I wasn't able to attend the recent Festival of Preaching, but was very struck with an idea shared with me by someone who did. What if we were to read the Bible in the order in which it was written?
There is a common tendency to structure biblical understanding according to the order of the canon. The Old Testament comes first, lays the foundation for the whole story, but its day is now done. Then comes Jesus, the turning point of history, when God became flesh. Finally, the epistles help us to apply what the gospel narrative.
That is not what happened, of course. The first generation of Christ followers were familiar with the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. Paul, a leader among them, knew only these Scriptures. His teaching, such as it is, derives from them. Actually, we know little about Paul's teaching in the early decades, We know only how he responded to questions and quarrels in the churches he had founded. Through the epistles we can trace the development of Paul's theology, and even how letters written in his name, but after his time, attempted to redress what might have been seen as too egalitarian a perspective on things. [Stylistically the letters to Timothy seem to have been written after Paul's death, and it is here that we find the most restrictive teaching about women in material linked to the name of Paul.]
After Paul, the Gospels were written.
Supposing that these writers were attempting to redress the balance? Luke in particular, who travelled with Paul, seems to have made some effort to be inclusive. Maybe both the Old Testament and the Epistles were developments on the way to a more complete telling of the story of Jesus. Both were working toward an understanding of God's self-revelation in Jesus.
Reading the Bible in this order has a profound effect. Referring to Paul as a touchstone for doctrine, on women or anything else, is a retrograde step. If we really want to know what the Bible says about us, it is to the Gospels we should go. Looking to Jesus, rather than Paul, changes things radically. No longer does greater weight sit with someone trying to exegete Jesus' life and teaching, but with the story of Jesus himself. The need to either justify or explain away restrictions apparently placed by Paul on the ministry of women is diminished, for Jesus taught, touched and commissioned them. Women travelled with Jesus, paid for his ministry, remained with him at the cross, and proclaimed his resurrection.
In Acts, Paul works with women and leaves churches in their charge.
Reading the Bible in chronological order might be a means to radically reviewing long-held understanding and revolutionising attitudes to all kinds of problems - in particular those of exclusion and inclusion.
I realise that we are not even in Lent yet, but have been prompted in a number of ways to begin to think about the message of Easter.
Fairly frequently in my teaching of either New Testament or Preaching, a student will tell me I need hell. Not me personally, you understand. They might think that, but that is not what they say. What they mean is that I need to include hell in my preaching and my exegesis of the New Testament. “Without hell there is no need of Jesus,” they say. “Jesus must rescue us from something, and that something is eternal torment.”
But “Gospel” means “Good News”, I might say. “Only to those who believe,” they tell me. “Believe what?” I ask. And at great length and with not a little passion they go on to explain that in order to avoid eternal damnation people need to believe, well, frankly, they need to believe what my challenger believes!
Over the last thousand years the church has drifted from a focus on the resurrection life of Jesus to a focus on his death. A visit to places such as the National Museum of Catalonian Art in Barcelona make this drift abundantly clear. Early in the church’s history, Jesus was depicted on the throne of heaven, risen, ascended and ruling. By the thirteenth century he had descended again to be the permanently crucified passive sacrifice.
It seems to me that that’s the kind of theology that makes a difference to how Christians live and how the church behaves. On the basis of no social analysis whatsoever, I do wonder whether the American Evangelical church voted Trump because it has for so long lived with a powerless Saviour still nailed to a cross by the anger of a so-called loving God. Perhaps they turned from a God unable to change things to a political power who would make them great “again”.
It often feels to me as though Jesus’ “Easter People” has become instead a “Good Friday People”. I’ve heard the cross mentioned in sermons at Christmas and on Easter Sunday as well as on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It feels as though we celebrate resurrection life one day a year, before scurrying back to the comfort of anguish on the cross. It’s as though we like to feel bad.
The early church did the reverse. They remembered the crucifixion one day a year and celebrated resurrection life the rest. They offered people life, not escape from death. Their actions demonstrated that. The church’s mission toward the end of the Roman Empire was to care for the sick and dying, and to share with the poor. Their mission was life affirming rather than word affirming.
It seems to me that the church in the West has come to focus on sin, and God’s absolute need for somebody to pay for it. As a result, in order to remain the faithful people of God one of the sacred jobs of the church is to identify sin and condemn it. Therefore a great deal of time is spent categorizing people and behaviours as “sin” or “not sin”. Isn’t that the basis of some of the argument on human sexuality?
Imagine what would happen if instead of a sin-identifying church we became a life-affirming church.
Tomorrow, it seems, the world returns to medieval times. A crass, arrogant overlord with no respect for God nor humanity ascends the throne of the Western world, an out-of-control demagogue. How can this be?
