Wesleyan Wisdom: Recovering biblical literacy — my mite in the effort

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

After fifty-nine years of preaching most Sundays since I was first appointed at age 19, I retired from the pulpit in September, 2013.  Since I have no longer needed to prepare a new weekly sermon, I engaged in the rather ridiculous  project of re-reading and checking six research books and four translations on every word of the Bible.  In spite of the rare probability that  some publisher might accept still another “book about the Bible,” I gave my 400 page project a book  title–Reading the Bible Again and Seeing It for the First Time. 

My late mother read the Bible through every year for many years and into her nineties.  She committed  massive amounts of scripture  to memory, but I often wonder what she did with the sections that had to be beyond her comprehension.  Many Christians every year decide to read the Bible from “cover to cover” but most all of them bog down.  So much of  the Old Testament is cultic, meaningful only for Jews who follow the Mosaic law or for students of Hebrew liturgy who are interested in the tassels on the robes of the priests! Then many  ambitious “walk through the Bible” readers give up on  the visions of the prophets that are expressed in terms that baffle even the best of linguistic and cultic scholars!

So!  In the interest of the novice to Bible reading or the person who  is looking for the eternal truth and the “golden nuggets” in the biblical passages, I am  trying:

  • an introductory “baby Bible” overview of each of the 66 books
  • each book’s  place on what I teach my grandchildren as the “timeline” of world history,
  • the culture of that time–morals, ethics, theological beliefs (like Deuteronomy)
  •  two quick references for each book of the Bible:
    • eternal truth for all times and cultures;
    • “golden nuggets”  worthy of our committing them to memory.

In the days when physicians pretty much let patients become blind before they considered eye cataracts as “ripe” for removal, my mother was basically blind for two years.  She lived in the Methodist Home in Charlotte, North Carolina for twenty-six years and had become so endeared to the staff that a precious African American maid devoted her lunch hour every day to read to my mother — her mail, excerpts from the newspaper, and a chapter from the Bible. Mama often told me that  in her blindness she could quote and meditate on  the scriptures that she had memorized when she had sight!  From her experience I began urging my congregations to “master enough verses from the Bible that you have a memory bank if you are blind or otherwise incapacitated.”   I try to add at least weekly another passage to my own memory bank.  It is these that I am now listing  in my book” as “golden nuggets” at the end of every Bible book. Some books, like Leviticus or Esther,  have a short list; others have a full page!

I have another inspiration. One of my six grandsons, now in college,  plans to teach in middle-school so he can help shape the life journey of “at-risk” and other students experiencing that difficult and exciting passage between childhood and youth.  He tried mixing alcohol and drug experimentation with baseball and academics and ended up choosing Jesus!  This summer he will work with children with incurable handicapping conditions at “Victory Junction Camp,” sponsored by Richard Petty and other NASCAR drivers.  In a college History class, he proposed a major paper on the interrelation of rising and falling world empires (Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman) with people, events, and books of the Bible.  Naturally, he came to me and my library for help and resources.  As we talked, he became very embarrassed at his biblical illiteracy.  Yes, he had gone to Sunday School at a church with a full time DCE and youth director.  Yes, he was the senior class speaker at his high school commencement and yes he made the Dean’s List in a major state university, but, no, he does not know “didly squat” about the Bible.  His embarrassment was so marked that he has signed up for an Old Testament course on-line this summer and received permission for it to count as an elective in a university that offers very, very few courses in religion.  Obviously, his situation has encouraged me to “press on the upward way” in trying to make every book of the Bible an engaging experience for “millenials,” the new Christians, and other  readers of all ages and stages of life and faith.

So it is that I go into the study every day where I have about fifteen open books–reading, high-lighting, checking various translations, researching the customs of that day that bring new light to passages.  I will “turn off” some readers because I sometimes say that unless you are either a determined reader or a research scholar, you might want to skip the next few chapters.  For example, most folks will get little spiritual help or historical information out of Numbers 2,3 and 4 — the tribal order of marching in the wilderness, the duties of the Levite priests, the preservation of the Kohathites, and the census of the Levites!  Nothing “wrong” with these chapters,  but they are mostly for their first audience, not us.  I warn the reader that these are easy places to bog down, lose interest, and give up the ambitious goal of reading every word of the Bible.

