Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The Challenge of the Scriptures

I hear a lot in my role about the need for recovering "biblical literacy." I can assure you that "literacy" is lacking--even amongst many who have been raised to hear snippets of biblical text. On the one hand, there are those who have never really encountered the Bible. It is, more or less, some kind of cultural icon for them; something spoken of, but never heard from. On the other hand, there are those who may hear it on a fairly regular basis--either in the setting of public worship or private devotion. But, even here, there is a lack of recognition that the Scriptures, themselves, are "strange territory". We are separted from the words by time and by space. A false kind of "literalistic" reading in the extreme (which can easily be seen in the way ancient apocalyptic is interpreted woodenly and out of context in the popular Left Behind series) means that even if the words are being "heard," they are not being understood in a way that is helpful in either the classroom or the church.

One of the best recent books on this subject which provides a helpful historical survey is by Jaroslav Pelikan, the erudite and humble Professor Emeritus at Yale. In his Whose Bible is It? A History of the Scriptures through the Ages (NY: Viking, 2005), he provides a wonderful summing-up of the issue of the strange world of Biblical language:
"To invoke a Kierkegaardesque figure of speech, the beauty of the language of the Bible can be like a set of dentist's instruments neatly laid out on a table and hanging on a wall, intriguing in their technological complexity and with their stainless steel highly polished--until they set to work on the job for which they were originally designed. Then all of a sudden my reaction changes from, 'How shiny and beautiful they are!' to 'Get that damned thing out of my mouth!' Once I begin to read it anew, perhaps in the freshness of a new translation, it stops speaking in cliches and begins to address me directly. Many people who want nothing to do with organized religion claim to be able to read the Bible at home for themselves. But is is difficult to resist the suspicion that in fact many of them do not read it very much. For if they did, the 'sticker shock' of what it actually says would lead them to find most of what it says even more strange than the world of synagogue and church," (229).

And, so, another semester is about to begin in which helping students to struggle to hear and understand this strange, foreign text will be at the heart of my task. One does so with "fear and trembling" (to borrow another Kierkegaardian phrase hijacked from the Bible!) and in the hopes that the readers will catch a view of both the holy God behind it and of the poor sinner who deigns to open it.