We are nine days from the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation is generally marked from the day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, a German monk, issued 95 theses, or points of argument or debate. He intended by this act to invite his fellow academics into debate. The debate was never held, because Luther’s theses were quickly translated into German, the language of the people, the vernacular, and widely distributed. They created an uproar. In an instant, everyone was talking about them.
And, a part of how people argued for and against Luther’s theses, was on the basis of the Bible. Everyone opened their Bibles seeking support or refutation of what Luther was proposing. Bible study became everybody’s business. And biblical literacy became a mark of Protestantism.
In celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (of which Old South Church is a direct heir and beneficiary in a million ways), I’d like to test how well we are doing with respect to our own biblical literacy. I propose an impromptu quiz. Please feel free to shout out the answers. The louder the better … especially if you know you know the answer! Here goes:
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?
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 … Shepherd
I shall not … want
Your body is God’s … temple
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 … forsaken me
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!
Ha! Let the record reflect that the Old South Church heartily shouted out the answers in rapid succession, with nary a stumble. Let the record reflect that the members of Old South Church in Boston know their Bible!
As we near the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I am mindful that the Bible is a potent thing. It can be a dangerous thing. It can be used for great good and for great ill.
If there is one piece of biblical understanding that I could share with the world – a piece of understanding that makes the Bible less dangerous, it would be 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 and meaning 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 all in the service of persuasion … all intensely determined to bring you, dear reader, to see and experience what the first eye witnesses saw and experienced and came to believe with their whole hearts: that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, is the Son of God.
So much depends on understanding the Book of Revelation as apocalyptic literature; that its strange, dreamlike, incoherence erupted from a circumstance of extremis, of existential peril.
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, crusty 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 enough (or have descended enough mountains) 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 today, does violence to our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender kin today, and remains today among the most pernicious excuses for the oppression of women around the world.
Back in 2000, then former President Jimmy Carter issued a remarkable statement about just this. He began by stating that he had 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 and Rosilyn chose to sever their 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 went on to declare that such irresponsible biblical exegesis has had a profoundly detrimental effect on women around the world: with respect to women’s access to education, employment, credit, decisions about whom they can marry, reproductive rights, as well as the most basic civil and human rights.
To return to my skiing metaphor. I propose that biblical fundamentalists operate in white-out conditions. Unable to discern variations in genre-terrain, they are unable 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 to give it a go nevertheless.
For what you will see and experience there – high upon Mt. Sinai, or high upon the Mount of Transfiguration, or at the very moment the Hebrew midwifes defy Pharaoh, or the instant Jesus touches with his own fingers the eyelids of Blind Bartimaeus, or when Jesus unfolds 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, always worth the risk.
Preached on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, during 9:00 am First Worship.