Preaching in the Context of Biblical illiteracy: Part 3
In our previous two posts we have looked at the crisis of Biblical illiteracy in our churches and begun to think about how we can respond to this as preachers. Last week we explored ‘claiming the Bible back as the church’s book’. In this final instalment we will consider two more steps that we can take.
Tell the whole story, as a coherent story.
Scripture tells a story – the story of God creating, sustaining, judging and saving the world. The challenge in our preaching is to tell this story and place everything that we preach on within this story. Although there are voices of many different witnesses in the Bible, there is unity in the story of the work of God. It is a coherent story and faithful reading of the Bible demands engagement with the entire story.
Establishing biblical story as a coherent story is an important task of the preacher. With the kind of diversity we have within the Bible in terms of literary genre, in one sense, scripture is clearly not a unified narrative. Actually not all scripture is narrative. Some books contain no narrative at all and some narrative books contain non-narrative material. But it is not difficult to see the narrative framework within which the non-narrative materials fit in. For example, the epistles in the New Testament are rooted in the story of the early church and they keep on referring back to this story.
It should also be pointed out that this coherent story has place within it for differing and parallel voices or traditions. An attempt to harmonise different distinctive voices is not very much biblical in itself. There are voices of dissent and protest. The readers must feel confident to feel the tensions within the story. Moreover, they should recognize that the story is not a domineering meta-narrative “accounting history in terms of immanent reason or human mastery but in terms of the freedom and purpose of God and of human freedom to obey or resist God”. This is a story where we can feel at home as human beings with a sense of freedom and choice.
Employ a non-specialist approach to biblical interpretation.
If people are to attempt reading the Bible, they need to be convinced that they are competent enough to read it. The methods that arose out of the modern historical-critical approach were “specialist” in the sense that they presupposed some amount of historical, linguistic and cultural knowledge on the side of the interpreter. This approach also insisted that there is a ‘true meaning’ in every text which one shall arrive at by the use of correct methods. But now we realize that the promise of this approach to establish scientifically verifiable truths was never realized. Reconstructing the history behind the text proved to be far more difficult than first imagined. The critics disagreed among themselves about what had really happened. If that is the case among the experts, how would a lay person without any expertise feel confident about interpreting scripture?
Our approach to the Bible begins with the affirmation that it is a religious body of literature and its purpose is religious, not historical or linguistic. We turn to scripture in the expectation that God speaks to us through scripture. Our concern is how the text (as it is in front of us, not any historical reconstruction of it) speaks to us. This would mean that we approach the text or the story as it is without being preoccupied with historical questions.
Our historical awareness should be helping our imagination in understanding the stories we encounter in the scriptures, not distracting us from those stories. Read the story, enter into the story, stay within the story and let the story encounter us and speak to us.
Still we might wonder whether certain stories are historical or not. But the fact is that for most of these stories, their power or message does not depend on whether the incident took place exactly in the same way in history. We should be able to get beyond the orthodox and liberal impasse by approaching scripture as a sacrament because scripture has the capacity to mediate an encounter with the transcendent. The notion of sacrament “bespeaks divine initiative and human involvement plus the empirical object that mediates.” Sacrament is something that we encounter, participate and experience and that is what should be happening as we read the Bible.
The Rt Revd Dr John Perumbalath