Newspapers and Bibles

I think that it was Rowan Williams who said that the new Archbishop of Canterbury needed to face the world with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other. Making the connection our prayer and the newspaper – the world – is often very much easier than making the connection between the Bible and our prayer or perhaps more vitally between the Bible and the world.

At Theological College we were told that once ordained one should always have three books on the go, a substantial tome of Theology, an important work of literature, preferably by someone who has won the Nobel Prize for something, or failing all else Dostoevsky and finally some serious Biblical commentary. The problem with Biblical commentaries is that they are all written by people who make their money by writing books for people who also write books. What they write must be new or controversial. Books that say ‘I totally agree with all that has been said so far’, don’t get published, let alone do they sell. It is a sort of vicious circle which often seems out of touch with the world and it is totally cyclical. In the nineteen sixties it was rather avant-garde to suggest that maybe the person who wrote the Gospel according to St Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, then it suddenly became a fact that everyone who wasn’t half dead knew; now, I hear from our new parish deacon, fresh out of college that the pendulum has swung and people are suggesting that maybe there were two different authors for the two differing books. And it all pivots on an irregular aorist on, would you believe it, no less than two different occasions. [I made that bit up.] When I took my exams it was surmised the Paul in fact had written four letters to the Corinthians which were then conflated into the two we know. And then I could have given you chapter and verse and cross-referenced it all with Acts. I have just bought a new commentary which says that in the intervening years theorists suggested that there were in fact as many as sixteen letters to the Corinthians conflated into two. My new commentary tells me that there are just two letters and the historical order is as you will find them in any Bible.

Nonetheless, commentaries are important, but they do not necessarily drive us to pray. I find two things helpful. First, and this works especially well with the gospels, picture yourself there. This morning’s gospel is a wonderful example. [Matthew ch 4 vv 18-22] Picture the scene. We do not have to have been to Lake Galilee to do that. The picture we get might be an amalgam of several ghastly pious films, but picture the scene, cast yourself into the scene. Try to imagine it through the eyes of Jesus, or Peter and Andrew, James and John, or one of the other fishermen who were most probably there – and we have left the commentaries way behind us now, so if your want to have a detachment of Roman soldiers in the back ground, anything goes, we are in our imaginations. Then when we are firmly in the picture we can run it again and again, looking and listening from different viewpoints. I said that this works especially well with the Gospels, with imagination this can be done with any part of the Bible. Walter Brugermann has constructed an extraordinary weekend, with perhaps thirty people, imagining the church in Corinth that caused Paul to write I Corinthians ch 11 vv 17-34, or take your parish away for the weekend so you can learn to dance Psalm 107, or use Psalm 22 to re-enact the veneration of the Cross.

So that is one way into the Bible, physically climbing into it, which may include acting it out and then asking each other what it meant to them, try doing that with the four young men bringing their paralytic friend to Jesus and lowering him through the roof. You will almost certainly find that the voices that are loudest have nothing to do with how to bring others to faith but they are the householders complaining bitterly that their houses have been destroyed and the paralytics saying – don’t forget our faith, don’t just assume that because we do not go to church that we are atheists.

And that exercise leads me on to the second way of getting into the Bible, and that is listening to what the world says about it. So when we talk blithely about mission we need to remember that if we increase our congregation by even one, the congregation will change and that can be quite hard for the old congregation – the householders and their precious house. And when we go out into the highways and byways to bring in those who are outside we need to be sensitive to their faith, they may not express it in words that we recognise, they may believe things that we think anathema, their ethics might be abominable, but that doesn’t allow us to strap them to a stretcher and bring them to Jesus. And so much of the pain in the Church in Africa comes because our well meaning Victorian ancestors did just that.

But listening to the world, again this morning’s reading. I remember a very holy old lady – who was all but housebound – telling me how guilty that Gospel reading, and the average sermon on it, made her feel, because she said ‘at my age and in my state of health I can do nothing. Where is my vocation? How am I following Christ?’ Morning and evening she said her prayers; she had a comfortable chair in her bed-room, a holy place set apart. And if you knew anything about her, you would know that when a particular light was on in her flat, she was in her holy place, praying. And I told her, which was perfectly true, that I walked past her flat at least twice a day and certainly every morning and early evening her light was on and I knew that she was saying her prayers, and that gave me enormous encouragement in my rushing around. Her rushing around days were over and now in her extreme old age her vocation was to pray. That conversation allowed the two of us to see this morning’s gospel in a totally different light.

But central to our connecting the world with the Bible and ourselves through the Bible to God are the Psalms. What is it that makes the Psalms so special? Every other book in the Bible talks about God. Whether it is through History or the Law or Prophecy or Wisdom, God is revealed to us. In the book of Psalms we may have the same revelation but it is humankind talking to and about God. The Psalms developed from humankind’s reaction to God, within the context of liturgy. Many of them developed from an oral tradition, in other words they were used as hymns or entreaties or thanksgivings and polished over the years into the forms that we know them now. And since they started as oral traditions they can be quite mixed so that a hymn of praise may turn into an entreaty and then into thanksgiving. Because the Psalms are humankind’s response to God they run the gamut of human emotion. They explore and expose lust and sloth and anger and wrath and pride and gluttony and envy as well as all our virtues and particularly faith and hope and love. Tragically there are some who like to cut out the nasty bits, but for us mere mortals, even if we are never tempted by most of the seven deadly sins it is actually extremely challenging, and good for us, to be faced with those sins that do tempt us. It also teaches us to be more compassionate towards those who are tempted and succumb to sins that either we have grown out of or just, mercifully do not touch us. And if you doubt this try flying across the Atlantic with a screaming baby in the seat next door to you; Psalm 137 will seem like good advice.

The Psalm-form or perhaps more properly poetry is not confined to the Book of Psalms or even the Old Testament. In fact it is most familiar to us, probably, in the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis and the Benedictus. Here it is Our Lady, Simeon and Zechariah responding to the wonder of God, true paeans of praise. Another New Testament favourite is Philippians ch 2 vv 6-11, where Paul quotes what was almost certainly an early Christian hymn or creedal statement.

And for me, the importance of the Bible can be summed up in Psalm 119 v 130: ‘The opening of your word gives light: it gives understanding to the simple.’ Psalm 119 used to be the bedrock of the Monastic office and was recited, all 176 verses if not every day, every week. Jonathan Graham, sometime Superior of the Community of the Resurrection described it thus:

“Psalm 119 is a love song, not a passionate love song, nor the song of love at first sight, nor the bitter sweet of emotion and desire. It is the song of a happy married life. It breathes all the way through the charmed monotony of life vowed to another….. It repeats with endless variety and sweet restraint the simple inexpressible truth that can never grow weary or stale. ‘I love you with my whole heart’”

And verse 130 gives us all the reason we need to read the Psalms and to find the Word among us. ‘The opening of your word gives light: it gives understanding to the simple.’ For me it is the pearl of great price that is worth repeating every time that we open the Bible. We may be given great insight through sermons and homilies and commentaries, but it is familiarising ourselves with the Bible itself that is most important and reading it with the anticipation that we are going to find good things, above all light. One of the wonders of the Bible for me is that way that it illuminates all that is happening all around me. We need to read it with this expectation. ‘The opening of your word gives light: it gives understanding to the simple.’