Monday, September 12, 2016

Do We Overstate Bible Reading for Church members?

Biblical literacy is relatively new. Prior to the printing press (late 1400s), personal copies of the Bible did not reside in every home. In Jesus' day people flocked to the synagogue to hear someone read from an scroll containing Hebrew Scriptures. In the Old Testament era, priests and kings and prophets proclaimed God's Word from Temple courts and city markets.

The trend for oral consumption of the Word of God dates back to Moses on Sinai. When he descended the mountain, he did not distribute two million pocket-sized Torah tablets (the Gideon's weren't around yet). Rather, Moses read aloud from the single copy of the hand-written Word.

Actually, the spoken Word has earlier roots. "Then God said, 'Let there be light.' And there was light" (Genesis 1:3). So goes the story of creation: God speaks a word and creation happens. Psalmists later celebrated the power of God's voice (Pss. 29; 33).

By God's wisdom and providence--in various forms and ways (Heb. 1:1)--He conscripted men (and women?) to record these spoken Words and inscribe them into stones and scrolls and parchment.

By His wisdom and providence, He oversaw the editing and assembling process, resulting in sixty-six biblical books, whose consistency and authority was noted by apostles and early church leaders.
By His wisdom and providence, He made use of scribes and scriptoriums in the first millennia of the church to produce far more copies of His written word than any ancient text.
By His wisdom and providence, He leveraged the printing press and digitization to make His written word accessible in countless languages, versions, apps and formats.

Mass production and digital distribution are relatively new developments in the history of the church. For three-fourths of the church's lifetime, she lived without the King James Bible (and God blessed her anyway). The church made it to the Nineties without the Message (and then God blessed truly her). More translations, Bible conferences, interpretative schools and exegetical tools exist now than ever before, installed for free on our mobile devices.

Biblical literacy should be approaching the clouds that Jesus rides on. (Perhaps He's waiting for our collective literacy rate to peak before returning.)

But like many new things (e.g., Pokemon Go), the downward trend has already begun for biblical literacy. And if it's anything like the descent of the first few non-orbital space flights (I just watched The Right Stuff), it's fair to say: "Houston, we have a problem."

Greater access to the Bible has not resulted in greater understanding of its story. Not only has the church taken the biblical narrative for granted, we have traded its subversive ethic (e.g., Matthew 5-7) for a soft, psychological and moral panacea.

Before the Bible was a Book of Virtues, it was God's Spoken-with-Authority Word. 

Before the Bible was a proof-text for pro-life politics, it was God's Prophetic Voice. 

Before the Bible was a dusty shelf-piece or argumentative mallet, it was God's World-shaping-and-Community-forming aria. "And it was good."

Before the Bible was something the church read, it was something she heard.

"Do not forsake the public reading of Scripture," Paul implored Timothy. The apostle envisioned a gathering of believers where one practiced reader gave voice to God's written word. The reader, trained in rhetoric and practiced in performance, served in an official capacity. According to NT scholar, Ceslas Spicq, "Intelligence and eloquence were required" of the Anagnosis (e.g. the reader).

The congregation was not literate, but they were intelligent listeners. They were not theologically ignorant or biblical uneducated. They trained their ears to hear, catching key words, idioms, and allusions. They memorized and internalized the Word of God without reading it.

Now we have the written Word and no biblical memory or imagination. 

Now we have mass distribution of the Bible matched with mass confusion and mass division.

Is it possible that Bible literacy for the masses has produced massive misunderstanding of the text? Have we given God's written Word to untrained ears and expected too much of them?  Has mass distribution of the Scriptures led to mass division among churches, where every reader can form a personal opinion untethered to the "rule of faith" and congregational practice?

Obviously, I have more questions than answers. But I can no longer simply beg people to "read God's Word." Literacy is not the problem, listening to Him is. It was the problem Isaiah encountered when he uttered his oracles (Isaiah 6:9). It was the problem Jesus addressed in his image-rich preaching (Mark 4:9). It was the problem the author of Hebrews exposed to his drifting congregation (Hebrews ch. 3:7-19).

But if we learn to listen to God again, I suspect biblical literacy will follow a similar path.

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