I have a “high view” of the authority of scripture as “the Word of God for the people of God.” My response is the same as we express in church: “Thanks be to God.”  In the introduction I point out that as a teenager, I was schooled and skilled in biblical inerrancy; verbal, plenary inspiration; and the insistence that every word of the Bible is equally true and applicable to my divine-human encounter.   I was taught to mark off anyone and everyone who disagreed with my fundamentalist position.  I spent years in apology and reconciliation with people I considered un-Christian after the good Lord spoke to me through my own spiritual arrogance and  saints like E. Stanley Jones and professors like McMurry Richey and William H. Brownlee. I shall never cease to be grateful for the night I saw Dr. E. Stanley Jones lift up his well-worn Bible and say, “The Word did not become printer’s ink; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”  YES!  My chains began to fall away and liberation began from five long years of squeezing the Bible into the hard and harsh mold of biblical inerrancy and lack of what John Wesley called a “catholic spirit” toward those who differed with me!

So it is then in my present project that I warn of the difficulty and the danger of squeezing the Bible into the mold of biblical inerrancy.  Indeed, God inspired corrections along the way.

  • He inspired Ezekiel to say, “Never again shall the proverb be repeated in Israel (that we are to be responsible for the sins of our parents. All lives are mine,’ says the Lord”(Ezekiel 18:1-5) This was the ethic  recorded in Joshua and other books.
  • God inspired Ruth, the story of a precious, heartwarming immigrant girl to counter the vindictive ethnic-cleansing teachings of Ezra 9 & 10.  The setting for Ruth and the biblical location of Ruth is the time of the judges (11th century B.C.E.) but the message and probably the writing of the book is in that fundamentalist era after the return of the Hebrews from exile.  Thank God for Ruth!
  • God also inspired Jeremiah to say that the day was coming when the law of God would not be inscribed on tablets of stone but on our “inward parts,”(Jeremiah 31:31-34)
  • Jesus several times reminded his Jewish audience that his fulfilling the law meant moving from the letter of the law to the spirit of love. To him “fulfillling” did not mean breaking the law of Moses, but   going beyond: “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Not “entering the kingdom of heaven” is often interpreted “you will go to hell,” but that is to misinterpret what Jesus meant by “kingdom of heaven.”(Matthew 5:20) :  The once famous Methodist preacher, Ralph Sockman, called “kingdom ethics” the “higher happiness.,”  The law of Moses was “you shall not murder.”  Jesus did not repeal that law, but went beyond the act to the motive; he warned us of the danger of anger!  The same was true of adultery.  Jesus did not approve of adultery; he raised the bar of sexual ethics to the motive of lust (probably the motivation that is driving the sin of pornography).    The law of the court, in Moses’ day and ours, is to take an oath by swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” That is a legal effort to cover all the loopholes to lying, but Jesus said in the “kingdom of higher happiness,” your “yes” or your “no” is sufficient.  There was an old saying by which much business was done before we became so litigation conscious–“A man’s word is his bond.”  Had language in those days not been so chauvinistic, I am sure it means the verbal integrity of  men and women, girls and boys,.

John Wesley was bothered by verses like “God hardened the heart of Pharaoh” and “If your right hand offend thee, cut it off.”  He finally came to the conclusion that when an isolated verse seems not to concur with the whole biblical message, we should look at the whole of scripture, not the piece. In today’s verbiage, Wesley would say of a verse like Psalm 137:9 which calls for “a blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock” that we should not see it microcosmically but macrocosmically.  We must compare that angry revenge of the ancient one toward Babylon to Jesus who said, “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven.”(Matthew 5:43-45)

I want to encourage you to join me in “reading the Bible with new eyes.” The fact is that we never, ever fully “get” the Bible. The power in the scriptures is when we allow them to “get” us.

Editor’s note:
If you would be interested in see Dr. Hayne’s research turned into a print or electronic book, please leave a comment on this story and let us know. 

 

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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