By the way, I have not been absent out of laziness! Two weeks ago I was out of town for the weekend for Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City. Then I went on a trip with my mom to visit family in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
One of my favorite things about the Bible Belt are church signs. A few we saw:
“What’s missing from ch ch? U R”
“Jesus is sending you a friend request: Confirm / Ignore”
“7, 8, 9, 10! Ready or not, here I come! – Jesus”
This last one was on a sign for a Christian cemetery. It’s easy to make fun of these churches for their cheesy messages, but then again, I still remember them, so it’s actually good marketing.
When I was in Charleston, I went to Grace Episcopal Church, and after the service I bought a book from the church bookstore: Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie’s Doing the Bible Better: The Bible Challenge and the Transformation of the Episcopal Church. Zabriskie is an Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania, and several years ago he founded the Bible Challenge to get Episcopalians to read the Bible more. This book is a description of the Bible Challenge and an exhortation to engage with the scriptures more. Zabriskie makes a pretty condemning (and true) point when he cites data showing Episcopalians are the most educated denomination in America, but one of the least biblically literate. He sees daily Bible reading as a cure for the clubishness, division, declining membership, and apathy in so many Episcopal churches. He gives his testimony that daily scripture reading has made him a more patient and kind pastor and family man, a better homilist, and a closer follow of Christ.
Like most hortatory speakers, I think Zabriskie overstates his case. Reading the Bible alone will not cure all the divisions currently plaguing the Anglican communion. But as a grad student in biblical studies and an Episcopalian, I too feel frustrated at the lack of engagement with the Word in Episcopal preaching. Although scripture permeates our liturgy, it doesn’t permeate our homilies. I’m probably caricaturing here, but most Episcopal sermons I have heard are a little Bible, a little Saint Francis, a little Mary Oliver, a little Anne Lamott, a little personal reflection – and they are often very good sermons that leave my soul nourished. But just once I would like a sidenote on the nuance of a Hebrew word, a sentence or two on the context of a Pauline letter in early church politics, an active struggle with one of the many “texts of terror” that don’t show up in the lectionary in the first place. Sure, there are many churches that do this very well, but I want that kind of depth in the context of the inclusivity and liturgy that keeps me in the Episcopal Church.
So for me, Zabriskie’s book is an invitation to think about how I could help my local church in its biblical literacy. There is an off chance I will be leading a bible study next Lent. I’m both terrified and excited by the prospect. But I have been the beneficiary of so many adult ed/lay ministry programs, such as the Scripture Institute program I did for two years (back when I was Catholic), and I have known for some years that I want to teach in that venue as well as in the university.
Zabriskie tells the story that one summer, he hired a local classicist to tutor him in biblical Greek and Hebrew. Though he loved the mental challenge of the languages, he said he did not feel closer to God, and his sermons did not improve. Zabriskie makes the point from this that there is no substitute for personal engagement.
After a few months of grad school, I now realize the same thing. Reading for class is not the same as reading for my own edification and delight. In the next post I will share a few ways I have used to engage the Word more deeply.