I am teaching an Introduction to the New Testament course this semester. It is the course I love—and hate—most.
You see, teaching the Bible is scary business. Oh, it’s fine if you don’t ruffle any feathers; if you allow students to maintain either their ignorance for holy writ or their ignorance of its historical context. Let students who enter the course maintain their certainty that “what the Bible says to them” is what it meant to people some two-thousand years ago in a very different culture, and all will be well.
On the other hand, if you ask them to become informed readers of the New Testament, then be prepared for an onslaught of resistance that usually comes in the form of animosity that surely will rear its ugly head at the end of the semester, just in time for student evaluations.
It would be so easy to give up requiring students to open their minds if not for the pesky and persistent problem that knowing how to read the Bible matters; really matters.
A case in point occurred this last week when Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk, was jailed for her refusal to provide marriage certificates to gay couples following the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Davis is an excellent example of someone whose deeply held beliefs stem from presumed biblical mandates that are not actually so clear as she—and others—believe.
When Jennifer G. Bird penned an open letter to Davis calling attention to the Bible’s lack of clarity on the very issue Davis went to jail to assert, Davis’s supporters did more than defend Davis, they piled on Bird in the form of mean-spirited comments. Bird, however, had been kind and considerate to Davis even as she pointed out that determining what the Bible means can only occur when we first ask why. In other words, without understanding the historical and cultural context in which the Bible was written, there can be no definitive conclusion about what it might mean today.
This is the kind of work, though, that many so-called serious Bible readers eschew in favor of assuming there is very little difference between America in the 21st Century and the Mediterranean of the first.
Today as I spent time working on my notes for Mark’s gospel, I was struck once again by the call of Jesus that to be a follower, one must embrace the way of suffering. It’s a key theme for this gospel, but not one that goes over very well. Nor do we like that the way this gospel was originally penned ended with an empty tomb and the women saying nothing because they were afraid. Later writers would change the ending, making it more palatable. The risen Christ would meet the disciples and give them some last minute instruction, his triumphant image surpassing that of an empty tomb.
Despite my preparations, tomorrow when I share these insights with my class, most will find ways in their own heads to dismiss this new information, keeping their old beliefs safe from real scrutiny, believing they are protecting their precious Bibles.
For me, I’ll trust in the power of the empty tomb, the seed of doubt. Maybe there will be one or two whose hearts and minds converge in such as way that they begin to see the Bible points not toward doctrinal certainties or self-centered theologies, but instead illumine a path of compassion for others, justice for all, and love of God. I know this shift is possible because it is one I traveled, too.
More reflections on the Bible can be found in our newly published book, If Eve Only Knew, available through Amazon and Chalice Press.