Earlier this morning, I had a lot of fun talking with a group of about 100 or so parishioners at Holy Faith Catholic Church about “Scripture as Story.” For the folks who were there, I mentioned that I would make sure that I made it easy to find a link to my short general overview to our approach at studying Scripture at the GCW. If you want to read that short overview which includes a little bit about the power of story and a concise list of things to consider as you study Scripture, click here.
Additionally, I had to leave out one section of the talk this morning in the interest of time. I’ve pasted below a version of that section in case you’re interested. Thanks!
A Clash of Stories
Walter Brueggemann, a favorite Scripture scholar of mine, wrote: “The contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act… Our consciousness has been claimed by false fields of perception and idolatrous systems of language and rhetoric…”
In essence, this is Brueggemann’s fancy way of saying that for the great majority of folks in our churches, we have in fact (perhaps unwittingly) chosen to worship other gods than God, and to build our lives around other stories than the stories of our Scripture. Call those gods what you will: status, money, success, political ideologies, and so on. And those gods are mediated to us by their own priests, whether it be the folks who weave stories for us from Madison Avenue, or Wall Street, or from the media, or from political parties… They understand how to tell us stories which capture our allegiance, and we end up giving our worship to these false gods and organizing our lives based on what they have told us is important, essential, necessary to our fulfillment and happiness.
The one false religion Brueggemann names in particular, “consumerism,” is rampant in our culture. Brueggemann goes on to call consumerism “an ethos that depreciates memory” (meaning it cultivates in its adherents ignorance and disregard for the past), and that it “ridicules hope” (meaning that it encourages a lack of care or consideration of the future). What it tells us is that all that matters is now, and me, and what’s mine.
Brueggemann goes on to say that “the church will not have the power to act or believe until it recovers its stories…”
What he asserts is that we have lost our stories, and with it, we have lost our memory of what truly matters, of who we truly are, and what our purpose is here on this earth. And until we re-remember those stories, until we start to let them get inside us and work on us and recapture our allegiance to the real God, we will remain defenseless against the snares and lures of the false idols prevalent in our culture. We will remain prone and vulnerable to the manipulation of stories which purport to offer us happiness or fulfillment when what they really offer is our enslavement.
Our scriptural stories offer us a different Word than the dominant stories of the culture in which we live. Our scriptures serve as a counter, reminding us who we are and who God is and what our relationship is to each other and God. More often than not, they go against what passes for conventional wisdom; indeed they are often critical of conventional wisdom.
Like our ancestors in the early church, our scriptures invite us to be “different” — the Bible uses a word that is often translated as “peculiar” — in the world. Soren Kierkegaard, the great 18th century Christian philosopher once wrote: “There was a time when one could almost be afraid to call himself a disciple of Christ, because it meant so much. Now one can do it with complete ease, because it means nothing at all.” Even 200 years ago, Kierkegaard was recognizing that people who follow Christ had ceased to look different in the world, that they looked, talked and led their lives just like everyone else–that they were no longer witnesses to a different reality but rather accommodated to the culture in which they found themselves.
But our ancestors have been motivated and transformed by the stories in Scripture all throughout history–from those in the early church who lived out their faith despite persecution to St. Francis and his wandering band of itinerant monastics; from members of the Confessing Church in Germany during WWII who resisted the will of Hitler and the laws of the Nazis to the leaders of the civil rights movement here in America who understood themselves as people with dignity bestowed on them by God. These folks, and many others, mined the stories of Scripture to empower them to be the people who God created them to be, no matter the risks, and to witness to that reality which Jesus called the kingdom of God–a kingdom not fully here but breaking in wherever people chose to live it into reality through their words, actions and choices…
To see the schedule for this week, click here.
COLD NIGHTS: When the weather is particularly bad–cold, rainy, etc.–we open our doors and share our home with people who are trying to find a safe and welcoming place to sleep for the night. We don’t have extra bed space for any long-term guests, but we decided that we would concentrate on this type of short-term hospitality for now and do what we can–a warm place to sleep out of the cold, a small breakfast in the morning, some coffee, and so on. This past week was one of our busiest, with a handful of people (2-5) sleeping at the house every night.
MASS AT THE GCW: We’re honored and excited to start regular monthly liturgies/prayer services at the Jubilee House again. Fr. John Phillips, pastor of Holy Faith Catholic Church and chaplain of the Gainesville Catholic Worker community, will join us to celebrate Mass on Thursday at 6pm at the house. This will take the place of our regular Roundtables, and a potluck dinner will follow the service. We’ll do this once-a-month, the first Thursday of each month, with Fr. John joining us when he is available. We hope many of you will be able to join us!
