I’ve been reading a couple of books recently on reading and interpreting the Bible. In both there was an emphasis on the idea that one powerful way of seeing the Bible is as the narrative of God’s creative and redeeming work in this world, through the patriarchs, through Israel, supremely through Christ, and – at a nascent stage – the church. It is, I think, a good way of looking at things. It must have been particularly so for the early Christians, perhaps even down to the point where the canon of Scripture was declared closed (bearing in mind the differences in the canon between Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox).
And yet the Lord tarries. It is now coming up to 2000 years since Jesus death, resurrection, and ascension. And the good news of God’s plans and purposes, of the redemption accomplished in Christ, has – as the disciples were commanded to do – gone out to the very ends of the earth, New Zealand among the last of them. And the good news has crossed all geographic boundaries and borders, the world is also a very different place than it was 2000 years ago. Not, of course, that man’s propensity to sin differs. Human nature has not changed. The line between good and evil still runs, in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase, through the heart of every man (and woman). The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes still speak, or act as stumbling blocks (as Paul notes that cross itself did), as ever they did.
But our world is recognisably different – and becoming increasingly so – to first century Judaea, first century Rome, or even a few centuries prior to that when the prophets spoke, the Law was given, when God first called Abram our from Ur of the Chaldees. Not only do those in the “developed countries” live in societies with increasingly little resemblance to those of the first century, but even the erstwhile under-developed countries are fast-urbanising and taking up the technologies and lifestyles pioneered, for good and ill, in the West. I recall reading Kenneth Bailey’s Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes collection, in which the author powerfully illuminated many of the biblical parables, by reference to actual practice in communities in mid 20th century Egypt, Lebanon and so on. For many centuries life did not change that much (nor, for example, material living standards, life expectancies, and other reference points). But 100 years hence how many of those reference points will be left (and who will begrudge those who live in the Middle East the economic development that existing advanced economies how have?) And if sheep analogies were never intuitive for Christians in, say, the Solomons, how much resonance now do they have for those born and raised in, say, New York or Paris (even, perhaps, Wellington)?
Not only did life, technologies, community structures change more slowly in earlier centuries, but less time passed as well. From the fall of Jerusalem in 587BC to Simeon’s prophecy of the coming of a redeemer fulfilled in the baby Jesus wasn’t much more time than since the Tudors took the throne in England or Christopher Columbus set out on the voyages that would take him to the Americas. There was roughly 1000 years from the death of King David to the death of Jesus. Less than 100 years from the exodus to the Babylonian exile. And now we are entering the third millennium of the church. What will the world – backdrop against which the church lives and witnesses – look like 500 years hence.
None of this is to minimise the importance – the centrality, the authority – of the Bible. Which could be much better preached and explicated than it (mostly) is. Perhaps especially the Old Testament which seems to be little read (perhaps outside liturgical churches with set required readings) and, at least in any sustained way, less preached from. We need preachers will be tell the story of God’s work in and through Israel, of sin, and failure, hope and redemption. Of flawed rulers, persecuted prophets, tempted (and sinning) people of God, and so on. Doing so isn’t necessarily easy – even with all the resources (commentaries etc) now available – but it is no less important for that.
And yet, and yet. If God acted, as we affirm, once for all in Christ in first century Judaea, for us and for all salvation, yet he still acts today and has acted through the centuries since the canon of Scripture was closed. And yet how much of the story of God’s work in the church, and sometimes despite the church, do Christians today know? How much of the blindspots of the church, the courage of the church, the effective mission of the church, the failure and decline of the church? And in societies – with pressures, institutions, opportunities, failures – more similar to our own, and yet not with the precise same blindspots (whatever they are) of our particular situation? How many in New Zealand now know much of the astonishing success of missionary efforts here among Maori in the 19th century?
Perhaps these are just the hankerings of a history buff – although my own grounding in Scripture and in church history is much less than I would like? But I don’t think so. If we don’t teach the history of God’s church we dishonour our birthright, but we also risk the gospel coming across as something for Israel and first century converts, but not as something that speaks and has spoken through all ages since, all societies, under all sorts of rulers, all sorts of technologies, and so on. It is after an incarnate – God become fully human in Christ, God’s church existing through the ages here on Earth – real people, real failures, real successes.
What this means in practice I don’t really know. It certainly isn’t learning lists of Popes, Archbishops of Canterbury, let alone Presidents of the Baptist Union. But it might mean clergy whose education and formation soaks them in the story of God’s church, who can tell some of those stories – and point congregants to resources that take them further and deeper into those stories. Of course, in parts the lives of saints have played this sort of role in more-traditional churches (perhaps especially among the Catholics, where saint-making continues, in ways that perhaps make many Protestants uncomfortable, and yet respond to the sort of need I point to in this post) but I wonder how much teaching centred around those lives still goes on. I wonder how many in our congregations even know much about God’s work in the history of their own congregations – whether those churches are decades old (most in New Zealand) or a thousand years old (perhaps many in Europe)? And – as the Scriptures are – we need to be open in teaching of failures and blindspots, as well as the success stories. How and where did serious believers nonetheless stumble? How, sometimes, did church leaders guide them astray. And how did God still work, redeeming and restoring.
Shouldn’t we encourage more reading and reflection on – to take just the last couple of centuries – the churches in apartheid South Africa, the churches in Nazi Germany, the churches in the US South in the Jim Crow and civil rights era, the churches in the Soviet Union, the evangelisation of Africa and the Pacific, the church in modern-day China, perhaps the US churches and the approach to abortion, the church in the Middle East today? What do we learn. whose examples inspire us, whose warn us? Where do we see God at work? How might we prepare our fellow believers to resist the temptations – visible and insidious – we face today, or might face before long?
I suppose one counter to this is that surely we can and should learn from other congregations in our time and culture. And I’m sure we should and can. And yet we can be almost too close to those examples, and need some distance (as a personal example, I find reading about the church in Nazi Germany worthwhile both because one can see with hindsight how evil was the regime, and how comprehensive the eventual threat, and yet can see too the compromises and blindspots so many lived with, as the threats slowly grew more real – in a sophisticated, educated, technologically-advanced society. It confronts me constantly with the question of how confident I would be of having behaved differently (honestly, not very).
There aren’t cookie-cutter answers here, just a strong sense that faithful discipleship, faithful witness, today needs much more of the story of God’s continuing work in the world, building on the unchangeable truths revealed in Scripture, in Christ.