Read an Excerpt
Beyond the OrdinarySpirituality for Church Leaders
By Ben Campbell Johnson Andrew Dreitcer
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2001 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA SPIRITUALITY GROUNDED IN THE WORD
While thoughtful and deeply dedicated leaders reject a superficial spirituality, they wisely do not create their own spirituality de nouveau. Rather, they turn to the long and rich tradition that reaches back more than twenty-five centuries to discover how God's people have experienced the Divine Presence and have expressed it in the texts of Holy Scripture. These texts have been written, edited, preserved, believed, and lived for over thirty-five hundred years. The substance of these texts, having been oral for generations, reaches far back in human memory: these communications of faith were heard, memorized, and repeated until the time they were committed to writing and canonized as our sacred texts.
In response to their encounter with the holy, the writers of the sacred texts sought to express in words what their eyes had seen, their ears had heard, and their hearts had felt. They could not, however, capture the Absolute either in their narratives or in their descriptive statements. What they did was to give testimony to their visions and ecstasies, their fears and doubts, their musings and longings. Their testimonies pointed their readers toward the Divine and opened a window on God'scharacter and works.
Leaders who are seeking God's Presence in their lives and in the church today will surely appreciate the work done by the historical community of faith that has given us a dependable vision of the presence and activity of the living God. For three millennia men and women of faith have diligently studied these texts, practiced them, and spent countless hours copying and preserving them. We are the recipients of all their labors.
In the Bible, therefore, we have a collection of books that record faithful people's experiences of God's self-revelation and the different responses that the chosen people, the church, and the unbelieving world have made to it. The material in this sacred account of divine action and speech offers the paradigm for an emerging Christian spirituality. A person seeking to know God's will and give leadership to God's people would be foolish to ignore the long experience of those who have followed this way. How nearsighted for persons in our day to label these texts irrelevant if they have never looked at them in depth or sought to encounter God's eternal Presence through them! Yet even among those who have carefully studied these texts there are varying opinions of their meaning and significance. Not all segments of the Christian community agree about these texts and the manner in which they are to be interpreted for today.
Contrasting Approaches to the Text
While the Christian community deeply affirms the sacred nature of the biblical text, challenging questions continue to arise. For instance, what are we to do with the Old Testament stories that describe God's unprovoked violence against nations? How are we to receive New Testament accounts which suggest that women are of less value or have lesser abilities than men? How do we respond to rules and commandments that seem far from our own world, with its virtual realities, quantum physics, cloning techniques, and destruction of God's creation? How can any material written two thousand years ago in the dead languages of cultures now completely foreign to us address the twenty-first-century soul?
In general, responses to such questions in contemporary Western culture have taken three dominant routes, each one a version of rationalism, each one forgetting the mystery of God that lies at the core of the sacred Scriptures. These rationalistic responses suggest two things: (1) that Scripture primarily offers us clear doctrinal truths about God and instruction in how to conform our behavior and understanding to these truths; and (2) that we uncover this information by applying our minds to studying what the text states.
The first rational response to Scripture simply rejects the biblical tradition and all things Christian - or at least all things "churchy" "Surely," say many modern students of the Bible, "we cannot take seriously writings that seem at best obtuse and at worst contradictory to the grace we long to experience. If God is like this [referring to narrowly defined doctrinal truths about God], and we are to be formed in God's image [believe and behave in a narrowly prescribed way], Christianity is destructive of the human spirit rather than life-giving." This attitude does prevail in our culture, presenting us with a mission field much like the one Paul faced in the first century. So, as leaders of God's people, how do we embrace the Word of God in life-giving ways, and how do we help others in the congregation do the same?
A second rational response represents the other side of the coin. This second way encompasses the popular media's dominant portrait of Christianity - and in large part represents what the first response rejects. This response embraces various degrees of literalism. It also assumes that the biblical text first and foremost presents narrowly, accurately, and clearly stated truths about God and a godly life. But where the first response begins by being skeptical about the accuracy of narrow truths, the second proceeds unquestioningly, embracing the literal truth in the text. Thus, when the information presented by the biblical text seems to contradict cultural values, the text is not open to critique or questioning. Instead, this biblical information is blindly grasped and proclaimed.
