Tom and I go to an Episcopal church. Part of what I love about the liturgy we read each Sunday is the rich experience of reading scripture together, knowing that others around the world are reading and studying the same scriptures.
In this last post in the series Reading the Scriptures – How, When and Why? I will focus on reading the scriptures as a way to build community. One upon a time reading the scriptures was the focus of community worship. Before the advent of the printing press, in a world where many people could read, an entire village would gather each week to hear the priest read and expound the scriptures. Celtic Christians in the 3rd to 7th centuries set up high crosses as teaching stations. These crosses were often decorated with bible characters which formed the focal point for the sharing of biblical stories. The beautiful stained glass windows of the Gothic cathedrals served the same function. Whole communities gathered together to hear, to see and to learn.
The printing press changed all that. Suddenly people could possess their own copies of scriptures and they no longer needed their community to help them read the word of God. Not surprisingly, for many of us today, reading the scriptures is an individual pursuit. We all have our own bibles, commentaries and now even internet access to websites that read the scriptures for us. We no longer need others to help us delve into the word of God and don’t realize how easily we can be led astray by our own often self centred interpretations.
Reading and studying the bible as a community is I feel as essential a part of our Christian discipleship as reading it alone is. And I would go further and say that we need to study the word of God together with as diverse a group of God’s worldwide community as possible. I once heard Biblical statesman John Stott say: The answers we get depend on the questions we ask. People from other cultures, other faith traditions and other social groups force us to ask new questions about the bible and our interpretation of us. Unless we read the bible in the context of the broader community our understanding will be limited and our faith will stagnate.
The Jews love to argue – three Jews four opinions is an old proverb that sums up the Jewish Rabbis’ approach to studying the scriptures. The name Israel literally denotes one who “wrestles with God.” Wrestling with God about issues of injustice, oppression, pain and suffering is meant to be a part of our biblical study. So how do we accomplish this?
- Put together a bible study group from as diverse a population as possible. If we only read the bible with like minded people we will never face the difficult questions that it poses for us.
- Read commentaries and theological viewpoints from outside your culture and faith tradition. If it is not a possibility for you to read the bible together with a diverse group of followers of Jesus, then acquire commentaries that challenge your interpretation and stretch your thinking. Read the works of theologians from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America as well as those with a more traditional western viewpoint. We are formed by God to be a part of community and it is only as we listen together in community that we grow into the people God intends us to be.
- Listen to all the voices within a community. I have learned much from my Quaker friends who believe that they should not move forward in a decision until all voices have been heard from and all opinions weighed. Sometimes God speaks through the seemingly most insignificant member of a community. I think that this is a great principle to apply to our bible reading. Listening to the many voices through whom God speaks should be an essential part of our Christian faith.
- Ask questions that challenge the status quo. I have read that Jewish rabbis believe that argument is the highest form of discourse. If there is not dissension then there is something lacking in a discussion. In fact if in a discussion there was no disagreement then someone was elected to present that dissenting viewpoint.