Maybe that's the question. How can it be?
I have rarely felt as ashamed as I did the day Donald Trump's victory was announced - secured, apparently, by evangelical Christians. Those among whom I would once have counted myself.
Perhaps, for too long, the West has denied justice to the poor, concern for the oppressed and reverence for God. The prophet Amos has provided the recent Old Testament lectionary readings. Appropriate maybe, that today we read "Strike the capitals until the thresholds shake". All is not hopeless however. Amos goes on to say "I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen ... I will restore the fortunes of my people."
I have no faith in easy solutions, triumphalist claims that Christians will finally be vindicated and enjoy victory over others. But I do believe that God is greater than Trump, and that He cares for His creation.
“I looked on astounded as from his ordinary life he made his art. We were both ordinary men, he and I. Yet from the ordinary he created Legends--and I from Legends created only the ordinary!” (Salieri on Mozart in Amadeus).
I wonder how many people leave church on a Sunday thinking something similar. Salieri was an accomplished composer favoured by the Austrian Emperor. The film Amadeus portrays his rivalry with Mozart, and, comparing their craft, Salieri draws this distinction – both are ordinary, both have access to wonderful material; the one turns “legend” into ordinary, the other turns ordinary into legend. If, as Leonard Sweet claims (Giving Blood 2014), “boredom is the deadliest sin of a preacher”, perhaps the next deadliest is to render the wonder of the word of God dull.
It is an oddity of church life that those who claim to think most highly of Scripture treat it with least reverence. Scripture, the somehow God-breathed words of life, are carved up into meaningless morsels of banality, while the actual focus of the sermon becomes prosaic platitudes either garnered from some simplistic book of superficial spirituality, or based on a few minutes breakfast time thought. No wonder that so many people feel the Bible is irrelevant. Thus presented, it is.
Preaching is the art and craft of getting people to want what they don’t know they need but can’t truly live without: daily experiences of Christ. Telling them what they need does not inspire them to embark on the adventure of finding it. Giving them an experience of Christ in the sermon might awake a hunger for more. As Saint-Exupery said “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there’s never smoke without fire.
Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
The fear of many a preacher must be that the secret might come out. The secret that we are not quite who we hope our hearers will imagine us to be. The secret that the person we present in the pulpit is not the only person inhabiting the body the congregation sees before it.
A range of psychometric tools exists to prompt us to greater self-knowledge. Whichever you prefer, all are rooted in the belief that subconsciously there is more to us than meets the eye. Perhaps, more accurately, we both mold ourselves, and are molded so that we fit in. Firstly, we want to please, and when we received feedback that tells us we succeeded, then we reinforce the behaviour that gained approval. Basically, according to Carl Jung, we all learn to fit in by keeping other people happy. Early in life we learn to keep our parents happy. Then we learn to keep friends, teachers, partners, employers, and others happy by projecting the person they want us to be.
Rather like politicians or celebrities we develop an image of ourselves that is our shop window, the person we want others to think we are (and increasingly the person we want to see ourselves as). It’s what Goffman (Goffman, 1990) calls impression management. We arrange our language, our posture and behaviour in ways that will project the person we want to be. The problem is that the characteristics and personality traits we don’t like, do not go away. When we move them from the shop window, they simply go into storage. It isn’t that we have changed, but that we have squashed down the things in ourselves we don’t like. We become a guarded version of ourselves. Jung describes what we repress as our “shadow side”. And if we keep our shadow side pushed down, or grow it by deciding that even more aspects of ourselves are unacceptable, we can become depressed. Usually people push backstage things they’ve done that they want to hide because they feel guilty, or things about themselves they feel are wrong, because they feel shame. Unless we let out our shadow sides we can either become depressed, or they can explode out onto the front stage inappropriately. If we are to be whole people we have to let our shadow selves out, take of our mask, and allow our shadows can actually be creative. If we continue to operate behind a mask, we become so used to it we find it has eaten into our face.
Our hidden, unloved parts, are creative. Because we do not acknowledge them, they project themselves onto others, who become either fascinating or repulsive. Projection is always destructive, because it prevents us seeing others for who they really are.
When Jesus said “love your enemies”, in Matthew, and “love your neighbor as yourself” in Mark he surely included loving our shadow sides, the traits that we project on to others – not just love others, but love others onto whom you project the bits of yourself you don’t like.
What does this hypothesis have to do with preaching?
Firstly, preachers need to know themselves - shadow, unliked side and all – lest we project our disliked selves onto either Biblical characters we will be talking about, or onto members of the congregation. There is a Rabbi’s question we would do well to bear in mind: “what would happen if a donkey read the Bible?” The answer, of course, is that it would see itself. It would observe the wisdom of the talking donkey in Numbers, and the blessing of donkeys in Psalm 104.
