Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bait-and-Switch Bible Study

When my day is going too smoothly -- when I don't have enough tension in my day to ramp up my blood pressure to a satisfactory level -- I read the comments on the ELCA's Facebook page.

Don't get me wrong. I think that this project is one of the smartest things the ELCA has done in a long time. Each day some Internet-savvy elf on Higgins Road posts prayers or quotes, and a question of the day. It's encouraging to see the interaction and information sharing going on. And perhaps the folks at the other end of the computer are learning more about the laity from reading their responses.

But inevitably the conversations, no matter where they begin, seem to wind up in the realm of The Troubles. And I have to read, again, about people's "pain" and "struggle" and "anguish" about being asked to accept partnered gay and lesbian members of our denomination as full participants in all ministries.

My gut reaction is, "Pain? Oh, please." An ileostomy is pain. A breast biopsy is pain. Being asked to share a church body -- not necessarily even your own congregation! -- with a pastor or deacon or other rostered leader who happens to be gay and partnered is not pain. Get over it.

But there's this one guy who keeps writing on the Wall, who keeps reiterating his state of upset, whose recent comments inadvertently stumbled upon an issue that I think actually underlies much of the controversy over the role of gay people in the Church. The other day he said, more or less: So what else are you going to tell me is wrong in the Bible? Because apparently, through his attempts to understand the CWA vote, he was exposed to people discussing the Bible using an historical-critical interpretative methodology. This stuff is honestly news to him. His applecart of faith is starting to shake.

I grew up in the LCMS. I cut my theological milk teeth on the Seminex controversy; my ueber-conservative uncle subscribed my sympathetic, but not quite as exciteable, father to a newsletter that breathlessly reported, month after month, on the heretical, Bible-hating shenanigans going on in Lutheran seminaries. I didn't find the accusations, once one got past the hyperbolics of the authors, all that awful; it was kind of a relief, actually, for a pious but precocious Missouri Synodian teen, to discover that I didn't have to believe in a six-day creation, or in an historical Adam and Eve, or a real guy named Jonah swallowed by a real fish, in order to be a Christian. And then I went away to school and took biblical studies courses (taught by two excellent professors, one Methodist and one Presbyterian, who happened to be pastors as well as scholars) that provided more context with which to understand what I was reading, and the controversy between biblical literalism and a more nuanced reading of the texts.

But that illustrates the gap between people whose biblical education is more like mine and people whose understanding of the Bible has been formed solely by grade-school-level religious education,  Sunday preaching and devotional reading (which is what most adult Bible studies are, really). The Troubles with Teh Gay in the ELCA are, as personally frustrating to me, just a symptom, I believe, of a bigger Trouble -- the Bible gap.

The confused soul on Facebook feels as if he's been played in a game of biblical bait-and-switch. And you really can't blame him.

I told him that I don't think that that is the intent at all of preachers and teachers. But I do wonder what damage has been wrought in our church body and its predecessors over the decades by the sort of intellectual elitism that, in both children's and adults' religious education, has tended to provide only lightweight, principally devotionally oriented Bible study to the laity. This is the Reformation that Luther risked his life for? Bunny-slope Bible study for average laypeople, versus a rigorous, contextual Bible study for a special few? Because the peasants really aren't up to learning how to read the Bible critically and contextually, and besides, we don't want them getting all riled up? Really?

I think the ELCA's Book of Faith Initiative is a modest attempt to rectify this situation. I hope it works. But I think it may be too late for some church members who have taken the apparent low expectations of Church leadership to heart, to the point where they can't/won't process what they're hearing when the elite exegete and hermeneute. And honestly -- how are our kids learning to read the Bible? Same ol', same ol', so that by the time they hit adulthood we'll have the same conceptual gap?


kg said...

Whoa, are you back! I'd missed you.
I remember my LCMS room mate in college coming back from break and telling me (from the ELCA) that she couldn't associate with me!
I remember that feeling. Huh? You, the one that owns her own Green Hymnal? And that's the feeling I'm getting in this case too----we are people of the same God, can't we love each other?

angela said...

Yep--I think you've hit the nail on the head. And our pastor is trying to have Bible study at each of the three churches and says that she cannot get through the thickened lens of the few people who hug inerrancy like a baby blanket.

I hope younger people are being exposed to ideas that Luther started, like reading through the lens of Christ's love. I did just start the book "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time" (Borg) which does what you are asking. There was some interest in reading it in our book group.

I had to sign up for classes at the Synod level before I learned about that, but it is possible for everyone.

Mary Sue said...

I think this isn't a problem just in your house, but across the board. I have not been able to find a Bible study at any of the churches in my medium-sized city that didn't either involve shelling out thousands of dollars for a three year class or signing a Statement of Belief that starts with "The Bible is the inerrant word of God" which I can't do.

I did finally spend some money and take a distance learning class from one of the Episcopal seminaries, and the students in the class were just too fluffy-bunny for me. They were mostly older than me, with children, and few had a day job.

I've offered to lead Bible studies at my church. But people keep telling me it won't work, no one will attend, despite the fact the occasional lectures from our resident seminary professor are always well attended. She is chronically ill, however, and the classes are therefore a bit sporadic.

zorra said...

What I want to know is how to get a wide range of people interested in Bible study. We have a faithful core group of about 16 people that shows up for the Bible study Sunday school class, ready to delve and discuss. The Scientist is usually the youngest person there. He's 52.

Anonymous said...

Preach it, sister.

I do hear signs of hope in the "Book of Faith" series, which is being taught earnestly in the church where I'm currently working. I don't always agree with the pastor's style of teaching (which tends toward the top-down, bringing-the-news-to-the-illiterate) but at least it's looking at cultural and historical context as well as Lutheran biblical theology (which in my view has almost completely dropped out of sight in the church).

So glad to see you back. Your blogosphere missed you!

--The Simpleton