Monday, April 4, 2011

Scripture, Questions, and Formative Ellipsis

In my eight years of church ministry, many-o-church folk have approached me with honest confessions that concern a perceived “inability” to read the Bible. When individuals are pushed on this [false] assumption they often refer to their lack of answers possessed as a result of the vast complexities, ancient contexts, old symbols, and endless passages that confront their consciences from a variety of angles. And they expect me, as the supposed expert, to have the answers and smooth out the difficulties. But does the Bible exist to give us answers or to provoke new questions about what it means to be human and God’s people in the world? Is the Bible to be excavated so to remove mystery and paradox? [1]

I love how the book of Acts, the story about the church in its earliest beginnings, incorporates a vast collection questions:

What does this Jesus event mean? Is the kingdom we had hoped for finally to be restored?
How should we then live in light of this Jesus event?
Who is to join us as we continue to follow Jesus in the world, after he is gone… as we wait for his return?
What is required of us? What about the Law?
To whom do we pledge ultimate allegiance?
How long will it be until Jesus does return?
What does it mean to be saved…and who is? All humanity? All of creation?

And Lent is the season to ask hard, really hard questions.

And we are invited to ask questions in light of the Bible and how God reveals God’s self through it.

And ambiguity is o.k.

I suggest that the Bible is an open invitation to ask questions about God, Jesus, darkness, pain, suffering, hope, life, things to come, war, justice, peace, relationships, salvation, heaven, hell, the list goes on…

And ambiguity is o.k.

But the Bible is meant not to collect dust after third grade, weeks after confirmation, or in between Sunday mornings or evenings, but to be read, engaged, questioned, affirmed, wrestled with, and prayed through.

And the Bible forms us, through our questions, to be God’s people in the world.

And Lent is a beautiful season to read, engage, and ask honest questions about the Bible and story of Jesus.

This past week the Imago Dei Youth Ministry questioned the Bible. Instead of suggesting some sort of reduced system or formula for reading the Bible we invited the high school and middle school students on a pilgrimage of inquiry through both beautiful and hard texts. A variety of passages were scattered on the floor throughout the Westminster Chapel and newsprint hung on the walls. The only requirement for this formative quest: ask and write questions.

And no question was off limits…

Questions about God. Questions about Jesus. Questions about the world, past, present, and future. Questions about life. Questions about the imago Dei. Questions about the story of God and our role in it. Questions about death.

And these are some of the questions that the Spirit of God stirred within the hearts of the Imago Dei Youth…

Psalm 22
• Is God far away or are we far away from God?
• Why does it seem that I have to fall before I can get closer to God?
• Why do people have to mock you before believing in God/
• Why does it seem so long when we suffer?
• How can I clean my link to God?
• How can I have a closer, better, more reliable connection to God?

Isaiah 65:17-25
• Does God’s love extend to all? Including those who don’t participate in the faith?
• Why have I refused to be ‘glad” in what God is creating and settled for sorrow in what is?
• Why must the serpent eat dust while all other creation is blessed, if even he was one of God’s creation?
• What does it take to find this peace? Why can’t we have this today?
• Why just Jerusalem?
• Why forget things? Why not remember all good things?

Job 24:1-12
• Do the wicked do such evil just for themselves?
• Why suffering?
• When will all be made right?
• God, do you care?
• When will people stop being mean to others?
• Why does it feel sometimes that God doesn’t hear our cries for help or see the suffering?
• How could God not hear their prayers?
• God says the meek shall inherit the earth. Yet he allows them to be wronged. Why?

Colossians 1:15-20
• Why Jesus Christ? Why not?
• Were things in heaven not peaceful before Jesus’ blood was spilled?
• Were evil and oppressive rulers made through Christ?
• Why is God always invisible?
• Why did Jesus choose his blood to be reconciliation?
• If all things hold together in Jesus, why so much present fragmentation?
• We can’t we see all things of God?
• Why do humans believe they are the head of the church?
• If God weren’t here to hold all things together, would everything fall apart?

Philippians 2:1-13
• How do I work out salvation with fear and trembling?
• Is it asking to become a slave to God?
• How have I exploited others with the gospel instead of loving them?
• Why fear and trembling?
• How are people so selfish when Jesus was so selfless?
• If of one mind then what makes us unique?
• Why bend your knee to Jesus and not to another important individual?

Revelation 21:9-22:7
• Why isn’t Jerusalem in this condition now?
• When will God’s kingdom be made complete? Will there be people who are not there?
• Why was it only shown to John? Why was he chosen?
• Why so specific?
• Why sets of three or four always adding to twelve?
• Why is Jerusalem the wife of the lamb?
• Why built of jasper?
• Length, width, and height equal?

My prayer for the students who were present, and for all of us, is that this experience would launch us into a formative ellipsis. That is, as we read Scripture let us look, not for definitive end points or absolute answers, but for new and fresh questions that provoke our prophetic imaginations as we strive to be the people of God in the world.

The Scriptures can, even should be, engaged by all…and no questions are off limits

[1] This is not to say that the teacher does not play a pivotal and mediating role, for if this were the case I would not feel called to do what I do.  Instead, God's people, as individuals and communities, should not pull back because of our questions rather press on as a result of them.  And there are indeed many great resources available to aid us in our quest through questions of context, symbols, language, and paradox.  I suggest four significant resources: N.T. Wright, How Can the Bible Be Authoratative; Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed; Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now; Rob Bell, Velvit Elvis.