A Hunger for Bible Literacy, Part 1

bible study handsBy Matt Sapp

Wanna know a secret? No one reads the Bible anymore.  Can you name the last time you opened your Bible at home? If you can’t, know that you’re not alone.

Whatever your background with church—whether you haven’t missed a Sunday since you were a child or you’re just finding a faith of your own as an adult—most of us have one thing in common.  Very few American Christians—regardless of their church involvement—read the Bible consistently on their own. 

Several years ago I sat in a church pew on a Sunday night listening to well-known Christian evangelist Tony Campolo. As he taught from the pulpit he called out to the congregation a chapter and verse of the Bible and asked us to recite the scriptures with him.

All he got back from the congregation was uncomfortable silence and blank stares.

I was never very good at recalling scripture by chapter and verse, and I’m still not. I’m no memory verse or Bible drill champion.  But all of us should know the Bible better. And to know the Bible better, we have to read it more. 

This isn’t a post, though, to blame Christians for not reading the Bible. This is a post to acknowledge that the church needs to do a better job of teaching people HOW to read the Bible.

Why don’t we read the Bible anymore?  The Bible is hard to understand. You can’t just pick it up, flip it open and start reading—at least not if you expect to get the most out of it. So, mostly, people just don’t read it in the first place.

That means that Christian leaders need to do a better job teaching the basics of scripture, and not just for our members’ sake—many pastors (myself included) could benefit from a review of the basics, too!

People have very basic questions when approaching the Bible like, “Where should I start reading?” And, “What should I know about the Bible before I start reading so I can understand it better?”

It seems like it should go without saying, but our churches MUST be prepared to intentionally engage these questions from our adult members if we want them to read the Bible more consistently.

When we open the Bible, if we want to understand it better, we should bring some basic questions (and answers) to our reading.

  1. How and when did the Bible come into existence?How did we end up with the sixty-six books of the Bible? What did the first Christians read before the Bible was formed?
  2. What Bible translations should we be reading from? Why do we have so many different translations of the Bible? What are the differences between them?
  3. What type of literature is the particular book of the Bible we’re reading—poetry, prophecy, history, gospel, letter? When was it written and where? And, what does that mean about how we should read any particular text?
  4. What is the author’s purpose for writing?Are there big questions the author is likely trying to address? What kinds of answers were the first readers of scripture looking for? And, what kinds of answers should we be looking for in a particular text?

Once we’ve answered these questions, we need to help our church members READ THE BIBLE—not someone’s application of scripture that turns it into seven easy steps for a happy life, and not someone’s interpretation of scripture that tells you why your political positions are blessed by God.

We need to JUST READ THE BIBLE, so we can seek to understand it for ourselves together in Christian community. Once we’ve developed an appropriate foundation, we need to trust our collective ability to interpret and apply God’s word in our own contexts and for our own lives.

That’s a long way of saying we need to recommit to the Protestant principle of the priesthood of all believers.

Last week, my church Home Group met to talk about what we’d like to study together over the next couple of months. Here’s the feedback I got from my group. They simply wanted to know more about the Bible and how to read and understand it for themselves.

I nearly wanted to cry when I heard their responses—both for joy that there’s a hunger for meaningful engagement with scripture and in sadness at realizing how poorly we’ve engaged that hunger in our congregation.

So over the next several weeks, my home group is going to start trying to answer some of these questions as we simply READ THE BIBLE together.

And you wanna know a secret? I can’t wait!

For spiritual warfare, see artists and poets

Better hold on to your hats: According to a Christian radio station in California, the end of the world–Judgment Day–will be next Saturday, May 21.

With the onslaught of last month’s tornadoes, I can understand why people might fear the end of the world.  Even my father, who called to check on me and my family’s well being, opined that the storm was a sign of the times.

For many Christians, this apocalyptic prediction brings to mind a struggle between good and evil, immorality versus faithful piety.  For others, it means stocking up on food to weather a tribulation fraught with antichrists, oppressive governments, and bedlam en mass.

