While driving to class in Kansas City recently I saw a car coming up from behind me dodging through traffic, changing lanes and driving recklessly. It almost clipped my bumper as it hurled around me then did the same maneuvers with the cars ahead. I was angry and wondered where a cop is when you need one. We came to a stop light and the offending car waited impatiently for the light to change, and then quickly cut in front of 5 lanes of traffic trying to get in front of the other commuters. It was then I realized his objective was the emergency entrance to a large hospital on my right. Clearly the driver had an urgent need and while I will never know what their story was, I realized I had misjudged them based on only part of what I saw.
I was in Kansas City for two weeks of schooling. My teachers emphasize that Pastors should strive to engage in critical thinking and look beyond the surface meaning of Scriptures, delving into the historical, cultural and political context of Biblical text. It may not be necessary to express this deeper knowledge with the congregation. However clergy needs to be aware of the massive data which lies beyond the pages of the Bible in order to appreciate the power of Biblical and Christian theology. A pastor needs to understand the story behind the Scriptures in order to guide his Church toward enlightenment.
Not everyone enjoys history or anthropology as I do. Still I feel it is important to inform my congregation of these facts in order to more fully understand the Scriptures within the context of their time and place. While technology, scientific knowledge and geo-political systems have changed since Biblical times, human nature has not. It is important to understand that our ancestors’ reaction to the conditions of their times was no different than our reaction to circumstance today. And if we’re honest with ourselves we are not always fair and equitable in our judgments of others. Had I not seen the reckless driver tear into the emergency entrance of the hospital I would still be angry and judgmental of them. My criticism of their driving is tempered by my own experience during critical times of stress.
A friend of mine, when exasperated with things, would declare, “I’ve already made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts.” Our approach to the Bible often reflects this sentiment. We would rather understand Scriptures within the scope of our personal experience rather than the worldly view which lies outside of our cultural comfort zone. As Pastors we are taught to critically analyze Scriptures under a multitude of ideas, and then somehow translate that broader understanding into knowledge which our local congregations can apply to their lives. Like my friend we tend to understand Scriptures based on how we experience life within our local culture and upbringing. When historical, cultural and worldly facts challenge those ideas we find ways to re-interpret the Scriptures to fit our understanding. Even among “enlightened Pastors” this is true. A young minister in a large urban church will apply Scriptures differently than an older pastor in an agrarian community.
The challenge is to find the universal truth that transcends time, place, culture, politics and history. There is a truth which threads it way through the fabric of human experience and ties each of us together. It is what allows us to have empathy for the reckless driver urgently attempting to get to a hospital’s emergency room. Scholastic and factual knowledge of Biblical events bestow deeper insight into the spiritual meaning of Scripture which is both transcendent and universal. When we close our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to the factual truth that lie beyond our limited experience we do not give ourselves the opportunity to grow spiritually and understand the wider meaning of God’s purpose. When our interpretation is restricted to our time in culture or history, we are unable to share the Gospel without judging, condemning or imposing our self-righteousness on others.
Nor can we ignore some scriptures while adhering doggedly to others. The whole of the Bible must be regarded as it applies across time and culture. In Deuteronomy 23 a eunuch is banned from the “assembly of the Lord”. However in Isaiah 56 Gods says, “…to them I will give within my temple and its walls, a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters;” In the Book of Acts, Phillip evangelized to an Ethiopian eunuch, then “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” Are we to ignore the first passage and honor the scriptures in Isaiah and Acts? Does the Deuteronomy passage still apply or is it to be disregarded? Similarly do we focus on the reckless driving and the danger it created or do we consider the desperate need to reach the emergency room? Each passage is to be regarded within the time and place that it was written but also within the entirety of the Biblical narrative.
The challenge to those who wish to apply God’s teaching to their lives, and this isn’t limited to ministers, is to be a witness to the entirety of God’s work though history. This requires we understand that the work is transcendent and not yet completed. While the Bible ends at Revelations 22:21, the word of God continues. We cannot be finite in our understanding of God’s works or limited in our application of God’s Grace. Instead we must open our minds and our lives to the unfolding events and stories which God reveals to us past, present and future.