The book of Genesis tells the story where God appears to Abraham as three strangers who arrive to tell him of the impending birth of his son Isaac. When he sees the strangers walking by his tent he invites them to stay with him for a while and take some refreshment. The writer of Hebrews probably had this story in mind saying “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2). Being both Southern and a Christian I have tried being mindful of this reminder to practice hospitality. So, when three strangers knocked on our door last night seeking shelter during a storm, I did not hesitate.
They were three young men who were part of some door-to-door subscription sales scheme. It was the kind of marketing from which that I never buy because of the possibility of being scammed. These guys were wet, cold, and very afraid. A severe weather and tornado warning had come over one of their phones. “We’ll just stay here on the porch if that is ok?” I told them they were welcome to stay and I would sit outside with them. Seeing the clouds, I did not think a tornado was likely. Lightning and wind were bad enough. One of the guys complained about being cold. We gave him an extra sweater we had. I asked when they had last eaten. They said they would not get to eat until late that night. Knowing my wife was warming soup on the stove for our dinner, I asked her to give some bowls of soup to them. She brought glasses of sweet tea too.
So it was during a bad storm we strangers visited one another. We heard about each others’ lives. They asked about the church next door. When I told them I was the pastor they asked many more questions. I told them I was part of the great tradition of Methodist Circuit riding and served two churches. When I described our ministries they were very interested in the good works aspect of church life. We talked until the rain subsided. They got out their cigarettes (I would not let them smoke on the porch), thanked us profusely, and said they hoped their ride would find them at the laundromat. Their fear was gone.
We learn not to talk about the good things we do. I do not believe in boasting and bragging. I believe we should talk up the good things churches and church people do. How else will the people of the world know Christians care?
The Holy Bible may be the most banned book in the history of the world. That is to say, banned by Christians. I remember my fundamentalist education on “church history” it was often pointed out how the Bible was “placed on the Index” of books deemed forbidden to be read by Christians. The Reformation, we were told, restored the Scriptures to the ordinary lay Christian. Of course like all historical generalizations, there was more to the story.
The Bible was not banned by the Church. Certain vernacular translations of the Bible were banned. I discovered in that fact that many Christians are guilty of the same thing. My home church used to direct that the public reading of the scriptures use only the King James Version or American Standard Version translations of the Scriptures. The Revised Standard Version did not translate Isaiah 7:14 to the leader’s liking. The Living Bible was merely a paraphrase and not trustworthy. Fundamentalist churches kept whole books about Bible translations and “per-versions.” The Living Bible was even burned in some places and has made ALA’s list of banned books. Once the New International Version was published, a change was taking place among fundamentalist and evangelicals to have a Bible that was in the language they spoke. Still, there were many detractors over paraphrasing or even changing the word “man” to “humankind” as in the short-lived Today’s New International Version.
Many younger evangelicals today know that all English translations of the Bible have some paraphrasing being used. Scholars often note that the subjunctive mood is virtually ignored in modern English. Evangelical, moderate, and liberal scholars have disagreements on translation so nuanced that they can be ignored by the pulpit and the pews. Christians are often tempted to look on the disputes of the past as quaint. But, something very serious is happening.
Alternate translations were offered because of objections to some newer translations. The New King James Bible, and New American Standard Versions were meant to give some publishers exclusive rights to modern translations that would be used by fundamentalist churches. Copyright became the coveted standard for Bible translations. The last true standard translation in American English has been the New Revised Standard Version. One can ignore the apparent redundancy of the title. Christians of all stripes can appreciate the important contribution to our understanding of the Holy Bible it gives us. And yet, christian publishers do not wish to pay royalties when church school materials are being produced.
Here then is the new problem. Christian publishing houses are producing their own Bibles. Scholars are being paid essentially to rephrase translations for these companies to use for their Sunday School literature and other publications. The “Common English Bible” produced by my own denomination adds nothing to the comparative study of Bible translation and effectively produces a “United Methodist Bible” for use in UM literature. Without claiming we have an “official translation,” we put one in place in order to avoid paying royalties. LifeWay stores has effectively done the same thing with the misnamed English Standard Version for Baptists. Have these publishing companies turned the churches away from the desires of Wycliffe and Tyndale for their denominational markets?
