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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