There were a couple of errors in the emailed version of the column on social values and the Christian Way.. They have been corrected in the online version: The price paid for Blind Guy Typing hitting “publish” without final edit by Dianna

Customary Social Values & The Christian Way

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God –  what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  From Paul’s letter to the Romans, this sentence has been used for centuries as a cudgel to browbeat people into adhering to customary social standards, claiming the words to be biblical in the face of evidence that they are unjust and contrary to the way of Jesus’ commandments. Its evidence is hard to recognize.  After all how could what is usual and normal be contrary to God’s will?

During our denomination’s struggle over homosexuality there were voices declaring that acceptance meant “conforming to this world,” by which they meant any change in the status quo.  “The world” to them was anything related to social changes they were uncomfortable with.   Dissenters claimed that biblical standards were those social standards in which they had been raised, those accepted as normative for all persons and, of course, endorsed by God. I think their view was the very opposite of what Paul meant for his readers.  The world to which new Christians should not be conformed were accepted Roman standards declared normative for all persons. Christians were to be transformed into a new way of life with norms established by God’s abundant and steadfast love as taught and exemplified by Jesus Christ. 

The same is true today.  It’s relatively easy to recognize social behavior that corrupts and threatens a people’s well being.  It’s more difficult to recognize acceptable social values and behavior as unacceptable to God’s way of love.  It’s especially true for Americans who place the greatest value on individualism and discount the value of common good that challenges established boundaries of custom, prejudice and geography. 

The Christian way gives priority to the common good and the individual’s responsibility for it.The common good and the individual good must live in symbiotic harmony if society is to be healthy. What is good need not be Christian, but Christians are to live by standards of goodness that conform to God’s ways no matter the surrounding society.   Scripture is replete with incomplete lists of individual and corporate wickedness that corrupt and destroy: murder, envy, greed, avarice, promiscuity, evil talk, theft, lying, and things like that.

Jesus leads us into new and deeper ways of understanding what is good, acceptable and perfect in spite of customary social norms.  Understanding good and acceptable can look suspicious, a threat to social stability, an upsetting of the way things are supposed to be.  After all, social norms are necessary to maintain the fabric of community.  As long as individuals behave in a way somewhere in the broad expanse between outer limits of acceptability we can get along without too much trouble.  The too prim and proper can be tolerated because they’re not dangerous, but those who challenge safe and orderly ways have to be brought to justice. Society would fall apart if it were not so.  Crime, understood in the usual sense, is an obvious example.  But those who challenge social standards in the cause of godly justice can also be seen as threats to be dealt with. Hanging onto customary norms with uncritical determination often ends with the assertion that if they’re changed then anything goes and there are no standards. Of course that’s not true but the fear that it might be runs deep.

Social norms are always conventions of a certain time and place; they are always lacking, never perfect. Their fundamental weaknesses appear more obvious with each passing generation.  It’s more a mutation process that adapts grammatically to new conditions than an evolution of moral thinking.  At least that’s my guess.

Nevertheless, God continues to speak in the midst of changing conditions to point ways toward a more loving and godly way of justice. Following Christ creates two jolts to complacency with the way things normally are. The first is an enormous dose of unwanted humility.  It’s the recognition that we have not welcomed brothers and sisters into the full measure of society membership.  The second is the recognition that even given the normal frailties and failures of human life nothing prevents them from following Christ in the way of love.  It isn’t a matter of welcoming others into our ways of life, but of us welcoming their way of life into ours.  It requires suspension of prejudices nurtured in long held social standards, allowing scripture and God’s continuing revelation of what is good and just to guide us in new ways of thinking.

Christian social standards have little to do with any generation’s sense of proper fashion, manners, ways of speaking, levels of education or physical characteristics.  Each generation’s sense of propriety may have value and purpose, but it isn’t Christian as such.  Each generation’s sense of what is morally acceptable is more problematic.  It often includes Christian values but subordinates them to ways that future generations find reprehensible. As decades go by, what are the enduring Christian social values that have been true for two thousand years and yet are reborn with new understanding? As I’ve written before, they are revealed in a deep reading of the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew chapters five through seven.  Paul clarified them in simple ordinary everyday terms in his letter to the Romans included in its entirety below.