Church leaders know the difficulties posed by “intellectual property rights” enforced by christian music publishing. Are we going to led down the same path over the Bible?
Recently I discovered two things.
While poking around in one of the buildings of my new charge I found a modern biography of St. Francis. I grabbed it and another book about an incident in Francis’ life. The second discovery is one i made during my reading. I was beginning to use my spiritual reading time only for readings that appealed to me.
Yes, it is more likely a task will be completed if we are truly interested and engaged in it. What happens when we lose interest? Is it all right then to lose engaging the task? What would happen if I approached the Bible that way? Will I really grow spiritually if I only read the parts of holy scripture I like?
If I only read about holy people whose ways of life, practice, and thought appeal to me, I lose the benefits of what I may find. Curiously enough I could find my spiritual life stunted because I never discipline myself to read or think about something with which I disagree.
Should I not slog through the difficult and tedious propositions of St. Thomas Aquinas? Are St. Irenaeus or St. Augustine really out of step with modern feeling. Why is St. Benedict so strict in observance? Can’t we understand the discipline of work and prayer with Brother Lawrence? The “neo-orthodox” movement is finished. But, Bonhoeffer and Barth can still teach us something can’t they?
The danger with listening to only voices we wish to hear is that sooner or later their voice becomes melded into our own. That is the worst form of narcissism and pride of all.
Lopsided views contribute to lopsided living. We can only turn the world right side up when we are able to stand upright ourselves. I am sure the blessed St. Francis would after my delivering an enthusiastic lesson on his life would present me with a broom and water to sweep the church and contemplate my wrong-headed spiritual insights.
Human beings often get it wrong because we insist that there is only one way to view things. Christians often insist that this is the only way to view the world because of Jesus’ claim “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6b) There is further emphasis given in the last part of the verse where the claim continues, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” So Jesus claims to be the only way to God. But, when we travel through most communities in the United States we find that there are many ways to Jesus. And something even more puzzling is found in the same Gospel where Pilate asks Jesus “What is the truth?” Jesus does not offer an answer.
We get it wrong because we disciples of Jesus do not pay attention to how he chose to act. Jesus was guided by his own reasons based on who he knew himself to be. An Episcopal priest I know once remarked to me that the slogan form of Christian confession usually falls into odd phrasings. An auto mechanic shop in my hometown once said on the marquee “Jesus Saves. Spring Tire Sale.” Unfortunate statements border on unintentional blasphemy.
I propose the slogan approach be abandoned. It is too easy to turn a phrase. It is not easy to turn a life around. It is better to be less glib and more authentic.
We get it wrong because the sense of authentic Christian believing and living involves knowing Jesus in a way that ties our imaginations to the text of the New Testament. We could easily imagine Jesus in ways that we prefer. We could idealize a figure of Jesus as a good shepherd minding the sheep and keeping quiet about a great many things. We may wish to see Jesus as a good neighbor who loves to be with children and cause no problems. We may visualize Jesus doing only what we believe should be done. I may dislike a group of people and prefer Jesus disliking them as well. The slogan based form of Christian confession only gives us an imagined Jesus. We do not find any true authenticity until we are ready to find out who he is.
Jesus, according to the gospels, sought faithful followers. He wanted people to hear and do what he told them. Judas Iscariot once claimed there should be no honors for Jesus without helping the poor. Jesus claimed honoring him was as necessary as honoring the poor. John’s Gospel explains that Judas was not concerned for the poor (unless he has himself in mind as poor). He merely wanted access to more money. Jesus wishes us to honor him in worship and action so that we can take a focus away from ourselves.
People often claim, “you do not have to go to church to be a christian.” I argue the opposite position that a Christian must worship with other believers in order to grow in love and faith. We get it wrong when we use the name of Jesus to justify our own desires, prejudices, and preferences. We get it right when we follow his way, his truth, and his life.
The answer to the questions “What did he say?” and “what should we do?” should be the same.