Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path

I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:102-105
This morning as I was sitting in a coffee shop reading The New York Times on line, I could hear occasional phrases from the conversation of two young men sitting in a booth across the room.

On the table, they each had open Bibles. The young man with the larger Bible was teaching the young man with the smaller Bible. I have seen him in the coffee shop many times; always with his Bible; always teaching another young man.

This should make me glad. What could be better than two young people contemplating what I believe to be the most important book ever written?

For the last several weeks I have spent an hour on Mondays and Tuesdays with Pastor Carol Reale teaching two Confirmation classes. We have spent a lot of time sitting around the table, with our Bibles open, engaged in earnest conversation. And I love it. I love the questions and the insights and the seriousness of our kids. And I want them to love the Bible.

But as I stole a sideways glance at the young men, I felt uneasy.

Part of my uneasiness was because I stereotyped them in the same way that other more secular people stereotype all (or most, or some) Christians. But another part of my uneasiness was because I could tell (am I really certain?) what they were doing. They were not reading the stories; they were picking out the verses. And the man with the larger Bible was explaining what each verse meant. He was connecting a verse in one book to a verse in another to show how they reinforce each other and make the same point. The method is called “proof-texting.” One begins with an assertion and then “proves” it with a Bible verse. Then, building on the first assertion, the argument moves on to ad another assertion “proven” by another text.

The problem with proof-texting is that it treats the Bible as if it were a set of propositions, or a rule book, or an instruction manual. And it approaches the biblical witness as if it were a puzzle to be solved; a hidden message waiting to be decoded.

The truth of the Bible is not in the verses; it is in the stories and the ideas. And it is not hidden. There is no secret to understanding the Bible, other than an openness to the spirit and the willingness to listen as it speaks. When we say that the Bible is true, we don’t mean that it is an accurate account of ancient history or an infallible alternative to modern science; we mean that it is true in our lives. The Bible is our story. It tells us who we are and to whom we belong.

It is dangerous to cast judgment on someone else’s spiritual practice or to question the direction of someone else’s journey. But when we proof-text, we miss the grand sweep of ideas. Instead of hearing a word of grace and hope that opens us to the wonder of God’s presence, we find ourselves in a cramped world of rules and demands that produces guilt rather than grace.

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