For the most radical among us, war is the first thing that comes to mind: The Left Behind fictional books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, for instance, tell of a small band of Christians who form a militia group to fight against a hostile government.

Chuck Colson, one-time Nixon adviser turned prison preacher, has established a $1,000 per student price tag program, the Centurion Project, to combat the secularism juggernaut, invoking the ancient centurions who defended the Roman empire.

Such militaristic fanfare is based on the graphic images found in the book of Revelation.  In the book, written by a Christian in exile who foretells the downfall of the Roman empire and civilization as we know it, angels unleash plagues upon society.  God’s wrath ignites a slaughter in which “blood flowed … as high as the horse’s bridle” (14:29).  God exiles Satan into an abyss of eternal fire.

Yet, the book of Revelation is not primarily about war for war’s sake; rather, it is a book of worship designed to assure a persecuted community that God is still in charge of all creation.  God will bring justice to empires that abuse the balance of power over the oppressed and marginalized.

Revelation does give us snapshots of what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in the spiritual realm (the Greek word for revelation also means unveiling).  Much of this includes the ongoing conflicts between good and evil, angels and demons.  But the book also asks Christians to respond, not in fearful violence, but in proclamation and worship.

Nowhere in Revelation do God’s people take up arms.  Instead, they “patiently endure” and “conquer” evil by bearing testimony to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  God’s people are not called warriors; they are called witnesses (the same Greek word for martyrs).

Revelation points out that worship and proclamation are a declaration of war against evil and injustice: In Revelation 15:2-3, for instance, the saints have harps and sing a “new song” reminiscent of the song Moses sang after God saved the Israelite from Egypt.  It seems that musicians and poets, preachers and storytellers, artists and artisans are the very agents that wage subversive rebellion–nonviolent resistance–against the “principalities and powers of this age” (Ephesians 6:2).

Revelation makes clear that we have lived in the end times ever since Jesus rose from the dead.  Satan’s days are numbered, and it’s only a matter of time before Jesus comes back with a “new heaven” and “new earth” in tow.  Christians should not balk in fear and take up arms when doomsday preachers pontificate; rather, they should imitate those saints in Revelation by doing what Christians do best: worship, obey, and preach that repentance is the ultimate answer for end-time salvation.

Call me a skeptic, but I’m sure that we will still be around on May 21.  Instead of hunkering down, start singing a “new song” by supporting Family Promise of Newrock, who will be hosting a benefit concert on that day.  The concert will feature the Chris Coleman band, at the Olde Town Pavilion at 5 PM.  Tickets are $10 at the door.

“Christmas Victory”: A Christmas Sermon

“Thus says the Lord of Hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem.  They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness.” (Zech. 8:7-8)

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked…he killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matt. 2:16-17)

“Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born.” (Rev. 12:4b)

I.

For the past few weeks–about four advent candles ago–we have been taking a close look at what this whole Advent and Christmas thing means to us.  I must admit: Finding a fresh voice for an old tale has been difficult for me–We so want a Christmas that is like a Snickers bar, something that simply satisfies.  We sing, we remind each other in conversation, and we preach that Christmas is ultimately about the coming of the Christ-Child.  That’s what Advent means, after all, “coming.”

Yet, in the back of our mind, we also (I think) instinctively know that this yearning for Christ’s coming is more than just a ploy to get us into the “reason for the season.”  It’s a yearning for Christ’s return.  You know, all of that Second Coming business we hear about in doomsday sermons and read about in that Left Behind book series.

When we mention the Second Coming of Christ, its hard not to want to change the subject because it has been tied to doomsday for so long.  Our blood pressure begins to rise, and we start to recall all of the images that usually relate to the Second Coming: the blowing of trumpets, earthquakes and dark skies, antichrists and four-headed monsters.  Frightening images, for sure.

II.

I remember a period in my Christian life (when I was in high school) when I started to take a closer look at this Second Coming business.  I knew that, eventually, when Christ comes, the backdrop of our spiritual lives–the warfare between good and evil, angels and demons–would break forth into plain sight.

