Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A few thoughts on living "off the page"

It was one of those late night bickering sessions on the television. You know the type: four panelists from diverse points of view are sitting on easy chairs in a semi-circle. A host with an attitude attempts to incite them into a conversation, picking whatever fights might be entertaining. This is an unfortunate form of entertainment, mostly because the panelists are treated as caricatures, and somebody wants to bulldoze over their cherished beliefs.

This particular show was a thinly-veiled attack on Christianity. Within the first few minutes, the host had ridiculed one of the guests, labeled him as an extremist, and smugly made it known that he was smarter than everybody else in that studio. At the lowest point of the exchange, he pointed a finger at the Protestant minister on his show and said, “You sound like one of those people who says, ‘unless it’s in the Bible, I don’t believe it.’” I turned off the television, but my mind kept working on that supposed insult.

I love the Bible and work with it regularly. I believe the scriptures narrate our faith, in the languages and thought forms of the times when these documents were written. They were inscribed with passion. As one early witness declares, “We declare to you what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.” (1 John 1). They were also written with great care and excellence. The letter to the Hebrews is written in the highest form of classical Greek, the stories of the Gospel of John are arranged with great care, and the sagas of 1 and 2 Samuel are narrative masterpieces. But it needs to be said that faith is always lived “off the page.”

Christian faith existed pretty well without a Bible for the first sixty or so years of its emergence. The New Testament Gospels were not written down until the church’s cemetery began to fill up, and there was the risk of losing all the stories about Jesus. Yet as important as those stories were and are, the church knew there is always Something more important than the Book - and that is the One that the Book is talking about. Christians know that Jesus is alive. The stories about Jesus teach us what to look for. They train us in how to see the invisible Christ. They prepare us to live in his presence, both today and forever.

It’s important to read the Bible every day. Otherwise we are tempted to forget who we are. At the same time, if we keep our noses in the Book all the time, we will bump into the furniture. The hard work of living as disciples of Jesus is to interpret what we read in the day-to-day realities of our lives. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) becomes real when family members compete with one another. When we hear the stories of Jesus on trial during Holy Week, they challenge us to rethink what real justice would look like. And when we hear how the Lord’s tomb was found empty, that news can awaken us to live as if death has been defeated, as if brutality itself is on trial, as if Christ is reigning until his last enemy is put under his feet.

Here's the punchline: read the Book, but live off the page.

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