A third response also seeks information from the biblical text. It arises out of the tradition of Enlightenment scholarship. Unlike the first response, it begins from a position of faith, affirming the sacred nature of the text. Unlike the second response, this third way is more apt to critique the text in light of contemporary culture, rejecting what does not fit. Using the tools of modern research, this approach examines the authorship, authenticity, and veracity of each of the biblical texts. It seeks to explain the framework of the original languages in which the Scriptures were written and the context that shaped them. In addition, it carefully analyzes the various literary forms employed and notes the similarities and differences between our sacred texts and those of other religions. This careful analysis attempts to discover in the Bible broad truths about God and life with God, truths that are big enough to fit shifting cultural sensibilities and historical settings.
Actually, all of these responses can offer church leaders certain benefits in the new century if we do not embrace any one of them in its entirety. The first, a rejection of Scripture, keeps us on our spiritual toes. Can we be so sure we are always right, always on God's side, when most of the people we encounter each day are deeply suspicious of the faith we profess? These brothers and sisters, who are, like us, created in the image of God, echo Micah s reminder that we are required to dwell humbly with God. The second response, that of biblical literalism, points us toward deep trust in God and God's Word, a trust that can hold out against the storms of cultural shifts and trends. It reminds us that we ultimately rest in God, and it is to God that we must look for guidance in our lives. And the third response, the response of critical scholarship, helps us see that we are to keep searching for God's truth. It enhances our understanding while it reminds us that God and divine truth cannot be nailed down or fitted into one theological box because there is always more to learn and more to uncover.
However, in spite of the benefits these approaches to Scripture may offer, each ultimately fails to deeply nourish our lives with God. Those who reject the text, of course, will not receive its richness, its holy beauty, its offer of God's Presence. Those who engage it literally may miss the mystery and grace of a God who is deeper and broader than human beings can imagine. And those who affirm only critical analysis may miss the sense of reverence evidenced by the early writers and the scribal hands of monks who prayed their way through these texts even as they laboriously made copies. They may also miss solid grounding in the eternal Spirit of Love mediated by the Word. In a strange way, each of these approaches to the text seems to model a different way of responding to God. In the first approach, the text is dismissed; in the second, it is made into an idol; and in the third, it is bound by human techniques.
It is all too obvious that Christians who read and study the Bible - whether they tend toward literalism or Enlightenment-inspired critical analysis - can do so without encountering the God of the texts, the Holy Presence that inspired the actions which gave birth to the interpretations and the writing. The Christian who treats the Scriptures this way is like an agronomist who researches, studies, and analyzes the manner in which wheat sprouts and matures but never eats the bread produced from the wheat. When we approach the text looking primarily for information, both scholarship in the academy and in the pastor's study can give us vast knowledge about the husk and kernel of the texts, but no bread, no sustenance. When a person is starving, she is not interested in seed, fertilizer, and grain. She wants and needs bread.
Pastors and lay leaders who have fed themselves on the texts can make bread for the hungry. This bread has many forms, from prayer to preaching, from committee meetings to acts of mercy. But how can these texts, as we say, make bread? First, many of us need to shift our perspective on Scripture, moving from what it is to how it speaks to us. The tendency is to see the Bible as a delivery system of clear information about God. If the Bible primarily delivers clear, specific information, then our task as leaders would be to find the key that will unlock this sacred container, open it, and apply to our lives the information we find there.
Interestingly, this one-dimensional approach to Scripture that seems to dominate the Western church today has not always dominated biblical interpretation. Christians throughout the church's history generally have approached Scripture as a sacred setting for encountering the Presence of God. Gathering information has been but one part of what happens within that sacred setting and, at best, a secondary concern until recent years.
