In the lead up to beginning The Bible Challenge at St Martin’s, there are two key questions that will focus our attention as we go forward. Firstly, how do we approach the language of the Bible? Secondly, how are we to understand what we read there?
The Bible contains multiple literary genres and they can’t all be approached in the same way. For instance, the New Testament contains gospel, letter, historical, and apocryphal literary genres. They are not all nails for which the hammer is always the right tool.
Gospel language is narrative language. Stories unfold through parables, i.e. confrontational tales drawn from ordinary life. Gospel language is rich in metaphor and allegory, both devices hinting at meaning beyond the literal face meaning of the words used.
The N.T. letters use the language of instruction, guidance, and often condemnation. Yet here we find metaphor and allegory used to nudge us in the direction from what is, towards what should be.
Biblical historical writing, unlike modern history, is not an objective analysis of events but a highly constructive arrangement of events to communicate a clear theological meaning.
Apocryphal writing evokes the language of dreams as a response to unendurable suffering, made endurable by a vision of victory in the end.
Acts 17:22-31 is an example of the historical genre. Luke is the historian of the early Church and in this sense, his history is very close to, if not is actual propaganda. His intention as a propagandist is two-fold. Firstly, he writes a history of the early years of the Church to commend Christianity to the wider pagan world of his time. His history is also intended for later generations of Christians, commending us to emulate in our lives the patterns of the first generation of Christians. Luke intends for us to read his history in order to develop a certain spiritual worldview.
A case study in reading history: Acts 17
Paul had been cooling his heels in Athens for a few days after arriving from Borea, a town south of Thessalonica. It had been a tense time in Jerusalem during the recent council with the other Apostles. But at the council, Paul had won the argument. Gentile Christians did not have to submit to circumcision and the Jewish dietary codes.
Of course, he had known that Peter would eventually be won over; Peter, whose gregarious and generous personality led him to want to agree with everyone. But James? Paul had not been so sure that James, the leader of the conservative faction could have been persuaded. But in the end, James and the others had all agreed to give Paul a free hand in his mission among the gentiles. Buoyed up by his victory, Paul, accompanied by Silas and Timothy had set out immediately on a second missionary journey, swinging through the house church communities in Asia Minor and Greece.
Things had gone badly in Borea, however. There, Paul had encountered strong opposition from the Jews who came to hear him in the synagogue. It had been agreed with Silas and Timothy that Paul should hightail it out of town and go down to Athens and wait for them to join him there.
Paul had spent the last few days just ambling about splendid Athens with its many temples and impressive public buildings. He had never before found himself in such a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city and had been taken aback by the plethora of sects and cults all competing in a boisterous religious marketplace for custom among the curious Athenians. He had to admit he had found it all more than a little shocking. But yesterday, he had come across a temple dedicated to the unknown god. He had been a little amused at how these Athenians liked to hedge their bets. He realized that it really was true what they said about the Athenian insatiable craving for the latest novel idea and exotic practice.
Athens remained the center of learning and philosophy in the Classical World. Rather like the Great Britain of its day, Athens’ political and military power had long ago been usurped by an upstart new power centered at Rome. Yet, Rome still bowed before the hallowed Athenian Oxbridge halls of learning.
This very morning Paul had found himself at the Areopagus, the rocky outcrop where the philosophical schools of Athens met to debate and dispute the pros and cons of various approaches to religion.
He hadn’t intended to speak and no one was more surprised than he when the learned Stoic and Epicurean scholars invited him to address them on this new teaching that seemed so strange to their ears.
In such august company, he had begun by measuring his words; not his usual preaching tactic. He had praised his audience for the quality of their religious thought and identified his new teaching about God with the object of their worship at the shrine to the unknown god. They had recognized his reference to Epimenides, one of their great poets when he had described God as the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being. They had also recognized his reference when he told them that we are the offspring of God, the god they recognize in the unknown one.
