This post is part of Mennonite Church USA’s MennoCon21 #BringThePeace series.
Gerald J. Mast is Professor of Communication at Bluffton University. He has written, co-authored and edited numerous books and essays, including most recently (with J. Denny Weaver), Nonviolent Word: Anabaptism, the Bible, and the Grain of the Universe (Pickwick, 2020). He is married to Carrie Mast, and they are members of First Mennonite Church, Bluffton (Ohio). He enjoys reading, biking and singing in the church choir.
“The Bible is the essential book of the church,” states Article 4 of the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. “We commit ourselves to persist and delight in reading, studying, and meditating on the Scriptures,” the confession goes on to say.
In these statements, our confession challenges two dominating assumptions of American Protestant Bible culture: 1) The Bible is a book to be read and understood primarily by individual readers. 2) The Bible is a book of rules to follow and beliefs to accept.
I blame these assumptions for the fear of the Bible that I encounter in many of my students — especially students in a Bible class I have taught for over two decades to working adults in Bluffton University’s degree completion program. While there are always some students who are eager to study the Bible, many are afraid. And they are afraid because they see the Bible as a kind of instruction manual that they are supposed to accept and follow, but it turns out to be hard to read and confusing to apply. Some students also worry that they might not agree with the Bible.
In response to these fears, I assure my students that we are not meant to read and interpret the Bible by ourselves. We will read and study the Bible together, with the help of a cloud of witnesses across the centuries and scholars of the church who have devoted their lives to studying the Bible. I tell my students that the Bible is more a storybook to enjoy than a rulebook to implement. My hope is that by the end of the course, my students will come to see the Bible as a friend that supports them more than as a judge that condemns them.
My own experience with the Bible has helped me receive and offer the church’s book as such a supportive friend, enlivened by the company of friends with whom I discuss the Bible. Although I grew up in a rather conservative Mennonite church, my church also encouraged searching the Scriptures as the Bereans did in Acts 17, to see “whether those things were so.”
As a child I often read my Bible in church — sometimes because it had stories that were more entertaining than what was happening in the service, but also, sometimes because I wanted to “search the Scriptures” in order to find texts that contradicted what was being advocated from the pulpit. I especially enjoyed turning to Psalm 150 to read about praising the Lord with the trumpet, harp, timbrel, strings, organ and cymbals while the minister was inveighing against the use of musical instruments. And there were many opportunities to discuss these contradictions — not just in Sunday school but also in debates that I had with my friends during fellowship times after church.
For me, the Bible became a trusted companion, sometimes speaking in familiar ways that helped me cope with my unfolding life; and at other times, introducing me to a strange world that was both intriguing and challenging.
Most importantly, it was through the Bible that my church introduced me to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. And this is the most significant way that the Bible is a friend, a friend that connects us with our greatest Friend. In the stories and sayings of Jesus, we encounter our true humanity and the truth that sets us free from the forces of death that rule our world. By showing us Jesus, the Bible reveals the path to life and the way of peace.
In our churches today, we have many different attitudes about the Bible. Some of us, like my students, are afraid of the Bible. Some of us are angry at the Bible — especially how it has been used for harm. Some of us like parts of the Bible and dislike other parts. Some of us are a bit tired of the Bible. Some of us don’t know much about it. In other words, we experience the Bible as a friend — helpful at times, frustrating at times and mysterious at other times. There are times when we feel betrayed by this friend.
In our Anabaptist tradition, the church is the primary place where the Bible comes alive to us, where we encounter its words through the testimonies and experiences of our flesh-and-blood sisters and brothers. We don’t go to church primarily to hear a theological expert or a priest tell us what the Bible means. We go to church in order to share with each other the knowledge of God in our lives, as reflected and interpreted in the stories and wisdom of Scripture.
How do Mennonite churches today read the Bible together as a living book, as a friend that worries us, angers us, confuses us and blesses us with the story and life of Jesus Christ, and of the people of God to which Jesus belonged? Sometimes we do this by a simple practice like taking turns reading parts of a selected biblical text for Sunday school, literally hearing the words of Scripture through the voices of our sisters and brothers. Sometimes we do this by weaving our life experiences into a biblical text through a homily, commenting on each part of a passage as we read it aloud in the congregation. Sometimes we do this by singing the Scriptures or dramatizing a biblical text.
In the adult seminar, called “Reading the Bible, Hearing God’s Word,” which will meet Friday, July 9, 1:30 p.m., we will explore these and other practices by which congregations “persist and delight in reading, studying, and meditating on the Scripture.” Join us for this conversation about how the Bible becomes a living friend in our worship and discernment!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.