouped in the order of the festivals.)
Is read on Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) prior to the reading of the Torah. The book’s association with the festival of harvest derives from the return of Naomi to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Also, an ancient Jewish tradition that King David both was born and died on Pentecost further developed the association of the book with the feast, since the book gives David’s ancestry. Traditionally, the day that Israel accepted the Torah at Sinai was on Pentecost, and Ruth’s acceptance of the faith of Israel further strengthens the tie between the festival and the book.
THE SONG OF SONGS
Is read at the Feast of Passover. In addition to its public reading in the synagogue on either the seventh or eighth day, it is sometimes read at the Passover seder meal. The general association of the Song with the Passover derives from the ancient interpretation that the Song is an allegory of the love between Yahweh and Israel. Later, in Christian circles, this same allegorical interpretation was popularized except that the meaning behind the allegory became Christ’s love for the church.
Is recited during the Feast of Booths. It is read in the morning service prior to the reading of the Torah passage. The association of the book with the final celebration in the Jewish liturgical year derives from the various references within the book to joy and gladness, especially 11:2, which is thought by some Jewish interpreters to refer to the festival week itself. (The picture is The Birds, who popularised a verse from this book).
Is read on the ninth of Av (July/August) during the synagogue service as an expression of public mourning for the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (AD 70). These dirges of grief are broad enough to include the destruction of both the first and second temple as well as the failure of the first and second Jewish revolts. The Lamentations generally are recited in the evening and the morning.
This reading is the central feature of the Feast of Purim, and it is required that the story be read from an actual scroll. (The other four books might be read from scrolls, too, but they are just as likely to be read from printed Hebrew Bibles.) The Book of Esther is considered the most important of the Five Rolls, and according to Jewish tradition, the recitation of this book at Purim was first ordered by Mordecai and Esther themselves.
The association of these books with Jewish festivals was a gradual process. The reading of Esther at Purim was practiced during the second temple period, and so was familiar to Christ.
The reading of Lamentations also is very ancient. The association of the other books with their respective festivals originated in various periods, along with musical traditions, melodies and accents for their recitation.
In Christian tradition, these books have been rearranged so that they do not appear together. Ruth follows Judges, since the story occurred during the period of the judges. Lamentations follows Jeremiah, since the tradition of the Septuagint is that Jeremiah was the author. Esther follows Ezra and Nehemiah as part of the history of the post-exilic period.
The Song and Ecclesiastes fall into the poetical books after Proverbs, probably because of the traditional opinion that Solomon wrote all three.
The River Teign in Devon ©
The smaller pictures used above come from the excellent Bibledex web site, although I swapped Song of Solomon and Esther around!
The biblical meaning of ‘Eucharist’ (or ‘Communion’ or ‘The Lord’s Supper’) as it comes to us through the Old and New Testaments, contains a vast array of images and meanings that are there to prevent us from dogmatic one-dimensionalism, but gift us with a multi-dimensionalism of blessing and enrichment:
From the OT:
… a re-enactment of a salvation event.
… the celebration of the sealing of a covenant.
… an anticipation of the messianic banquet.
From the Meals of Jesus:
… a remembering of the table fellowship of Jesus with its overtones of God’s acceptance and forgiveness.
… a sharing in the mystery of Christ’s resurrection appearances in which he ate and drank with his disciples. Continue reading