In the early 1980s, one of our associate pastors detected a need for a Bible study that members, like me, who worked in our downtown area could attend over lunch hour. Bring a sack lunch, read some Romans, head back to the grind.
Astonishingly enough, that same Bible study continues today, but for the last 10 or so years the alleged leadership of it has fallen mostly to me. And although it began with only members of our congregation, today those who attend are almost entirely non-members. We now have Presbyterians, Catholics, Methodists and others each Thursday. A rabbi friend has even dropped in a time or two to help us with the Hebrew Scriptures.
What I’ve discovered over all this time is that biblical literacy is both surprisingly good and surprisingly awful, and that there’s considerably more wisdom in a group than there is or can be in any individual studying alone.
We jump around a bit in what we study. Not long ago we read through the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), which are said to be what pilgrims to Jerusalem sang. It gave us a chance to marinate in Hebrew poetry and in the centrality of Jerusalem to the three Abrahamic faiths. (The book to read is “Jerusalem: The Biography” by Simon Sebag Montefiore.) And those of us who’ve been to Jerusalem a time or two had a chance to share our experiences there.
But it also gave us an opportunity to talk about who wrote the Psalms and how they’ve been used. Many people in our group were surprised to hear that some scholars today, including Robert Alter, whose own translation of — and commentary on — the Psalms is superb, believe King David wrote none of them, despite the fact that many, if not most, of them usually are attributed to him.
Why was this news important? Because it opened up to members the idea that the story of how the Bible got written and who wrote it are legitimate and important matters for believers to know if they’re going to own the idea that in some way the Bible is God’s word.
What can it mean when we say that? Is it possible to be a true literalist these days, believing that every word in the Bible is inerrant in historical, scientific and all other ways? If not, what position about inspiration can we adopt that makes sense, that honors the Bible as authoritative but that nonetheless recognizes the circuitous route words took to become part of the canon?
As some members of my congregation are wont to say, you can take the Bible literally or you can take it seriously, but you can’t do both.
More recently we’ve been looking at passages that describe the origin of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and its Jewish roots in the Passover meal.
One of the benefits of this is that it has put on the table the differences between how Catholics and Protestants understand the Eucharist and the reality that there are several Protestant understandings, not just one.
This has allowed for some respectful ecumenical conversation in which we followed a primary object for such dialogue: to know and to be known, not to convince others we’re right.
In fact, a few of the Catholics in our group were reminded (or learned for the first time) that the doctrine of transubstantiation, which explains how bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood, is rooted in Aristotelian science, which has been mostly replaced by Newtonian science, which in turn has been disrupted by Einsteinian science and now post-Einsteinian science.
Will that change how any of us experiences the sacrament? I don’t know. But it may make us more thoughtful, literate participants in the life of the church.
And isn’t that what biblical literacy at any level should do?
BILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.