SCRIPTURE STUDY TUESDAY AT 2:30PM: We’re continuing to look at a section at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, concentrating on 1:29-39 this week. We may also take a look at the Hebrew scripture accompanying this passage in next Sunday’s readings, Job 7:1-7. We’ve also posted some background on how we do scripture at the GCW. Click here to read “Approaching the Story seriously as a story.”
JUSTICE FOR FLORIDA FARMWORKERS: The GCW has a long relationship with our brothers and sisters of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and this past week we received an alert asking us to support them in getting Gov. Crist to take leadership on issues regarding slavery in the fields of our state. We hope you’ll consider adding your name to this letter on behalf of farmworkers, maybe even downloading the petition and getting additional folks to sign on. A copy of the letter is on the Jubilee House bulletin board if you want to sign when you’re here with is. Otherwise, click here for more information.
Thanks again for all of your solidarity and support. We hope to see you this week at the Jubilee House!
This semester at the GCW, we’re going to look at a series of readings based on the Church’s liturgical calendar–namely the readings which will be used in many churches on the Sundays following our Tuesday scripture study. This is a departure for us, and for me. We typically study a book or a lengthy section of a book from scripture. I still think this is the best way to come to both an appreciation for and a deeper understanding of scripture. But I’m thinking that maybe a change of pace would be nice.
For folks who will be joining us over the course of the next semester, there are a couple of things essential to the way we study scripture at the GCW. My approach to scripture has always been to take the Story seriously as “story”; i.e. that a close reading of the text and attention to the elements of the story will yield a richness of meaning that is otherwise lost in other approaches. Some folks call this “narrative criticism.” The simple and most pertinent reason for this approach is that first and foremost the author wrote what they had to say as a story and therefore meant it to be understood within that framework. Secondly, stories are understandable to all of us. We have an innate ability to understand stories if we but pay attention. This doesn’t mean jettisoning understandings that come out of historical, social, political, cultural and linguistic analysis and whatnot. Rather it takes all of that into consideration within the context of the story itself; certainly knowing something about the history of Israel or having knowledge of Jewish rituals enriches our reading of the story. Together, as a group, we help to ferret out the little tidbits of knowledge that we all have accumulated over the years, enhancing our individual readings of the story with what others bring to light from both their knowledge and their experience.
Here’s a brief rundown of what we keep in mind as we study scripture together.
The first question to ask when approaching Scripture is NEVER “what does it mean?” The first question should ALWAYS be “what does it say?” or “what is written?” The text, albeit in translation, is the fence that hems in the various possible meanings of any particular story or passage. The meaning of a verse like “Love your enemies” can never mean “bomb and destroy your enemies.” The text itself negates that as a possible meaning. This is why we start by taking the text seriously.
The author of a book or passage is in control of the story. Every detail is there for a reason. So again, we need to read closely. At the GCW, we read and unpack a verse at a time.
We have an innate ability to understand stories. Many of us have been taught an overly reverential attitude toward scripture and we come to it doubting our abilities to understand. The truth is that, like when we watch a television show or read a novel, as long as we pay close attention, we usually can figure out what is going on. Same is true for scripture.
So here are some “helps” in learning to read or study scripture seriously as story:
- Read the text closely.
- Read the text with others, mining each other’s knowledge about what is going on.
- Read whole passages or whole books and puzzle out your own ideas and questions before consulting outside sources (like commentaries, which are also interpretations). Use outside sources only after you’ve achieved some of your own familiarity with the story.
- Use 2 or more good translations of scripture (NRSV, New Jerusalem, New American, and more). We’re reading of course in English, translated from the Greek and Hebrew. Translation is also partly interpretation and having translations that sometimes differ on particular words or phrases helps to clue us in to parts of the story which are “in play,” so to speak.
- Write out the text yourself. Write in your bible, jotting down notes, circling words, etc. Fill up the margins. Keep a journal of your study.
- Put yourself in the place of one of the characters in the story. What do they see, feel, think?
- When reading, note the following elements of most stories. These elements help to carry and articulate meaning.
- Where do passages begin and end? (Look for changes in setting, voice, etc.)
- In what order do things happen?
- What words, themes, actions, settings, situations, etc. are repeated?
- What is the setting?
- Who are the characters? And what do we know about them? (status, gender, jobs, ethnicity, etc.)
- What is the relationship between characters?
- What action happens? Who does or says what?
- Is there conflict? Between whom? Why?
- What drives the story? What is the plot?
- Is there a “twist” or “surprise” in the story?
Stories have power. They help tell us who we are, what we value, what is worth living and dying for. These stories in scripture should be foundational for us. And finally, these are the stories our ancestors have passed down to us. There is something here they want us to discover, something good and important and transformative. They want to tell us something. It is to our great joy to listen and to understand what that something is. We hope you’ll join us this semester as we listen and discuss together.