I wanted to be prepared, so I began reading all sorts of books.  One set of books were novels by Frank Peretti, who wrote captivating tales of said spiritual warfare breaking out onto the earth.  I read those books, like “Piercing the Darkness,” and became all the more fearful about this whole matter.  It was the type of fear that kept me in line.  (“Is this where you want to be when Jesus comes back?!”)

We pray for Christ to come, but do we really want Christ to come?

As I got older, this fear of good and evil grew until, finally, I became so sick of that Christian life.  It was in college that my belief of God’s condemnation–God’s judgment–in my life became too heavy to bear in the first place, and I wanted to cast off the whole lot altogether.

Now, mind you, I didn’t go off of the deep end.  I didn’t start binge-drinking or sleeping around.  I didn’t start some voodoo cult.  But my friends, my wife included, did notice a difference.  I prayed less; I became more cynical about my faith; I certainly didn’t talk about Jesus all that much.  It was a crisis of faith.

I was just sick of living in fear every day, wondering when Jesus was going to come back and judge me, along with everyone else–the living and the dead.

III.

We have come together today to recall several Christmas stories that, on the surface, seem rather frightening.  The two stories–from Matthew 2:13-23 and Revelation 12:1-11–both have in common threads and similarities, and both deal with the Christmas message in one way or another.*

The first story comes from Matthew’s gospel and has to do with a king who wanted to insure a stable reign.  Upon hearing from some traveling magi that a “king” was born, Herod signed an executive order to have all of the children in and around Bethlehem (two years and under) killed.  This would have insured that no rival, no “alternative king,” would supplant Herod’s already fragile rule.

For those of us who have little ones, this is a frightening story indeed, a story of genocide against the most vulnerable in society.   Matthew even broke out in liturgical hymnody as a result of the dread within this tale–a quote from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation!”

We know, however, that Herod didn’t succeed, for only a short time before his executive order, Joseph and Mary made their way to the wilderness landscape of Egypt.

IV.

The second story is not unlike the first one, aside from the fact that it uses a lot more poetry and metaphor.  This story sits at the center of John’s Revelation and dramatically tells of a woman–clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet–who is about to give birth.

It then tells how, while the woman goes into labor, a great red dragon appears and stands over her, ready to devour her newborn.  At this point, the narrative speeds up like an action flick:  The moment she gives birth, the baby is whisked away to heaven.  She makes a run for it to a wilderness place prepared for her by God–A place very much like Egypt.

If that wasn’t frightening enough, the text tells us that war breaks out in heaven between a cohort of angels and the dragon.  The angels manage to defeat the dragon, who falls to earth and runs rampant, tormenting all of humanity.

And here, not unlike our first Christmas story from Bethlehem, the text breaks out into a hymn–But this hymn is not one of lamentation, but victory:  Christ and His saints conquer the dragon by the blood of the Lamb, the Word of their testimony, and perseverance through adversity, even unto death itself (Rev. 12:10-12).

Within this hymn, within the power of these words–the praise of the saints and elders and angels, all of whom are confident in Christ’s reign–we see something special happening.   Something begins to shift and transform and morph.  It is the power of God coming forth from His Word, revealed and proclaimed in this place (see Rev. 1:3).

We enter the text frightened…Like we enter the first story; we are so overwhelmed and scared–A dragon, Herod, the Roman empire are ready to devour that Christ-Child who was said to be the ruler over all nations for all time–And we can’t help but to RUN, RUN!

Run, with Mary and Joseph to Egypt!  Run with the woman, she who is clothed with the sun–Run to the wilderness!   …To the place where this whole, grand story started in the first place!

Egypt!  A place of slavery and suffering and fear, but ultimately a place of God’s liberation and freedom and victory! Victory: Over the powers of darkness and principalities and spiritual forces, over all of the Pharaohs and Herods and Dragons in this world.

These are frightening adversaries, but there is also liberation in the message of Christmas.  Fear does not have to have the final word, and that’s the Good News of this season.

V.

