Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Selective Reading

Selective Reading

            Summer reading has long been a pastime for many of us. As a school boy I got a book list toward the end of May for keeping up my reading skills. Whether you still prefer hardcopy, or read from a Kindle or similar device, many of us are on the watch for this summer’s best “beach books.” Perhaps The Bible should be one of them.

It’s not new for Presbyterians to use scripture as a convenient way of reinforcing our personal and communal beliefs. We have a tendency to pick and choose selectively what we want to read. We also have a pre-disposition to hear what we want to hear. This is no startling observation since “birds of feather” tend to chirp together.

I attend a church that challenges my theological reasoning, but I also “like” what I hear the pastor preaching. I cast no blame at him for he is an excellent commentator on “the Word.” The problem of “selective hearing”, and biblical “selective reading” is my own. I read The Psalms very selectively, for example, but can wax poetic about The Gospel of John. There are other books of The Bible that I ignore completely, perhaps at my peril. Leviticus is one of them, but for that matter, it’s been years since I’ve read the prophecies of Jonah, or Daniel. Revelation bears little interest to me, but I don’t enjoy crossword puzzles either. I’m mostly a “red letter” Christian these days.

The question haunts me, however, of what service this does to the much debated wording “biblical authority?” That term has been thrown about continuously by Presbyterians through my lifetime as a means of justifying the sentiments that make us comfortable as Christians. In some ways we are little better than our fundamentalist cousins who get left off the invitation list for our family reunions. Granted, fundamentalism at its worst is a dangerous position for it truly does emotional and spiritual harm to those who obligingly follow it to its extremes. It’s bad theology in whatever form it aspires.

We seem as Presbyterians to possess our own style of “biblical authority.” History bears testimony to our eagerness to embrace a few texts of dubious meaning to comfort our reasoning that some races are inferior to others, women are lesser than men, war is justifiable, and that being gay or lesbian is a sin. Some are rejoicing and others weeping over the passage of Amendment 10-A. There is talk of “many” leaving the P.C.U.S.A., or at the least banding together into comfortable communions of like belief. It seems a peculiarity that we can justify any volatile topic with a very select choice of what are questionable texts to bolster a particular set of beliefs while ignoring a vast store on topics like Jesus’s many warnings about money and how it can twist one’s life into nothing short of greedy ambition, and placing self-interest above blindly not seeing others in the ditch. Priests and Levites are not labels most of us we want to wear.

Here where I live in Tennessee some are still trying to revive “The Scopes Monkey Trial” with good Christian folk wanting to promote creationism as part of our public school textbooks. I don’t question their motives since they fall prey to using “biblical authority” as their guide. I understand how they are misled and self-deceiving. But are we any better? Have we come so far as to complete our cycle of claiming every word of scripture as beyond dispute?

The examples of our biblical selectivity are so myriad and exaggeratingly embarrassing that this list could become a book. The problem with such an undertaking is would it be labeled as fiction or non-fiction?

So we continue our long tradition as members of the Reformed Tradition arguing among ourselves as to who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Presbyterians, in particular, have a checkered past of having developed our in-fighting to an art form. The hotter this summer gets the more some will get hotter under the collar and leave us behind for some other brand of religion that better reinforces their comfortable beliefs. That’s also part of our schismatic nature. “Big Tents” or not, we seek out the company of others who think, talk, and act like us. There’s still “a sucker born every minute” when it comes to “biblical authority.”

I don’t know about the rest of you who are choosing to stay with our Presbyterian “tribe,” but I think I’ll put The Bible on my summer reading list and try to be a bit less “selective” in what I choose as authoritative.

Phil Leftwich

Pastor- Honorably Retired