Origen, a third-century theologian, illustrates the meditative approach to Scripture. In the introduction to a volume of his works, editor Rowan A. Greer states, "Origen's piety is Scriptural more than it is sacra mental. By meditating on the word of God the Christian begins to con- template the eternal mysteries that supply the motive, power, and goal of the Christian life." This assessment is illustrated in Origen's meditation on the creation of humankind in the "Commentary on the Song of Songs":
At the beginning of Moses' words, where he describes the creation of the world, we find reference to two men that were created, the first made after the image and likeness of God and the second formed from the dust of the ground. Paul the Apostle well knew this and possessed a clear understanding of these matters. In his letters he wrote more openly and clearly that every person is two different men. This is what he said, "Though our outer man is wasting away, our inner man is being renewed every day," and further, "For I delight in the law of God in my inner man." ... On this basis I think that no one ought now to doubt that Moses at the beginning of Genesis wrote about the making or forming of two men, when he sees Paul, who understood better than we do what was written by Moses, saying that every person is two different men.
In these words Origen records his meditation on the nature of human beings in both their inward and their outward form. He understands that both sides of our nature affect our relationship with God. When we listen to the text of Scripture, we are renewed by the Spirit of God inwardly, even though our bodies are wasting away. Origen brings himself to the text to expose his life, to encounter God, not merely to find new information about God.
Learning information about God and God's ways will enhance our encounter with God, but the Bible offers us much more than facts. It is this writing that most fully offers us God's intimate Presence - whether in praying Scripture, studying it, hearing it, reading it, singing it, repeating it, memorizing it, acting it out, wrestling with it, fearing it, trusting it, finding comfort in it, or being challenged by it. Embracing Scripture as a setting for meeting God, rather than as a repository of half-hidden information, frees us to explore ever more fully God's Presence with us. We no longer have to find either a special meaning or the one true meaning in every passage.
But this is not to say that certain passages of Scripture don't speak more vividly to people at certain times. During various periods in the life of the Christian church, for example, particular portions of Scripture have been more meaningful than others. The desert fathers and mothers took with great seriousness the text that commanded them to sell all that they had and follow Jesus. Martin Luther was driven by the text proclaiming, "The just shall live by faith," and the first missionaries of the new era heard clearly Jesus' commission, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel." Similarly, each of us at certain points in our lives may find more meaning in some parts of Scripture than in others. And that is as it should be. If we approach Scripture as a setting for meeting God rather than as a box full of information, we can trust that through these texts we will meet God and that God will begin transforming us, whether or not we receive a particular message, particular information, from the text. God will meet us in new and unexpected ways as we engage the Word.
Even passages that deeply offend us can become places for encountering God. When we are troubled by what we read and the Word repels us, we must examine what is happening within us. Suppose that a committed Christian is deeply offended by an Old Testament passage that describes God destroying all the people of a nation whose king resists the people of Israel. In spite of careful, critical study of the passage, her overwhelming response is to reject the text as simply an outdated characterization of God, a text not revelant to her life. A more fruitful approach would be to follow her study of the text with an exploration of the nature, shape, and direction of her experience of the passage. Questions she might ask herself include these: What is prompting my revulsion? Why am I reacting in this way? What would I prefer to see happen in the story? What longing lies underneath that preference? In what way is that longing a reflection of my desire for God and God's way (or not)? As I move away from the kind of situation described in the text, where am I experiencing God's Presence (or not)?
Such an approach acknowledges the sacred nature of the written Word by affirming the belief that encountering Scripture always places us before God. Even in the midst of repulsion, we can look for how we are attracted to God. Rather than allow our repugnance at a particular portion of Scripture to cause us to reject the text, we can note how it points us to God. Instead of dismissing the text - and the experience of God's Presence that comes with it - we can receive an opportunity to deepen our sensibility for the Divine. By attending to how God is present in our response to Scripture, every text, whether offensive to us or appealing, offers an invitation to explore life with God ever more deeply.
Meeting God in Scripture
In an effort to help you learn to meet God in Scripture, we want to suggest further ways of engaging the text that might lead from the kernel of information to the bread that waits to be eaten. We will concentrate on four ways in which the sacred text brings us into transformative intimacy with God - by speaking a message to us, by slowly nourishing us, by placing us in the story, and by inspiring the imagination.
Excerpted from Beyond the Ordinary by Ben Campbell Johnson Andrew Dreitcer Copyright © 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.