Story, Scripture, and sacred texts (4)

In my last three entries, I’ve been responding to a very helpful and beautifully written article about the nature and purpose of sacred texts posted by the MCC Commission on the Statement of Faith. I have posted below on two of the Commission’s three questions in that article. This last entry on Story, Scripture and sacred texts will respond to the third question:

  1. How do you define/identify “sacred text”?
  2. What has been your experience with sacred texts and their use?
  3. What place do sacred texts have in your faith? In your relationship with God?

I. Summarizing.

In my previous responses, I have noted that Scripture and sacred text are not the same for me. The content of the Protestant canon is inspired by God, primarily because the Church as a whole finds it useful for learning to live the kind of lives that Jesus the Christ calls us to as his apprentices. Just because the Bible is inspired and useful, however, does not mean it cannot be argued with, or that multiple valid interpretations are not possible of a great many of its stories and teachings. Since, for me, Scripture is the community library, it requires constant close reading and discernment, because the Body of Christ (including the MCC) must continue to give Christ Jesus the honour he is due. Though personally I find myself deeply uncomfortable with many biblical texts, I trust that the community will help me to discern how the Holy Spirit speaks to us through those texts so that Christ’s love might be shown to the world.

Sacred texts are those which, for me personally or my wider communities, provoke me to a deeper sense of God’s Story told principally and uniquely in God-become-human, Jesus the Messiah and Sovereign of the cosmos. I usually recognize them because of joy, a sense of uplifting resonance that changes the shape of my inner life toward fuller participation in Christ.

II. Struggling with Scripture.

It is hard for me, having grown up in contexts that expect me to be smacked immediately upside the head by the biblical texts, to know exactly how to re-integrate them into my life alongside the richness of literary and academic theological analysis. I do trust that Scripture is somehow fundamentally about Jesus, and that I want to be his apprentice. I am convinced that it’s not just about “Jesus and me,” but about being saved/redeemed/liberated to become part of a people, a community, a Church, a Body so that my life is swept up into blessing the world as God would if God were standing in the earth right now.

There are many, many texts of Scripture that make my heart sing because they are central to my faith: Jacob wrestling with the angel; Isaiah’s call to ministry; faithful eunuch’s receiving a name better than sons and daughters; the Logos hymn of the Gospel of John; the strangeness of Jesus’ bodily resurrection in all four Gospels, along with Paul’s insistence that if the dead are not raised, we Christians might as well find something better to do with our lives; the fiery and windy upper room where God ‘turned on the Power’ in the Church; the Tree of Life growing on each side of the River flowing from the Throne of God–and its leaves heal the nations. This barely scratches the surface!

But I also need other biblical texts to provoke me. What do I (and my people) do about the destitute? What is appropriate, Christ-honouring sexual behaviour and relationship (especially when Scripture doesn’t seem to answer my/our questions? How do I (and my people) live non-violent resistance? Why is healing of the body and the spirit so hit-and-miss in today’s churches, including the MCC (since it seems that Jesus’ own Spirit-filled ministry was so effective? Why is it so easy to use Scripture–words that are supposed to give life–in ways that are deeply destructive and unethical? I commit myself by faith to hearing Christ in all of Scripture–but I do not know how. I need the community’s help. But I cannot learn if my communities (especially the MCC) loosen their hold on the importance of engaging Scripture–and how much more so the One who is God with a human face?

III. Singing what I/we really believe.

As I was reflecting on how sacred texts play in my life, it suddenly occurred to me, quite forcefully once again, that songs are sacred texts. I’ve mentioned my favourite hymn, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” which summarizes what I hope is the core of my life: “On Christ the Solid Rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

A worship chorus by Paul Baloche called “Offering” summarizes one of the reasons I feel called to MCC Toronto at this key point in the denomination’s history: “Jesus, may you receive the honour that you’re due.” In my experience, including academic reading I have done, singing goes to our bones far more quickly and lastingly than almost any other form of human activity–and certainly more than even the best sermon!

But I remember some reflections by New Testament scholar NT Wright as he was discussing the power of music. He once described being in a church service, as an Anglican bishop, where the people started to sing something that was very sloppy or even destructive theology, and he thought to himself: “My goodness, I don’t want them to think or pray that on a regular basis!” and he got up and said, “Perhaps you should skip that next time.” He believes that songwriters need to have enough grasp of the Bible, theology, and Christian history that they will have a sense of when they are writing against the grain of the tradition, and when what they write may damage peoples’ capacity to believe the Gospel.

