Reprinted here, with permission from Bishop John Shelby Spong, is a Q & A from a recent edition of his newsletter in which he discusses the healthcare debate and calls for more honesty. His response to a reader’s question urges a more educated and informed approach towards the Bible as well.
I am a Lay Eucharistic Minister in the Episcopal Church. When I read one of the lessons from scripture, I am instructed to say at the end of the reading: “This is the Word of the Lord.” My preference actually would be to say: “Here ends the Reading” or “Here ends the Lesson.” Any thoughts you have on this subject would be most appreciated.
Britton B. Dennis, Sr.
I share your passion to change the way we end the scripture lessons that are read in church. Only someone who has never read the Bible in its entirety and who thus does not know its content, would want to refer to every reading from that book as “the Word of the Lord.” The book of Deuteronomy, for example, says that children who are willfully disobedient to their parents shall be stoned to death at the gates of the city. Is that the word of the Lord? Leviticus tells us that people who commit adultery, people who are homosexual and people who worship a false God shall be executed. Is that the word of the Lord? II Samuel suggests that God will cause the baby born out of an adulterous relationship to die as punishment for the adultery of the child’s parents! Is that the word of the Lord? The book of Psalms suggests that the people of Israel will not be happy until they have dashed the heads of their enemies’ children against the rocks. The Epistle to the Colossians instructs slaves to be obedient to their masters. Are these attitudes in compliance with “the Word of the Lord?” Paul writes that women should be silent in the churches and the author of I Timothy says: “I forbid a woman to have authority over a man.” Are we reading in these instances “the Word of the Lord?” Surely Not! These words are nothing less than expressions of the cultural sinfulness of patriarchy.
To refer to all of the words of the Bible as “the Word of God” encourages a kind of ignorant fundamentalism that sucks the very life out of Christianity today. Other traditional, liturgical customs feed this same heresy. What are we as a church communicating to our congregations when we process into our Sunday services holding the Gospel Book high as if it is to be worshipped or adored? What are we communicating when the one reading the Gospel for that Sunday goes through all kinds of physical acts of crossing oneself or making crosses on the text of the Gospel before it is read? What are we communicating when we use incense on the Gospel Book so as to cover its words with a “mystical” smell? All of these practices suggest that it is the Gospel itself, rather than the God to whom the words of the Gospel point that is the object of worship. Even the long established custom of printing the Bible with two columns on each page is little more than subliminal propaganda. The only books we print in columns other than the Bible are dictionaries, encyclopedias and telephone directories. The thing that each of these columned books has in common is that no one is ever supposed to read them. We go to these books, rather, in search of answers to specific questions. All of these books give literal answers about which, the contention is, there should be no dispute. This custom of printing the Bible in a manner that no other book we read is printed feeds the attitude of the unchallengeable and thus the inerrant nature of the words contained on its pages, reflecting a form of idolatry that is called “bibliolatry.” Biblical literalism has plagued the church for centuries. It needs to be exposed for what it is. These “pious practices,” which we have so universally wrapped around the Bible, are not just, as their defenders claim, acts of devotion; they are rather practices rooted in the claims we have made for a fundamentalistic attitude toward the Bible. That attitude has had no credibility in Christian academic circles for at least the last 200 years.
As this critical biblical scholarship finally begins to seep into the awareness of the people who attend our churches, we are at last able to see changes being made. The Anglican Prayer Book of New Zealand, for example, has the reader end the reading of the lesson by saying: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.” I would be happy to see us return to the descriptive and therefore neutral words: “Here ends the reading” or “Here ends the lesson.” I have been in church when the phrase “This is the Word of the Lord,” has been uttered at the end of a strange passage from the Bible and it has been difficult for me not to scream out: “No, No! That is not the word of a deity that I would ever be drawn to in worship!” Propriety has thus far not been violated for which I am grateful!
Before we can feel the weight of that issue, however, a consciousness about what the sacred scriptures are and knowledge about all that the Bible contains needs to be developed. That requires a rigorous program of adult education, which takes both time and hard work. Because institutional Christian churches, both Protestant and Catholic, have never really been interested in having an educated laity, that consciousness has been slow in developing. The “sheep” are supposed to be both dumb and quiet.
Perhaps your letter will aid that process of consciousness growth and get others to think about these issues. Thanks for writing.
John Shelby Spong
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Bishop Spong: Towards an Educated Laity