What about this Bible?

March 13, 2013 | Editorial
Dick Benner | Editor/Publisher

Not in recent history have we paid so much attention to the Bible in our faith community.

As I peruse the last year’s issues of Canadian Mennonite, I note several features such as John D. Rempel’s “The Bible and Holy Spirit in tension,” an investigation by Bruno Dyck into the Zacchaeus story in Luke in “Salvation comes to a rich house,” and a new look at discernment by Dave Rogalsky in reviewing the stories of contention as told in the gospels by the Apostle Paul in letters to the new Christians’ developing congregational life.

Our columnist Troy Watson has written a seven-part series on new discoveries in the Scripture and with this issue we have completed a three-part series, “On the Use of Scripture,” by Bruce Hiebert. Last July, three distinguished and articulate scholars helped us “dust off the Bible” at Mennonite Church Canada’s assembly in Vancouver.

Which begs the question: Why this new interest in taking a new and more imaginative view of Scripture in our time and place? Haven’t we always, as a faith community, given high priority and place to Holy Scripture as the source of our salvation, our spiritual wisdom, our guide for living?

Well, yes, while the words, though spoken and recorded in a different time and place, still hold ultimate authority in our lives as 21st-century Christians, they need fresh interpretation, new imagination, new inspiration and new application, as the world around us becomes post-Christian and more secular. As Anabaptist Christians—a people of the Book—we can lose our identity in a society and political establishment driven by a popular culture of entertainment, nationalism and militarism.

So it is perfectly appropriate and necessary to focus new attention on that life-giving source for no other reason than to acknowledge that the ground is literally shifting under our feet. As other life forces close in on us, a refurbishing of our understanding and application of Scripture should become a high priority.

The process will not be easy. Old understandings and assumptions will be brought into question. As Bruce Hiebert reminds us on pages 6 and 7, this will require hard work and imagination: “We need the right focus and the right framework, and it needs to be done in the shadow of the Scriptures we venerate and before the God we worship. It is a pastoral, priestly and prophetic process.”

Walter Brueggemann, a biblical scholar, echoes the same sentiment: “How we read the Bible, each of us, is partly a plot of family, neighbours and friends [a socialization process], and partly the God-given accident of long-term development in faith. The real issues of biblical authority and interpretation are not likely to be settled by erudite cognitive formulation or appeal to classic settlement, but live beneath such contention in often unrecognized and uncriticized ways that are deeply powerful, especially if rooted [as they may be for most of us] amidst hurt, anger or anxiety.”

And what about our children and young people, a generation growing up in a culture saturated with images and values foreign to the biblical images to which Hiebert refers?

Well, this, too, will not be easy. In Christian Century, Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, a research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research, in addressing the issue of how to read the Bible with children, writes: “There’s no way around it: the Bible is a problematic book. It does not sit neatly within anyone’s worldview or religious preferences, no matter where on the many theological spectrums one falls.

“We can try to present them [our children] an unproblematic Bible, excised and trimmed and amplified to fit our own adult needs. . . . . We can bowdlerize, sanitize and pretend all is well and right and easy with a canon that is assuredly not all well and easy. Or we can embrace the problematic Bible and abandon our efforts to control it. We can recognize that faith comes as a gift of the Holy Spirit, not through the problem-solving of anxious adherents to the Christian religion.”

So our work is cut out for us. And we cannot subcontract it out to church institutions or biblical scholars who, at best, can give us frameworks and processes for expanded and innovative thinking. The heavy lifting will have to be done by what Richard Rohr calls “soulful people” in each congregation, those persons providing the “salt, yeast and light” Jesus refers to in Matthew 5:13-16.

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I'm writing because I'm intrigued by the use of the phrase "people of the Book" in an explanatory aside about Anabaptists. I've heard this reference in this way a few times recently and it troubles me. It feels like a term used historically by Muslims to describe Jews and Christians is being appropriated to describe Anabaptists.

Technically it's not inaccurate; we Anabaptists, as all Christians, do hold up the Bible as scripture. But the origin of the term is in a multi-faith context, and by using it we're aligning ourselves broadly with all other Christians and Jews, not claiming something exclusively for ourselves.

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