Shaped by our essential book

October 23, 2019 | Editorial | Volume 23 Issue 19
Virginia A. Hostetler | Executive editor
'What does it mean if we see the Bible as the book above other books?' (Image by StockSnap/Pixabay)

The name Arab Christians use for the Bible translates literally as “The Holy Book,” and they often shorten it to “The Book.” Article 4 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states: “The Bible is the essential book of the church.” What does it mean if we see the Bible as the book above other books, the essential book of our faith? 

In this issue, we feature our semi-annual Focus on Books and Resources section, with a collection of titles for you to explore and read. On page 23, Nancy Frey, a teacher and pastor formerly serving in Africa, recalls how her Bible students there wanted to understand the Bible so badly that they would study for 10 hours! In the feature, author Meghan Larissa Good considers how the Bible helps shape our biblical imagination. She posits, “Through Scripture we are shaped, page by page, into the imagination of Christ.”

Here are a few thoughts on being “shaped” by the Bible.

How often do we touch an actual Bible or read its words? Not often, according to a 2013 study commissioned by the Canadian Bible Forum and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The statistics show that only 14 percent of Canadian Christians read the Bible at least once a week. That’s one in seven of us. If you look at the total population, a majority of Canadians—including those who call themselves Christian—seldom or never read the Bible. 

The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective states: “We commit ourselves to persist and delight in reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures.” A lofty and desirable goal.

Maybe it starts with handling the actual book. When I lived in the Middle East, I witnessed a new kind of respect for the Bible. Middle Eastern Christians take great care with the actual book: They don’t place a Bible on the floor or on any other dirty surface, and they never take a Bible into the bathroom. In western societies, some worship services include a procession in which a highly decorated copy of the gospels is held up for all to see. The whole congregation stands when the gospels are read, as a witness to the centrality of Christ. 

Closer to home, we can make at least one Bible visible and available in the spaces where we live our daily lives. We can carry an actual Bible to church, or our congregation can provide pew Bibles within easy reach. When Scripture is read in a worship service, we can open “The Book” and follow along.

As Anabaptists, we want to engage with all parts of the Bible—through worship, individual and group studies, and spiritual formation. We should be conscious of how various church activities provide opportunities for the Bible’s contents to be seen, heard, read, discussed, taken to heart and lived out. 

Another way we allow the Bible to shape us is to hear its stories. The good narratives contained in the Bible continually surprise me. In this holy book, we see one grand story of how God and humans built—and re-built—their relationship. It portrays believable characters, with dreams, temptations and challenges. Challenging plots and surprise endings. Emotions ranging from reverence and awe, to anger and shame. This story invites us to walk alongside our spiritual ancestors as we, too, grow in our relationship with the story’s author. 

For me, this has meant engaging in biblical storytelling, learning the ancient narratives by heart and telling those stories orally. An international movement within the broader Christian church helps storytellers tell those ancient stories with understanding and passion.

To see how to get involved, check out the Network of Biblical Storytellers International (nbsint.org). A Canadian chapter meets annually each fall (facebook.com/biblicalstorytellingcan).

You may have testimonies to share about how the Bible has shaped you as a follower of Christ. We’d love to hear them. In the meantime, consider this your invitation to “persist and delight” in the church’s essential book. 

New columnist

The column “The Church Here and There” debuts this issue. Columnist Arli Klassen comes with experience in several Mennonite settings, and she brings a vision for connecting Anabaptist siblings in many places around the world. Arli writes, “I would like to both educate and reflect on the connections and relationships among churches at all levels.” We look forward to hearing her perspective.

Read more editorials:
Stories told and untold
Disciples and citizens
The zucchini principle
Digital church
Broad prayers in a time of fear

'What does it mean if we see the Bible as the book above other books?' (Image by StockSnap/Pixabay)

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Thank you for the editorial on the Bible as “the essential book of the church.” It is good to be reminded of what our Confession of Faith says, "We commit ourselves to persist and delight in reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures.” 

Some years ago we had a conference on Dusting Off the Bible but it seems that the appeal to dust it off has not worked all that well.

While we pay lip service to “persist and delight in reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures” our practice does not back up our lofty claims. You helpfully suggest “maybe it starts with handling the actual book.” But this may also compound the problem: the Bible is an anthology of ancient, ambiguous and diverse literature and dusting it off, handling it oneself, may not be an  adequate approach. When we actually try to do this, reading carefully and comparatively we will be confronted with complex issues of reading 'with interpretation'. 

In Acts 8 Philip asked the Eunuch, who was reading an Isaiah scroll on his own, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The  response was, “How can I unless someone guide me?” Handling the book and reading it on one’s own is often insufficient. We may even need help in choosing our mentors who will introduce us to unspoken assumptions as well as bits of background information that illuminate the text. When Israel returned from captivity in Babylon (Nehemiah 8) the people asked Ezra and the other leaders to read Torah to them. They read Torah, but they read “with interpretation,” wisely, which I understand to mean that the leaders provided guidance that enabled understanding of the ancient word for a new set of circumstances and questions. And it worked! They had a BBQ to celebrate their understanding; they rejoiced! 

I have three practical suggestions. One, is to believe that we are on a journey through life and with the Bible, a long journey. Two, that we patiently nibble at parts of  the Bible, without feeling guilty about the parts left unread. We don’t need to read the whole canon in one year. It might be helpful to take weeks or even months, with a few chosen passages like Acts 8 and Nehemiah 8, personally or with others. Three, it could be that reading something about interpreting the Bible might be of greater value than attempting to read passages on our own and feeling frustrated.

What other ways are there to dust off the Bible, to actually handle parts of it? I would leave “engaging with all parts of the Bible” to others and be content for the time being with exploring some passage, appreciating its relevance and being profoundly blessed.

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