I take that kind of comment very seriously, because there is such a thing as untrue/destructive theology. I sense genuine nervousness to confront this in the MCC, because fundamentalists clearly also believe that this is true, and look where that’s gotten a great number of Queer people!

Let me give two examples from my personal experience. Several years ago, I encountered a powerful Vineyard Chorus, “Jesus, thank you for the Cross.” I love singing it, especially because–here’s my theologically perverse sense of humour–the verses are based on Romans 1! But the song’s bridge makes me uncomfortable to this day, because I don’t think I believe it any longer, but it stays ‘stuck in my bones’: “Every one of us deserves to die, but you save all who hope in your great love.”

I have no problems with everything after “but”–BUT how do I reframe or change words that have to do with what theologians call “penal substitutionary atonement,” something I no longer regard reflecting what the New Testament actually teaches when taken properly in context? I usually change the words to, “Every one of us is [or ‘was’] going to die.” But is that enough? Should I stop singing it altogether? I find value in this song because for me it extolls the love of God in and as Jesus, even if I find some of the theology weird at a key moment.

But sometimes the changes my communities make our songs, in my view, compromise their basic point, away from a Christ-centred or Trinitarian focus. For example, MCC Toronto has changed the words of “Offering” to the following [with original lyrics in square brackets]:

The sun cannot compare
To the glory of your love
There is no shadow in your presence

You are the guide that turns [No mortal man would dare]
My heart away from fear [To stand before your throne]
Toward the healing love of heaven [Before the Holy One of heaven]

It’s only by your word [It’s only by your blood]
And it’s only through your mercy
God, I come [Lord, I come]

Accept the offering [I bring an offering]
Of worship that I bring […to my king]
Let all the earth attest [No one on earth deserves]
The praises that I sing

My God, may you receive [Jesus…]
The honour that you’re due
Oh God, I bring an offering to you [Oh Lord,…]
Oh God, I bring an offering to you [Oh Lord,…]

I believe these lyrical changes fundamentally alter the theology of the song toward something that may not assist Christian formation very effectively. I absolutely agree that there is something powerful in singing about healing love turning our hearts from fear. I also think that “man” as the generic for “humankind” should be adjusted (“no one of us would dare”?).

I understand that MCC Toronto usually prays “in your many names” and thus works hard to avoid alienating worshipers who are not Christians, or who are uncomfortable ascribing Divine nature to Jesus, or who refuse masculine terms or implied hierarchical structure in relationship with God. But by doing this, my church passes up a profound pastoral and teaching opportunity to show how Jesus of Nazareth bent notions of gender and inverted the usual expectations of what a king should do and be. By losing the reference to Jesus’ blood, we no longer have a way of talking about its dangerous and/or life-giving potential in Jesus’ context and in ours (given HIV/AIDS or the ongoing deaths of Queer people). And yes, saying “only by” is a dangerous statement, worthy of discussion.

When I sing “Offering,” I sing the original lyrics, while adjusting “man.” And I believe that I, and we, should sing what we really believe and trust about God. But do we change the lyrics only after a loving, no-holds-barred theological and pastoral discussion, or do we change the lyrics without discussion because our sole motive is to cause the least offence possible? (Causing the least offense possible seems more consistent with Christendom than it does being with the people on the margins; what do you think?)

I want the sacred texts I choose to shape me toward a more robust and challenging understanding of the Jesus of history, the first century Jew who has liberated, is liberating, and shall liberate finally the entire cosmos. I do not know how to do this well, sometimes. I get nervous that by allowing low or New Age Christologies to flourish in the MCC (because we ordain clergy that have these views and teach them) we risk giving Jesus the honour he is due, and form people (especially by the texts we read and sing in corporate worship) into something less than the passionate apprentices of Jesus that he longs for us to be.

IV. Summarizing again.

I am grateful for the Commission’s questions and for the change to add my thoughts. I hope they provoke dialogue, especially with people who disagree with me in good faith! (Good faith is determined by you, not by me! Thanks be to God!) I pray that as MCC discerns its future in coming days, we will be re-called, in our readings of Scripture and other sacred texts, to the beauty and challenge of becoming authentic and dangerous of Radical Love made known in, through, and as Jesus, the Christ. Amen?

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