Think of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. It’s easy to relate to Philip. He is a hero of the faith, obedient to God, reads the situation well, interprets Scripture and makes a convert. The Eunuch on the other hand, was on the road out of Jerusalem. He was neutered, defective. He could produce no children and so had no future, yet was among a people for whom the future seemed to be everything. He was identified by what he lacked, what had been taken away from him. Surely he identified with what he was reading from Isaiah - the lamb also had no future, no ‘voice’.
“Could Scripture have something in it for somebody like me? Somebody whose life has been taken from the earth?” he might have asked. If Scripture really did have something for the excluded and defective and unclean, then what could stop him being baptized? Perhaps he expected Philip to explain carefully to him why he could not be baptised. But the honest answer to his question is “nothing”, and Philip baptises him. Maybe in baptism this eunuch got a name instead of a label, a future instead of extermination, and identity based on what he had rather than what he lacked.
Why is it so much easier to identify with Philip than with the Eunuch? Perhaps because the parts of ourselves that we do not like are reflected in the latter, while the characteristics we would love to project are more like the former.
How might preachers become aware of their own shadow sides, then? Some useful general questions to ask ourselves might be:
Specifically at the time of sermon writing we might use a method of theological reflection that asks “what is my experience of this passage, or of the issues it speaks of?”; “what is my position/where might I draw a line in the sand on either of these?”. Theological reflection in preaching is an issue for another day. For now, the aim is to encourage self-awareness in preachers, so that by being aware of self the preacher might find deeper meaning in Scripture and a more authentic connection with hearers.
Once upon a time preachers could read the passage set for the day, decide what it meant and pass their wisdom onto the congregation. God was, of course, in there somewhere, but that was the basic strategy - God tells "me" what to say and "I" tell the congregation.
Back then (probably until the 1960s if you read Tom Long) congregations were treated as a more or less homogenous body. In some ways it was a fair assumption.
Now things are different. Looking round one particular congregation yesterday, for example, I could discern people who had been in the church all their lives, people who had recently become Christians, people who were there under duress because their partner came along; there were those who lived and worked and socialised locally, and those who worked in a variety of places around the world and socialised accordingly; there were the single, the married, the partnered, the divorced, the gay. This was no homogenous group, and I suspect it was representative of a good number of churches - particularly on a day nationally observed, such as Remembrance Sunday.
It is some time since Leonora Tubbs Tisdale wrote her book Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art . In it she said "if we as preachers are going to proclaim the gospel in ways capable of transforming congregational identity, we first need to become better acquainted with the ways in which our people already imagine God and the world." We cannot communicate with those we do not understand. And if we make no attempt to understand them, they will infer that we do not really care.
In a more recent collaborative publication A Sermon Workbook Tisdale and Thomas Troeger provide some useful tools and suggestions as to how a preacher might go about understanding the congregation to whom she is preaching. We are invited to consider the "Seven Symbols for Congregational Exegesis": narratives and stories; rituals; art and architecture; people; events; website information, history and archived materials; demographics. It's worth spending time thinking about these (actually, it's worth buying the book). Some easy "hits" in trying to understand a congregation might be to think about events - does the church promote Alpha, Christianity Explored, Pilgrim, Start ...? is most honour given to "guest" speakers or those from within the church? are service leaders and preachers expected to train, or does anything go? All of these tell you a great deal very quickly about the congregational story.
An overlapping concern for preachers should be fairly obvious. There are both men and women in the congregation. In the days when almost everyone had almost always been a part of the church that did not matter much. But research shows that, today at least, women and men come to faith differently. CS Lewis wrote of his conversion as a kind of battle with God, who would not let go: "That which I had greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." (Surprised by Joy). In research on women's faith development Nicola Slee found that women come to faith often through women's ways of knowing - intuition, metaphor, self awareness. Others (among them Guenther and Winkett) suggest that women's sins are different too - where men may need to learn to kneel, women are quite used to that kind of role. Lucy Winkett expressed this beautifully in a lecture at Gresham College: "Women need first to learn to stand, before they choose to kneel." How might a preacher take this seriously? Certainly they should, for inclusive sermons are not about preferencing women over men, but rather enriching the faith life and God-experience of each.
"Giving disciplined time and attention to the interpretation of one's listeners is critical for preaching. It in no way diminishes the importance of careful exegesis of the texts, but then neither does any amount of work in a text make a sermon apart from this understanding." (As One without Authority: Fred Craddock)
I was very privileged a couple of weeks' ago to sit with Rev John Chalmers (Moderator of the Church of Scotland) over dinner and then to hear him speak. John is a powerful advocate for justice and peace, and during his tenure as Moderator has given a dove of peace to many people (including Clare Balding, David Cameron, the Pope and me!).