Oh yes, things had been going well. They had applauded when he had launched into a blistering critique of the pagan idols all around the city. This sophisticated audience had no truck with the popular worship of gods of gold and stone. Had he not ridden the rising energy of the crowd, now emboldened to proclaim that hitherto God had overlooked times of human ignorance but now called all to repentance through the raising of his son Jesus from the dead.
Having arrived at the crux of his thesis he had been stopped in full flood by the deafening silence in that moment before the whole Areopagus had erupted into scoffing cries of ridicule. Stoics and Epicureans, who agreed on nothing, both scoffed this Hellenized Jew’s ludicrous claim of resurrection from the dead.
Amidst the cries of derision, a small group had come to him and said we will hear you again. Compared to the thousands added to the church day in and day out through Peter’s preaching this was small success. But Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, both seemingly important citizens had been among the small group who had been persuaded by his words. Yet, Paul was kicking himself because he had so easily forgotten that those who consider themselves wise by worldly standards have no need of God.
Reading Luke’s history in Acts is a different kind of experience from the metaphor-rich language of the gospel writers. Historical narrative is less impactful – less heart changing in the moment.
Luke’s historical narrative functions in the same way that we might go to a play. We don’t attend Shakespeare to dismiss his characters because of their lack of historical plausibility. Watching Lear or Macbeth on the stage, they become knowable to us because we are drawn into identifying with them.
There is a tendency in some circles to idealize the characters we encounter in the Bible. We read about Paul’s exploits and we imagine him to be a much better Christian than we can ever be. I don’t regard idealization ever to be very helpful. On the other hand identifying with Paul, allows us to see him as a human being struggling with life in the same way we struggle with life.
I have viewed Paul standing on the rock of the Areopagus through the lens of my own speculations. Paul’s dilemmas and his challenges are so familiar to me. Paul’s way of resolving them offers a model for how we might do the same. Our context differs from his in so many ways and yet across all historical contexts the experience of speaking faith into a faithless world is remarkably the same.
At this point, I could take the direction of drawing out the parallels between the challenges facing Paul in 1st century Athens and our challenges in 21st century America. Idolatry – the placing of a lesser object in the place of ultimate concerns, still abound as much now as it did then. Like then, so also now. How are we to speak our faith into our public lives, not for the purpose of telling other people how to live their lives, but because we long to give a good account of the hope that is within us? How do we share the good news with others who like us, are struggling, seeking, and searching for that something more to living? In the midst of a world of material preoccupation, the longing for that something more to living seems to elude us as never before.
Yet, I want to stay close to the questions I mentioned at the outset: how do we approach the language of the Bible, and how are we to understand what we read there?
I propose these as questions to guide us forward as on May 22nd we begin day 1 of The Bible Challenge. As we have moved closer to the date, the immensity of the challenge comes home to us more and more. Will we be up to it?
The answer will be at times yes we will. But at other times, our answer will be no we are not. The relentlessness of a 365-day reading program that doesn’t even let up for weekends will mean that there will be days, maybe even weeks when we are not up to it. The point will be – are we prepared to keep going or will we take this as a sign to give up?
Any discussion of reading Scirpture has to engage with the really big question. Why should we even consider reading the Bible?
Have you wondered why it is that in a community where most of us pride ourselves on our levels of education and skill amidst the sophistication of our ways of viewing the world, we seem prepared to remain as children in the life of faith, undereducated, unformed, the products of a spiritually arrested development – grappling to apply faith concepts learned as children to the adult complexity of the world? It’s a question to ponder.
To meet the demands of The Bible Challenge within the concept of life-long learning is the only way for us to grow up in our faith lives so that developmentally, our spiritual perspectives match the other aspects of our worldview.
As in all other areas of our lives, this will require commitment, dedication, and most of all perseverance in the face of the temptation to give up because we imagine reading Scripture is all too much for us, or worse, we don’t need it.
Paul’s life mission was to give a good account of the hope that was within him. This is our life mission also. This will require us to bring our faith life up to levels of emotional and intellectual maturity that characterize the way we live, and work, and have our being in all the other areas of our lives?
 A term conflating the names Oxford and Cambridge to refer to these centers of hallowed learning.