Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why Study the Bible?

As soon as I write this title I am aware of its tract-like applications. My mind conjures up images of well-scrubbed, smiling people in sensible shoes. They want YOU to study the Bible because if you do, you will be a better person, which they very much want you to be. Their smiles turn down a little at the corners when they ponder that you do not study the Bible – that you can’t quote verses the way they can, that probably you are very Immoral as a result. They beckon to you from the picture and offer you a casserole.

When you open the tract, there is a cartoon of the Fires of Hell, in which you will be scorched for not reading the Bible. It is very sad that you will be roasting there and the people with the casserole want you to study the Bible so that you can avoid this. They do not want you taking their casserole to the Fires of Hell where it will become inedible.

Forgive me. I am afraid my baggage is showing. But I do love the Bible. I am a story writer and a story teller and a poet and it is partly for this reason that the Bible is beloved to me.

The other day I was talking about a Bible story with one of the teens who hangs out at our house. It was the story of Joseph and his brothers and though this particular teen attends church regularly, he didn’t know the story. The Bible can be intimidating when read in isolation. It’s an old book. But I told our friend the story – how Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, (because Joseph was rather an arrogant jerk), so they threw him in a dry cistern and then sold him to some traders and told their dad he’d been eaten by a wild animal. How Joseph was framed by the wife of his employer (who was, um, “interested” in him) and thrown into prison for several years, but later became a powerful man in Egypt because of his ability to interpret dreams. How, when there was a famine many years later, Joseph’s brothers had to come to him (not knowing who he was) and beg grain from him. And how, after putting his brothers through the mill so to speak, Joseph finally told them who he was. And he wept so loudly that he could be heard from a great distance. And how he then invited his father and brothers to live in Egypt.

I love that story. I love its tension and its messed-up family and the humanness of Joseph and his flawed but simple faith in God. And when I was finished telling it, our friend was chuckling and rather intrigued that such gritty stuff would be in the Bible.

I think we need these stories. More and more our culture is losing them, not passing them on, even banning them from the public square (but that’s a whole other discussion). And I think it is a great loss. Not only do we end up with blank spots in any literary study if we don’t have a basic knowledge of the Bible, we also lose out on shared stories. (And no, I am not ignoring that there are other shared stories we could benefit from as well.)

Of course, if you know me, you understand that the Bible is more than ancient literature to me. It is a framework by which I attempt to understand a God who is beyond knowing. In the Gospels – the stories of Jesus – I begin to experience the character of God by reading what Jesus did and said when he walked the earth. And even though I have read those stories over and over, I hunger for them again – how Jesus healed the sick and walked on water and raised the dead and spoke with such gentleness to the disenfranchised and with such forcefulness to the self-righteous. I need to return to those stories because when I read them it changes how I act during the day – how I view things. It takes me out of myself long enough to see the beauty of those around me.

Orthodox Christians view all other people on the earth as icons of Christ. If we love Christ, and are reminded of that love daily, we are motivated to treat everyone we meet with dignity and caring (even the self-righteous, who were loved by Him in their blindness.) Reading the Bible is a reminder that I need – and lately, the only Bible reading I have been doing is Sunday mornings at church.

So, we are going to begin a first-Saturday Bible study this weekend at our place at 4:30. We’re going to start with the Gospel of St. Matthew – read a little, discuss it, find out what the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church had to say about it. Then we’ll have a Vespers service, which is an evening service of ancient prayers and psalms. After that, we’ll have a potluck.

Everyone is welcome – you needn’t attend our church or be Orthodox to participate. Contact me if you are interested and I’ll give you directions. Maybe I’ll even make a casserole.