In his talk John spoke of an illustration used by Augustine of Hippo: Hope has two beautiful daughters, Anger and Courage. Christian hope likewise must give birth to these two beauties. We must feel angry about injustice and we must have the courage to speak out and to act.
What shape is Hope? John asked. He had three shapes to offer - a dove; a woman and a cross.
The dove of peace bringing God's peace to the earth when a dove returned to Noah with an olive leaf after the flood, and when the Spirit descended as a dove on Jesus at his baptism.
The shape of a woman around the world and in Scripture. In areas of conflict such as Southern Sudan, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere it is often the men who fight and the women who beg them to stop, just as Abigail prevented David from shedding blood when her husband offended him. The biggest justice issue of the next decade will be gender equality, according to John.
The shape of a cross. Reflecting on the pain of women around the world we were cautioned not to loosely suggest that Jesus died in our place - when we put Him on the cross and take ourselves down, we remove from humanity the very real suffering that many experience. Hope is cross shaped because God, incarnate in Jesus, went through suffering with us as well as for us.
Is God’s plan that we should learn to tolerate difference? That those who disagree should allow the other to flourish? That we should celebrate human diversity, possibly in expectation that it will be ironed out neatly at the end of time?
Or is diversity the trajectory of history as portrayed in Scripture? Is God’s purpose for diversity rather than sameness?
Initially these questions were raised during a seminar with Kate Coleman, an amazing black woman church leader. She encapsulated the diversity question in one anecdote. When she was Chair of the Evangelical Alliance, she had commented on the fact that she is both female and black. A white male colleague said “Don’t worry. I’m colour blind.” Kate responded “If you don’t see colour, you don’t see me.”
That made me think. If we don’t see where others differ from us, if we see them only as like us then we make them in our own image. Failing to recognise that the other is of a different sex, race, colour, creed, ability – failure to recognise difference – in fact suppresses and denies diversity.
From the beginning God seems to cultivate diversity. The chaos that initially exists is divided into day and night, light and dark, land and sea, varieties of plant and animal. Finally the ‘earthling’ is put to sleep and divided into two entirely new creatures: man and woman. God’s unceasing creativity tends toward variety.
Then we get to the well known story of the Tower of Babel. On a flat place, where people cannot reach the gods, because reaching the gods requires high places, human beings build a high tower (probably a ziggurat). God sees what they are doing and confuses the languages in order that humans cannot communicate. The underlying narrative usually employed to interpret this tale is that difference is a curse imposed by God on transgressing humanity because they used their uniformity of language for ill.
Set this, however, in a liberation context, the context of a country in which the edifice of imperialism has once been raised, and the story is open to a different interpretation.
One of the first controlling acts of an imperial power is to impose a common language, an official language. From then that language is the essential key to power, influence, economic well-being and more. Indigenous languages are quelled. In other words, a norm is imposed, and diversity is quashed.
In that context, at Babel God does not punish all of humanity for building their tower. He restores diversity to conquered peoples by restoring their own languages.
Of course, at the birth of the church – better known as the Day of Pentecost – people from all the then known continents are present, people of different languages and nationalities, possibly of both genders too. Peter preaches from Joel: God had promised, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.’ And yet Peter addresses “men of Israel” and “brothers”. Perhaps in this one story there is encapsulated generations of the church saying one thing and doing another, embracing diversity as long as it looks a lot like us.
Whether Peter really spoke about sons and daughters playing equal parts whilst addressing only men we don’t know. Perhaps he did, perhaps the story was simply recorded that way in a later age when writers couldn’t really conceive of Peter speaking to these now apparently equal ‘daughters’. What we do know is that Peter didn’t fully understand his own sermon, for later in Acts God has to assemble an array of animals in a sheet in order to make the diversity point again. Whatever happened, diversity seems to have been a vital part of the birth of the church.
Finally, in the Revelation of John we read: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”
I was fascinated in a recent discussion to find how differently this short verse can be interpreted. There are two basic ideas within it – one about where the people come from, and the other about what they look like. For me, the first sentence contains the ‘controlling’ idea – the people before the Lamb come from every tribe and nation and people and language, and remain identifiably diverse. For somebody else, the ‘controlling’ idea is the second sentence – they all looked the same. God has ironed out difference. The problem is that I rather suspect it was other people’s difference God was interested in ironing out!
Back to my first question:
Is God’s plan that we should learn to tolerate difference?
I don't think so. I think God's purpose is for diversity, that we are supposed to be diverse, not to tolerate difference.