Scriptural Sound Bytes?
We live in a sound byte culture. Protracted negotiations over the national debt are summarized in less than thirty seconds and the same statement is played over and over again in the media until viewers imagine that they know the depth and complexity of the argument because they can summarize it in a few simple memorable words. Is it any wonder that we are so ill equipped to handle the complexity of the situation?
Sometimes, I wonder if something similar happens in terms of God’s word. The lectionary offers us fragments from larger books of Scripture, purposefully selected in light of liturgical theology, and repeated in cycles over the years. This selection and use of readings, however, depends upon a deeper understanding of the larger narrative of Scripture, which may no longer be present today.
For example, I once had a convert to the faith express his surprise when he discovered that John the Baptist and Jesus were close in age. “But wasn’t John preaching in the wilderness long before Jesus was even born?” he asked. The liturgical fragmentation of the gospel narrative during Advent and Christmas had formed a different narrative in his mind. John was out there in the wilderness long before Jesus was born. The same, I imagine, could happen with Epiphany and Lent, where Jesus is transfigured before he ever is tempted.
Am I arguing for the displacement of the lectionary cycle? No. I am suggesting, however, that we attend much more carefully both to the liturgical theology that shapes these readings and to the texts themselves that may not be as familiar to our hearers as they once were.
The one time of the church year when a preacher can work with the lectionary readings in their extended biblical context is during ordinary time. Here, the church honors the ancient tradition of reading “the memoirs of the apostles . . . as long as time permits” (Justin Martyr, The First Apology, chapter 67) by inviting preachers to preach through a whole book of Scripture over a series of Sundays. For example, this year we are in the midst of a series of readings from Romans. Even then, however, notice how our practice of selected readings may create a much more fragmented text than is necessary.
I was recently in California leading a continuing education event in preaching. There, we had a chance to discuss the upcoming readings from Romans and noticed the epistle reading for August 14th: Romans 11:1-2a, 13-15, 28-32. Really? We all know the difficulties of this section of Romans. Why compound the problem by fragmenting the section even more? Adding a few more verses would certainly call for an expenditure of more time. It might, however, be time well spent.
What intrigues me about the lectionary selection is not just the fragmentation of the text. It’s the (unstated) principle of selection. Am I wrong in thinking that there’s a sound byte quality to the reading? The main ideas are extracted but the material that Paul uses to develop those ideas, to support and to clarify his thought, is left behind. Look at what is missing: the struggle that Paul has with Scripture, the way in which he moves from examples to citations of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, his incisive rhetorical questions and debate, his offer of personal testimony, his imaginative appeal through vivid illustration, and his proclamation of the hope of prophecy fulfilled.
One wonders whether it might not be helpful to offer hearers a bit more of Paul’s own Scriptural interpretation in the reading. Rather than reporting what Paul says, extracting a summary of points from the text, could we listen to how Paul says it? Could we overhear how Paul arrives at these truths, explore with him the Scriptures, and meditate on the way these words lead to this revelation of God?
If nothing else, it might slow down our interpretative practices, create a bit more resistance to a proof-texting mentality, and ultimately foster humility and deepen our meditation as we approach the very words of God.