Question: What does U.S. President John Quincy Adams have in common with the following people: the sixteenth president of Harvard, the eleventh minister of Old South, the inventor of the steam tug boat, and the composer of the hymn tune, Coronation?
Answer: they were all founding members in 1809 (200 years ago) of the Massachusetts Bible Society.
In celebration of its 200th anniversary the Massachusetts Bible Society is in process of filming a documentary about the Bible and its role today. One of the questions in which they are interested is the degree of biblical literacy among Christians.
While biblical illiteracy is rampant today across this country, I told them that this congregation knows its Bible.
The Massachusetts Bible Society is here today with video and microphone to test my assertion. I hope to prove that you do know your Bible with an impromptu quiz. I don't want you to be nervous … but your reputation and mine are on the line.
Please feel free to shout out the answers. The louder the better … especially if you know you know the answer!
Q: What did Noah build?
A: the ark!
Q: What did Moses say to Pharaoh?
A: Let my people go!
Q: How many years were Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness? A: 40!
Q: What did they eat in the wilderness?
Q: In the Garden of Eden, from what sort of tree did Eve and Adam eat?
A: The tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil!
Q: In a dream, Jacob saw angels descending and ascending … by what means?
Q: At the wedding in Cana of Galilee, what did Jesus turn into wine?
Q: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move what?
Q: What three qualities did Paul name as the most important?
A: Faith, hope and love!
Q: Name the four gospel writers.
A: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!
Q: Name the first five books of the Bible.
A: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy!
Q: Name the last book of the Bible.
Fill in the blank:
In the beginning God created …
the heavens and the earth
The Lord is my …
I shall not …
Your body is God's…
Complete these sentences:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present…
help in trouble
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place …
for all generations
I was glad when they said unto me …
let us go into the house of the Lord
O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good …
his steadfast love endures forever
My God, my God, why hast thou …
For ten bonus points, a final question. This one comes from one of the more difficult books of the Bible, the Book of Revelation.
Complete this sentence:
Behold, I have set before thee …
an open door !
(Note from the preacher: let the record reflect that the Old South congregation heartily shouted out the answers in rapid succession, with nary a stumble.)
The Massachusetts' Bible Society documentary is interested biblical literacy today. I trust the documentary will reflect that the members of Old South Church in Boston know their Bible!
The Massachusetts Bible Society also seek answers from Christian leaders to this question: "If there was one piece of biblical understanding that you could share with the world, what would it be?"
My answer: Genre!
So much depends upon recognizing that in the opening chapters of Genesis we are wading into the primordial mists of prehistory and that the stories there are essentially mythopoeic in sweep and content.
So much depends on understanding that the Book of Exodus is epic; that the Book of Jonah is slapstick; that Hosea is domestic, familial.
So much depends on recognizing that the Song of Solomon is erotica - Judeo-Christian erotica - in the service of celebrating that which is intimate, warm, physical and unabashedly sensual.
So much depends on understanding that Proverbs are proverbial and that the Epistle to the Romans is a letter in the service of Christian apologetics.
So much depends on recognizing that the Book of Job is dialogical: a sweeping, probing, anguished, raw-to-the-bone conversation and argument on the experience of suffering.
So much depends on recognizing that a biblical genealogy is a boast … a declaration of pedigree. So much depends on admiring the Biblical genealogies for their chutzpah, while simultaneously admitting they do not pass the test of modern genealogical methodology.
So much depends on browsing the pages of the Book of Acts as one does an old family album. The sepia pictures are yellowed and grainy. Everything appears a bit distant: strange and quaint … and yet familiar … for these are our people, our kin.
So much depends upon understanding that a Gospel is an original, hybrid genre comprised of multiple genres: biography, legend, miracle story, prayer, song, parable, teaching, sermon, prophesy, travel journal, and hyperbole in the service of persuasion … all intensely determined to bring you, dear reader, to see and experience what the first eye witnesses saw and experience: that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, is the Son of God.
So much depends on understanding the Book of Revelation as apocalyptic literature and that its strange, dreamlike, incoherence erupted from a circumstance of extremis.
Try it this way: Think of a journey through the Bible as akin to the experience of downhill skiing.
From the top of the mountain to the bottom, the skier encounters abrupt and challenging changes of terrain - moguls, deep snow, ice, trees, drifts, cliffs, rock, turns and steepness -
all requiring adjustment and agility as the skier negotiates an ever changing topography.
Reading the Bible is like that. So much depends on my ability to adapt and adjust to sudden changes of genre-terrain: from beatitude to wisdom, from parable to miracle, from confession to instruction, from narrative to doxology, from benediction to commission, from interpretation to lamentation, from righteous anger to tender ministration.
When people ask me if I ski, I acknowledge that I have slid down some mountains … conceding the success of gravity, while remaining vague as to the form of my descent.
I have skied just enough (or have slid down mountains just enough) to have experienced its dangers and indignities.
Bad or sloppy biblical exegesis is as dangerous as an out-of-control skier on a crowded mountain.
Bad biblical exegesis has fueled the Crusades, supported slavery, was as kerosene to so-called witches in Salem, was employed to justify the Holocaust, kindles tension between Jews and Christians, does violence to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender sisters and brothers, and remains today among the most pernicious excuses for the oppression of women around the world.
This summer former President Jimmy Carter issued a remarkable statement about just this.
He began by stating that he has been a practicing Christian all his life; that he is a Deacon and a Sunday school teacher. He then explained why, after six decades, he chose to sever his affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention.
He did so, he said, because the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, quoting Bible verses selectively, blame Eve for original sin … and that the consequence of this is that women must be subservient to men.
He goes on to say how this has had a profoundly detrimental effect on women around the world … in terms of women's access to education, employment, credit, decisions about whom they can marry, reproductive rights, as well as the most basic and civil and human rights.
To return to my skiing metaphor: biblical fundamentalists operate in white-out conditions. Unable to discern variations in genre-terrain, they fail to distinguish myth from history, literary device from fact, chronos-time from kairos-time. The result of this failure is dangerous: it does violence to others with whom we share this earth.
I am a lousy skier - potentially even a dangerous one - but I still go up every now and again. Why? Because the view is so spectacular, because of the quality of the air and because of the feel of skis on snow. But I also return to the mountain because of a persistent hope (slim though it is for me) of a long, smooth, fast, exciting, and elegantly executed descent.
In approaching the Bible and navigating its challenging genre-terrain some of you undoubtedly feel inept or awkward (perhaps even a danger to others). I encourage you none-the-less to give it a go.
For what you will see and experience there - high up on Mt. Sinai, or high up on the Mount of Transfiguration, or at the moment the Hebrew midwifes defied Pharaoh, or when Jesus touched the eyelids of Blind Bartimaeus, or when Jesus unfolded the scriptures on the road to Emmaus - in glimpses of mystery and majesty, in glimpses of tenderness and goodness, is like nothing else.
The Bible's authors and those who people its pages reveal to us what it is like to live in the presence of God: which is to say, it is at once dreadful and beautiful, terrifying and soothing, confounding and riveting … and always worth the risk.