By Clint Wilson
Last year I was talking with a colleague who told me about an interaction she had with a young child in Sunday School as they discussed the story of the Annunciation. She mentioned to the children how the Angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and said, “The Lord be with you,” and that the angel tells Mary not to be afraid, that she will be with child, and this child will be a great King… [you know the story]. But then my friend asked the children, “And what was Mary’s response,” to which one of them answered, “That’s easy: ‘And also with you!’” Now this is adorable, and funny… but not true. Nevertheless, her answer is definitely something an Episcopalian would say!
The Episcopal Church is — how should I say this — not famous for our scriptural knowledge. We are not typically described as “people of the Book.” Instead for many Episcopalians the Bible is a problem to be solved or a text to be endured. The Baptists are the ones who are good with Scripture, right? We do liturgy really well! But this really is not our story, or it shouldn’t be, and emerging and younger leaders have an opportunity to rewrite this narrative. We must hold onto the centrality and the authority of Scripture precisely as the people of God, and as Episcopalians, for if we do not know the Script that God has written, it will be impossible for us to know the Script-writer.
But the Bible is daunting, isn’t it? Trying to read the Bible can sometimes feel like attempting to sing a song by Whitney . Every time I join into “And I Will Always Love You,” I quickly realize that I do not have the chops to hit those high notes. Many of us feel this way when reading Scripture: Where do I start? I don’t have the chops!
The way to learn how to sing is to start singing — to sing alone in the closet or the shower, and to sing in community. The way to read the Bible is to start reading it (probably not in the shower) — but likewise, to do it alone, yes, but especially in community with other Christians living and dead, and in accord with the apostolic witness.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has called for us to walk in The Way of Love, a way we cannot walk apart from what we hear in our sacred texts, for Holy Scripture is where we hear the love song of Christ, and learn how to sing along. Indeed, Rowan Williams states, “The Bible is the territory in which Christians expect to hear God speaking. That is what the Church says about the Bible, and the Bible itself declares that it communicates what God wants to tell us.”
Some years ago my wife and I attended a musical called Wicked, which is a post-modern flipping of the script of The Wizard of Oz; it turns the Witch of the West into the hero, and tells her side of the story. The musical started with those weird and scary flying monkeys — the music was dark and the lights were low. But then the entire play stopped due to a glitch with the lighting… scary monkeys switched back into normal upright people, who in their confusion walked off stage quite out of character. It was bizarre to see; only made more bizarre by it happening two more times — the same glitch, the same response, an upset crowd. Eventually they worked out the glitches, the musical went on, and we were swept up into story and song.
For many of us, reading the Bible is this way. We have tried to enter into the story, but there are too many challenges, including outside factors that seem to keep us from engaging it — like busy jobs, or traveling youth sports, Netflix, or it being the domain of those Christians, or more. This is to say nothing of challenges internal to the Bible itself such as cultural, historical and linguistic gaps!
When early Christians were hard pressed, and when forces were bringing peril into the lives of the disciples in Second Timothy, Paul pointed them back to hearing the gospel song of Christ, even as Paul himself sings it in the face of his own death, writing as he does from a prison cell in Rome. How does he encourage them to hear the song of Christ amidst the siren songs around them? By pointing them to Sacred Scripture. Paul encourages Timothy, and others, to remain faithful to the Orthodox belief about Jesus Christ, and to do so by meditating on holy writ. “These sacred Scriptures,” Paul writes, “are able to instruct [you] for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.”
The great British philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that “we can only know what we are to do in life, after we know what story of which we are a part.” Paul knows this too, as does his Savior. Jesus knew his identity, for the Father sings an eternal love song in the Spirit, sung over him once again at his baptism. And when in the wilderness he was tempted by the siren songs of Satan, he likewise knew which song to sing instead — Sacred Scripture; it nourished him, and its truthfulness cut through the lies of the enemy who sought to convince him to find his identity elsewhere. Identity is not constructed, it is a gift of divine utterance.
And so, quoting Scripture, we see Jesus speak an unambiguous word about his identity in the face of opposition— I am God’s beloved, and I don’t need to buy into the lies offered to me. He knows the script-writer and the script, and he is able to improvise in the face of temptation; he is able to sing faithfully the song of Scripture, even under duress. This is, I think, what Paul has in mind for Timothy as well. Walking in the way of love will require that we are likewise marinated in Scripture — and that our children are, too.
The New York Times recently ran an article “Turn the Page, Spur the Brain” that presented empirical findings showing that reading to children, even infants, was crucial for brain development. They found that exposing children to a video or a picture short-circuited the child’s imagination. One expert said: “They’re not having to imagine the story [for themselves]; it’s just being fed to them.” Another pointed out that children who were exposed to reading “showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was listening to a story and could not see any pictures.”
In short, verbal communication makes your mind and heart do the work of grasping and imagining the story for yourself. This simple article about reading to children supports an ancient understanding about the power of the Word to capture our hearts and soak them with the truth in a way nothing else can. Scripture is a unique and inspired sacramental vehicle through which we encounter the same Christ who walked the road of Galilee and died on the cross and rose again and who is seated at the right hand of God. And this beholding is linked to the Spirit’s work in our hearts as the Word of God is read and heard (2 Corinthians 3:12-16). Indeed, our catechism in the Book of Common Prayers says nothing less:
Q. Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?
A. We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.
And it is not that God doesn’t speak to us in other ways — of course God does! But Scripture, in tandem with the rule of faith and read under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the governor switch for what we hear as the Church, and for discerning how God might be moving in our lives and communities.
As the saying goes, “Visit many good books, but live in the Bible.” You see, God calls us to himself not just in some abstract way, but to know him through Scripture. The Script-writer, having stepped into the Story most fully in Christ, invites us to step back into the Script to act on the Biblical stage, as awkward as it might be at first.
So, we do not read the Bible primarily to gain knowledge, or wisdom, or life-coaching, or trivia and answers for life’s questions; we read the Bible to know Christ. The sacred words point us to the Word, and so it makes sense that we will feel disconnected from God in Christ, if we are never connected to the story of Scripture. If we do not know the Script, we will not know the script-writer.
Episcopalians need to get over our allergies to evangelical language and reclaim the title “Bible believing.” For Augustine read the Bible and was freed from the bonds of lustful addictions into sainthood. After being wounded in battle, Ignatius of Loyola read the Bible and was transformed from an arrogant and reckless soldier to the founder of a movement known for peace and education. William Wilberforce read the Bible and led a revolution to abolish the slave-trade. Mother Teresa read the Bible and gave her life to caring for the poorest of the poor.
And although I am in a much different class, I read the Bible, and it changed and is still changing my life, helping me understand that my story is not rooted first or finally in what I do, what I have, or what others say about me. My story is God’s story, the Gospel, because he has made me his own in Christ. So would I call myself a Bible Believing Episcopalian? You bet.
Fr. Clint Wilson is rector of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church in Louisville, Kentucky.