It was right after my sophomore year in college, at the tail end of my crisis of faith, when I went back home, as I did every summer.  I had, as I mentioned, become quite cynical with this whole Christian faith thing; so, when I went into my bedroom (which my parents left undisturbed while I was away), you could imagine the rush of emotions I had when I saw all of those old books by Frank Peretti and other doomsday authors on my bookshelf.

I remember taking all of those books and, in disgust, throwing them into a huge garbage bag and tossing them into the garbage.

You see, folks, what I discovered from that act was not that I was throwing God away, for certainly God had been with me the entire time.  Rather, I was throwing away the whole notion that my faith was to be lived out under the heavy hand of God’s condemnation–the fear!–that lurked within the pages of bad theology.

It was a throwing off of the fear of loss–a dragon who devoured my Christmas hope within my heart–in exchange for an Exodus liberation.

It was within those pivotal summer months that I heard God’s call to the ministry.  God called me out of Egypt (Herod was dead, the dragon defeated!) and brought me into a place of liberation and of victory.

It was as if I heard God telling me: “Too many of My People live under a yoke of fear rather than in the light of Jesus’ liberation!”

VI.

We fear that we can’t please God.  We fear that God has our number.  We fear that God is punishing us whenever we face hardship.  A sermon William Sloane Coffin wrote after his son died in a car accident (his son was 24 years old), says this:

“Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels” (see notes below for source).

We fear so much, we almost forget what it’s like to approach God from a place of adoration and grace–We have gotten used to the dragons and the Herods of our life, we forget that what we approach in Christmas time is a baby, innocent and pure–a symbol of God’s love, a person who stands ready to crucify our fears once and for all, and even destroying death itself.

…I can’t help but to sing a song of my own!

The Lord is my light and my salvation! The Lord is my light and my salvation!  The Lord is my light and my salvation!  Whom shall I fear?

We no longer fear because Christmas is ultimately about life and not death.  We know that Jesus is not dead–His words and works did not end in Revelation.  Herod killed the wrong children!  Ours is a worship not focused on an historical figure–someone on the History or Discovery channels–but on a contemporary, living Christ whose reign lasts forever and ever, whose leadership continues to speak hope into our lives, whose Spirit brings us “from partial to fuller truth” with every passing moment.

I can’t help but to break out into poetry yet again, and read “Proclaim Liberty” by Kenneth Sehested:

Let praise leap from the lungs/ascend the throat/rattle the teeth and/flutter the tongue./The blessed Haunt of Zion/calls out to all flesh

To this Embrace, everything/that has breath shall come./The God who lingers in slave/quarters assails every/Pharaoh’s palace:

Let my people go!  Proclaim liberty throughout the land!

Independence from the/Reign of Death has been declared!/  The boundaries of transgression/have been breached.

The Liberty Bell of Creation/echoes across the hills and plains./The God who forges a people/of redemption sets the covenant/of freedom as the bond of bounty:

Proclaim liberty throughout the land!

Fear no more!  Amen, and Amen!

****

Sermon notes and sources:

*The interpretation of Revelation 12 is, as one would expect, hotly debated.  I must admit that I am making a leap (quite a leap some would argue) in making the story of the pregnant woman and dragon a Christmas one.  There is, however, the notion that the artistry of Revelation is within the interpretation itself.  The mystery and magic of Revelation, I contend, allows for such alternative readings.  Mind you, I would never submit the interpretation I use in this sermon to a scholarly journal; but it works overall, especially when set against Herod’s Christmas genocide in Matthew 2.

William Sloane Coffin, “Alex’s Death,” in A Chorus of Witnesses, ed. Tom Long and Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), p. 264.

The paragraph that includes the phrase “from partial to fuller truth” is a re-envisioning (both thematic and in grammar) of a paragraph in Harry Emerson Fosdick’s classic sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” also in A Chorus of Witnesses, p. 244.

Kenneth Sehested, “Proclaiming Liberty,” in In the Land of the Living: Prayers Personal and Public (Raleigh: Publications Unltd., 2009), pp. 60-61.