Allowing Scriptures to Breathe

Mark Johnson | September 16, 2015

I embrace a dynamic view of Holy Scripture.  Each week, I gather with area ministers across many different Christian denominations to discuss the lectionary* passages we are working through for that week’s sermon.  I spend a considerable amount of time reading what others, far, far smarter than me, have thought, written and preached about these same passages from long ago in church history and more recently from modern scholarship and in dialogue with other academic disciplines.  I remember how my understandings have changed over the years due to my own maturing as I have re-visited familiar and beloved stories and verses.

That’s why it’s sometimes difficult (if not impossible) to straightforwardly and definitively answer the sincere question, “What does this passage mean?”  The answer I find more often on my lips is, “According to who?”

Such diversity is uncomfortable for many Christians.  They crave great clarity and a uniformity of much common agreement.  They say it’s because of their commitment to absolute truth and their rejection of what they term as “cultural relativism.”  I understand their frustration.  In a complicated, fast-changing world swirling in conflict, it’s important to hold to fixed points of certainty for stability and direction. 

For them, the Bible is a static and unquestionable source book of answers.  But you can over-inflate a tire, you can over-cook a turkey, and you can over-tighten a nut!  The Bible has its own metaphors to describe the same thing.  You can “kick against the goads” (Act 26:14).  You can “strain at a gnat” (Matthew 23:24).  You can follow the “letter of the Law” so exactly you end up destroying the “Spirit of the Law” (2 Corinthians 3:6, Mark 2:18-28). Some folks are so concerned about being right that they can violate the greater calling to love.

The distinction is a sense of balance.  I am not a relativist.  All points are not equal.  But I doubt the absolutes are as plentiful as many Christian literalists believe.  I’ve found many reject Scripture because they have rejected the narrow and more populist interpretation.

Scripture breathes when I abandon my pre-conceived notions, when I listen to a minority opinion, when I open my heart to new insights or possibilities, when I seek better questions and not just simple answers, when I invite the vantage point of the powerless rather than the privileged, when I turn to my neighbor and ask, “what are you hearing?”  And when Scripture breathes with such mutual understanding, acceptance and respect, it then, mercifully and powerfully, transforms.

* The lectionary is an organized assemblage of scripture passages tied to the Christian liturgical year. Many Protestant congregations follow the Revised Common Lectionary, including the preaching calendar of our church.

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