Why the Bible in Progressive Worship?

I must confess that my own faith journey is deeply rooted in the evangelical tradition (I am, after all, a Fuller Seminary graduate, twice over.  I may not be an inerrantist or even an infallibist anymore.  I understand that the science and the history present in the text may not be "accurate" in the modern sense of the word.  I affirm evolution as the means by which the world we know today came into existence.  That said, I still find myself unable to move outside the biblical witness.  In my own preaching I have sought to root the sermons each week in the biblical text, which is why I once sat dumbfounded in a personnel committee meeting at a former church and heard that one of the complaints was that I didn't preach from the Bible -- in conversation I discovered that what they wanted was the kind of proof-texting sermons you get in some conservative churches. 

For some Progressive Christians, the Bible is problematic.  Not only is it an ancient text but it can give support to all number of regressive views, including the submission and suppression of women, genocide (read Joshua), and slavery (remember that 19th century evangelical preachers in the south were quite adept at defending the "peculiar institution" from Scripture).  So, why not just jettison it and start over?

Keith Watkins, Professor Emeritus of Parish Ministry and Worship at Christian Theological Seminary, in his continuing series of essays on Worship in Progressive Churches takes up this very issue in this week's contribution.  He writes that the Bible "is the book with which Christian conversation always begins. It provides a set of stories, interpretations, commands, and promises that all Christians hold in common, argue about, mix together in various ways, profess, sometimes reject, and which to some degree shape everything else that we read and incorporate into our lives of faith."

Keith acknowledges that we should read and study the entire Bible "with historical, theological, and devotional methods," but we should also recognize that "some sections are more suited than others for use in public worship. The Bible is a grand epic, which in highly stylized ways, portrays the story of God’s interaction with the world, a story that begins with creation and continues with the establishing of humankind in God’s own image."  It is for this reason that he recommends the lectionary -- a device that allows for a three year tour through this grand narrative, but which is seen by some as truncating the story -- and even pulling out parts that we'd rather not deal with.  But, the point here, in terms of worship, is that the people of God hear the basic story, so that they may see themselves and God in that story.

So, he continues:

This epic tells of God’s work in history, especially with the people of Israel, and reaches its climax in Jesus of Nazareth in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through whom God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20). The Bible’s grand narrative anticipates a time, in this world and the next, when all of God’s intentions for the world and its peoples will be fulfilled.

This dramatic narrative takes time to tell, which is the underlying principle in the year-long pattern used by many churches to determine which parts of the Bible to read in their weekly services of worship. I have long been persuaded that “the ecumenical hermeneutic of the three-year lectionary,” to borrow the words of Fritz West, makes sense. Sundays feature a sequential reading of the four gospels and provide additional readings from the biblical canon that serve as a commentary on the principle text.
The ability for these words to bring us the Word of God is affected and enhanced, Keith writes, "by the way they are read, by the music and devotions that surround the reading, and by the interpretation—whether in silent pondering, sermon, discussion, other readings from non-biblical sources, or dramatic-musical form."  In other words, the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the Word doesn't happen in a vacuum.  There is a connection, which is why I take great care in how the service is constructed.  It doesn't always work but that's the intent. 

I invite you to join both Keith and me in this conversation about the importance of Scripture to worship in progressive contexts. 

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Keith Watkins said…
Bob, I too have been accused, sometimes justly, of not preaching the Bible. You are right in your observation that what this accusation sometimes means is that the preacher is using the biblical text in a way that differs from what the hearer recognizes or can understand or that the preacher has failed to preach the doctrine that is understood to be "what the Bible says." I had the good fortune yesterday to hear a sermon that began with Luke's version of the parable of tearing down barns, moved to an insight from Basil of Caesaria, expanded by Thomas Merton, then applied to our time, and driven home by describing the preacher's recent conversations with homeless people in Portland. It was, in my mind, a Bible sermon completely at home in a progressive church! Clearly, it can be done!
Gary said…

You might not know it, but you are already "outside the Biblical witness". And have been for a long time. The question is, why don't you know it? or why won't you admit it?
Anonymous said…
I see the troll is back. Somebody must have forgotten Gary's birthday again.
roy said…
Bob, I visited a UCC congregation in Phoenix that said something to the effect of - "We take the Bible seriously. That is why we cannot take it literally."
Of course, taking the text literally when all of science or history contradicts the text leaves us with two options: jettisoning faith altogether (after all, the text is lying), or denying what is clear in front of our eyes. There must be a third option, reading the text seriously for what it is and finding that which must be expressed through poetry and metaphor rather than prose.
Gary said…
People who say they "take the Bible seriously", but deny what it clearly says, are lying about taking it seriously.

What is the advantage of pretending that anything in the Bible is true, when you don't really believe it? In Cornwall's case, it puts food on his table to play the game. For those in the pews who don't depend on money from playing church, what is your excuse? Stupidity?
Anonymous said…
Great post Roy. You'll have to forgive Gary. He's our resident fundamentalist. You'll find that he's incapable of understanding the ability to value biblical writing for the spiritual truths they impart while rejecting a literal interpretation of the written word. Gary's the type of guy who would recommend that you drink insecticide if you mentioned that you had "butterlies in your stomach."
Roy, Leaving Gary out of the conversation at this point -- as arguing with him is pretty pointless.

My only concern with the statement about taking the Bible seriously but not literally, which Marcus Borg has suggested in many places, is that there is a tendency to take everything as metaphor -- so we go totally the opposite direction. This was the problem with medieval exegesis, which took Origen and Augustine way beyond what I think even they would have affirmed.
John said…

For me, worship without service of the word is ... not worship.

Whether in a progressive church or a conservative, we need a certain amount of focus on the Bible. From my perspective the ideal is achieved when one begins to unconsciously or subliminally interpret one's life and life choices based upon the teachings of the Bible. This requires enough familiarity with Scripture to call on it and the ability to perceive and interpret Scripture metaphorically.

For example, in the grand scheme of my life it doesn't matter that Jesus restored a guard's ear in the garden, but in that story I learn that he was so committed to non-violence that he would use his extraordinary powers to heal an obvious enemy, bent on his arrest and murder - and this should make me pause before I heap scorn on those who do, or threaten to do me harm. And this is the kind of teaching that comes from good use of Scripture in Progressive or conservative worship.

Does this lesson lead me to tolerate and accept violence unjustly directed toward me or others? Perhaps, but I am not Jesus. At the least it should give me pause before I strike back, worrying over the implications for everyone involved.

The goal then is to share the story and then articulate the connections: modelling for listeners ways to understand the stories as filters of their own experiences, for discerning better choices for each of us on our own journeys.


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