Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Bible: reading what’s actually there

by Daniel

It was late. One can recall the old adage “nothing good ever happens after midnight.” I can attest to it. Last night I was in conversation with a close friend. He recently graduated from Luther’s CML program with an emphasis in urban ministry: he’s much more about “doing” than “why we should be doing.” He’s used to working with what he would call “real people,” whereas I work with what he would call “classroom people.” Respectively, from the outset of our verbal sparring match I was given an unfair handicap: my people aren’t “real” enough for the real world, but I would argue the same with respect to his “limousine social work” (as in one who is working with the marginalized, yet drives up in a nice car like some sort of salvific deliverer on a white horse from his nice apartment in suburbia). Well, we’ve known one another for about seven years and have frequently been in conversation about our ministry. One should know these conversations aren’t anything new and rarely end up with any real consensus. In our discourse he attested to the importance of “doing”: what you do is more important than what the bible says itself (what’s actually between the pages). It’s always the same story: “Why study what you can’t preach in church? Why study what you can’t apply to “real people” in the “real world? How is studying this “stuff” beneficial to humanity?” But my response is likely the same each time, “Shouldn’t we need to provide structure and foundation? If we claim to be in some way connected to Israel’s community of faith – shouldn’t we have someone challenging our tradition—or preserving it in wake of our changing world? And why study anything at all if it doesn’t provide immediate, recognizable relief for humankind? (consider other humanities in the same role: historical studies, philosophy, women studies, Africana studies--they aren't a panacea themselves, but take time to do their magic through awareness and recognition of a need for change)” The conversations aren’t fruitless, but are often ascorbic and challenging.

Throughout the years of these conversations I have attested to the importance of the study of the bible as its own enterprise (as in - without conjecture): knowing what the bible actually says is important (if you don’t know what is being said then how in the world can you possibly attempt to “distill” theology from the text—and doesn’t your theology affect the way you interact with “real people”). Well, what do I mean? I’m not a “bible banger”—someone who is a literalist about what the bible says on such-and-such thing (especially in the realm of moral and ethical “things” because I feel the way we interpret the bible needs to conform for a non-static, changing world). I am, however, a proponent of actually digging into the text and reading what is actually there: not randomly “trimming the fat” from Scripture in order to reinforce some cant behind the pulpit or in the street (in other words: what does the text actually say versus what we think we already know about the text, what has the literary tradition preserved, and how does the text function not only holistically with the rest of the Christian canon, but also as its own literary enterprise). Moreover, if you don’t know what the text itself is saying – then why bother to reinforce your “doings” in the world with it?

I went to bed last night with adrenaline surging through my system. Indeed, “lived theology” is important, but wouldn’t be possible without a basic, elementary theology—which requires (in the Christian tradition at least) a foundation of sorts, a fledgling grasp of “what God has been up to” in order to see “what God is still up to” in the world today.



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