When I'm not hanging out with the youth at First Plymouth, I moonlight as a PhD student in Biblical Interpretation at Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver. As part of that life (but connected with church life), I spent the weekend at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in New Orleans, LA (also the site of our last two summers' high school mission trips). It was a really fantastic experience; I heard lots of great papers, saw from friends, and got starstruck by all the (relatively) famous bible scholars I ran into in the hallway.
One of the most provocative sessions was put on by HarperOne publishing. It featured several of their authors (including Iliff's own Pam Eisenbaum), talking about the publishing world and their differing takes on Paul. Bart Ehrman, a very widely published and well-respected author, sent a shot across the bow of ministers and churches like First Plymouth.
Ehrman's basic question was this: why do my books sell so well? (They sell really well). It's a pretty good question. Why do books about the bible, which is so little-read in this country, sell so well? Why are people so eager to buy a book explaining the scholarship (or lack thereof) behind The DaVinci Code, or a book about the formation of the canon? Why is there such hunger for knowledge about the bible and Christianity?
Ehrman says it's our fault, and I think he's right. He says that churches (and the ministers who are hired to run them) have abdicated their responsibility to teach the bible, and it's difficult to argue with that. When someone finally picks up the bible and reads it (or picks up one of Ehrman's books and reads about it), her first reaction is often this: "why didn't my minister tell me about this? Why didn't I ever hear about this in church?"
Those are great questions. We, as churches and ministers, often don't talk about the difficult parts of the bible: how it sometimes contradicts itself, how it seems to condone sexism and slavery, how it portrays God in unsavory ways, and how at times it seems downright unholy. We skip the parts where Jesus criticizes wealth in the strongest terms (or explain it away as hyperbole), ignore Revelation and Leviticus altogether, and usually stick to the feel-good parts of the bible that don't really challenge us.
And that's why Erhman's books sell. He's giving it to them straight. We're shying away from our own sacred scriptures.
How can we right this wrong? How can we reclaim our own holy texts, and how can we make them relevant to this generation? It won't be by ignoring them, sugarcoating them, or cherrypicking only those parts of the bible that make us feel good. Churches like First Plymouth, which stand for progressive theological principles, should be grounding our faith in a deep engagement with the bible.
The bible has informed and inspired Christians for nearly 2,000 years. It can do the same for us. Let's get started. Who's with me?
(Top image: part of the text of John's gospel from the Codex Sinaiticus, probably the oldest extant copy of the New Testament).