We teach at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and the Bible is a primary text in most classes. For many bachelor’s students, reading scripture is something we have to teach. It’s not that our students aren’t literate. Rather, it’s the fact that most of them arrive on campus, having spent a lot of time in church, listening to scripture read and interpreted from a set of standard lenses. Then they come to University, and their profs ask them to read the text, study its context, and ask critical questions. At that moment, what they have “known” all their lives about the Bible comes face to face with what’s there on the page. Cognitive dissonance, a sense of dis-ease, and even at times a sense that they might be doing something wrong can result. An example of this happened last week in a class on Pneumatology – the theology and study of the Holy Spirit, a member of the Trinity that gets little attention in many Protestant churches.
In class, we were reading the 4th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, where the Spirit plays a prominent role. After reading the chapter in class, our discussion went like this.
Me: What is the relationship of the Spirit and Jesus in this text?
Student: Jesus is the Son, the Son of the Father, so is more important than the Spirit.
Me: Where do you find that in the text? (silence as the class looks again)
Me: What do you see in the text about the relationship of the Spirit and Jesus?
Student 2: Jesus is powerful.
Student 3: Jesus is called by God.
Student 4: Jesus is more powerful than the Devil.
Me: All good answers. What do you see about the Spirit in this text?
(pause as students look again)
Spoiler alert: we finally did find the Spirit in Luke 4, and had a rich conversation about the relationships within the Trinity – a surprising conversation to many in the class, as they had never heard the Spirit emphasized in reading, in studying, nor in hearing sermons on this chapter.
The class discussion came to mind as I read Dianna Anderson’s well-writtten article on elected officials today using, misusing and often downright abusing Scripture to make political points. In many cases, holy writ comes out twisted, lacking context and demonstrating misunderstandings when spoken by politicians. The problem is not only that scripture is misused – it is that at times, folks with a particular hermenutical and political agenda feed texts to pols who use them without understanding what they’re saying.
Of course, the use of Scripture by politicians is not new, nor is it limited to the US. Marc Ravalomanana, President of Madagascar from 2002-2009, used Mark 5:36b, where Jesus offers encouragement to a man whose daughter was reported to be dead, saying “Do not fear, only believe” as his campaign slogan. Speaking to people who had lived under a brutal dictatorship propped up by powerful and wealthy external forces who had vast financial and geopolitical interest in maintaining the status quo, the advice to not fear and only believe must have sounded foolhardy, and even dangerous. In this case, scripture proved powerful, as people who had grown used to being abused by their government took hope and inspiration for a better future from the words and the powerful campaign that they symbolized.
There are also religious leaders in our time who claim belief in Christ and the name “evangelical”, for whom reading scripture seems difficult. There’s buzz in the news about concern among some evangelicals that scandals (that in any other era would stop evangelical support cold) could dim the potential for further leadership by the US President on “the issues that matter”, and so leaders are going to meet with the President (who has named Exodus 21:23-25, “an eye for an eye”, his favorite text), to see what they can do to remedy the situation to ensure ongoing evangelical support. At the same moment, evangelicals of the conservative and progressive camps are at odds about a Revival planned for Lynchburg Virginia in which one side asked the other for a time of prayer together, and was met with a threat of arrest for criminal trespass. I wonder what exegetical tools are being brought to bear in these situations.
As I reflect on the ways scripture is heard and misheard, used, misused, and oft-times twisted beyond recognition, I think about scholars and leaders who work every day to get people to read the surprising and revolutionary words of scripture with new eyes. This month, the Center for Womanist Leadership opened with its inaugural conference. Many established and emerging scholars came together to present, discuss, hear, inspire, and learn together. Many of these women, some of whom I am honored to call friends, engage with students, colleagues, churches, and the public about the meaning of scripture as part of their daily life and ministry. There is so much to learn about scripture! There is so much work to do, and we are indebted to scholars and leaders who can help us open our eyes to meanings that have been hidden from us through the dulling power of hearing what we think is there so many times. I’m looking forward to what comes out of this new Center, because the church in the world needs tools and resources to look and listen with new sight and hearing.
Here’s the reason all of this is swirling in my mind: it is the Easter season. I have watched as good friends and slight acquaintances have posted a variety of well-intentioned but exegetically-bad takes on the Easter story over recent weeks. This, coupled with political uses of scripture that border on blasphemy, have forced me to reckon once again with a hard reality – that the vast majority of believers in many countries, including my own – including many regular church-goers – are scripturally illiterate. Just as our students are not illiterate, those who attend worship in the US include many who can read, but who have not gained a serious understanding of scripture. So when people in power use/twist the Bible for their own ends, many who profess Christ don’t know the text sufficiently to answer them—or even to know that the Bible is being misused.
So what? Why does that matter?
Easter is the major festival of the faith for all who follow Jesus. It matters that we who profess belief understand what Jesus is about, and the Gospel narratives are a key tool for this understanding. At a time when the public is so very polarized and there is so very much at stake – from the fate of God’s creation, to the potential for war—even nuclear war—which seems closer than it has for decades, to the ongoing slaughter of people with darker skin than mine in encounters with the police across the US, to violations of human rights that are being encouraged by those in power in many arenas (including international diplomacy, the refugee crisis worldwide, the lack of coherent immigration policy and the separation of families as part of US practice, the massacre of Palestinians on the Gaza border, and the ongoing epidemic of gun violence – just to name a few) – it matters so very much that we who follow Jesus understand his stands, and where he calls us to stand with him. It matters because the Gospel has power to lift people up, as happened in Madagascar in 2001. It matters because we should know what we’re celebrating as we decorate with lilies, put on our pastel shirts and flowery dresses, and sing and preach about resurrection. It matters because Jesus has something to say about all the issues named above and a host of others, AND it matters because we don’t follow Jesus in private. We who follow lift high the cross in the public sphere, where people need good news that is solid and reliable and true. We who follow, whether in Tanzania or the US, live and move among people who either have never heard this good news, or have heard it and found it—or the way it has been presented—lacking. When it is found lacking – that’s on us.
NB: In the US, we have little excuse, because there are BOOKS and a host of other resources available to help. If what I’m saying here resonates with you and you are looking for ways to increase your own scriptural literacy and understanding or to help others, here are a few recent books to check out. We’ll be continuing to add to this list, and I encourage you to share ideas with us, too.
Womanist Midrash by Wilda Gafney
I Found God in Me edited by Mitzi Smith
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
Food and Faith by Norman Wirzba
The Very Good Gospel by Lisa Sharon Harper
AND: part of the scriptural illiteracy issue here in Tanzania is a lack of access to resources. If you want to help us provide books like these and many others in the library here, BE IN TOUCH – we will share how you can be part of the solution. There is a particular need for STUDY BIBLES. We would like to help provide study Bibles to all our students. PLEASE be in touch if you want to help with this ongoing need.
 Both our former missionary colleague, Dr. Stanley Quanbeck (in Conrad Braaten’s Beyond Madagascar), and Dr. Britt Halvorson, the grandchild of missionaries in Madagascar (in his dissertation, Lutheran in Two Worlds: Mission from Madagascar to the Midwest United States), have written about the use of Mark 5:36 in Ravalomanana’s campaign.