Romans 12, NRSV

The New Life in Christ

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, on the basis of God’s mercy, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship. Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[a]

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the encourager, in encouragement; the giver, in sincerity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Marks of the True Christian

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly;[b] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God,[c] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Listen To The Banyan Tree: it will tell us what we must do

The symbolic center of Lahaina has always been the court house square with a small boat harbor on one side, an enormous banyan tree on the other, and the old courthouse in between. The banyan tree is a traditional gathering place.  Visitors meet there to decide where to go next.  Under the spreading branches, musicians perform, craft fairs are held, people rest on benches, children play, and directions are given by where something is from the Banyan Tree. 

The tree is badly charred but still standing after the recent horrific fires.  Everything around it is gone: the harbor docks, courthouse, Pioneer Inn, Baldwin House, and the grade school next door.  Only the tree remains.  The state’s principal arborist declared it is still alive, not well, rather in a tree like coma.  Will it survive?  It might.  It’s been given nutrients, water and a mulch blanket.  When asked what comes next, the arborist said we wait and listen to the tree to tell us what it needs.  If it lives it will become the symbol of Lahaina’s resilience and restoration to new life. May it be so. 

What struck me most about the arborist’s interview was when he said we must wait and listen to the tree, it will tell us what to do. The earth has been telling us what to do for a long time, but we haven’t listened.  Like the stiff necked people of ancient Israel, we have not listened to the voice of God, the prophets, or indeed, our own common sense.  We have given our collective allegiance to unneeded convenience, high wage jobs producing goods that poison and destroy, personal habits of wasteful convenience.  We worship the gods of consumer products while dismissing their misuse.
I don’t think any of it was or is done out of malice.  It’s the other way round.  Almost all of our acts of poor stewardship have been in pursuit of a better life: more abundant crops, lush green lawns, a vehicle for every person and every purpose made easily convenient at any time, extension of food shelf life, products’ ease of use and disposability, and just plain fun.  We have been a people of good intentions with unawareness of consequences and disbelief of our current day prophets’ concern and warnings.

Who were and are our prophets? Some were over enthusiastic tree hugging environmentalists who appeared  more concerned for bugs and birds than people.  How irritating. Tthe voice of Almighty God was proclaimed in the pulpit and by prophetic messengers often treated as religious do-gooders who didn’t understand real life.  Scientists and environmental journalists were heard but put on hold while contrary opinions were trotted out to mislead and misinform. Mother Earth herself, our island home, has been screaming at us for decades but we haven’t listened.  I include myself in that “we.”
Now Mother Earth roars with violent discontent, wreaking destruction in every part of the globe.  What are we to do?  I doubt the answers are draconian: more like adjustments, some a bit painful. The most obvious is to stop listening to climate change deniers whose false prophecies have sown doubt and distrust of the obvious.  They can”t be stopped from talking but we can stop listening. 

Carbon emissions must be reduced dramatically right now, not in a few years.  How?  Public policy and private behavior need to change immediately.  Democracies find it difficult to make rapid changes in public policy because interests with economic stakes in resisting change are able to slow legislative machinery to a snail’s pace. Yet the dragging feet can’t be chalked up to corporate greed alone.  Entire communities have become dependent on industries doing the most damage.  It’s hard to make a case for the common good when one’s ability to make a living is threatened. We want others to change their life styles but leave ours alone. Big policy changes needed don’t require the elimination of petroleum and coal based products, but their future uses cannot continue to be major contributors to the contamination of the earth.  For instance, plastics will probably always be needed but not for frivolous uses like grocery bags, food containers, and useless trinkets. Gasoline and diesel engines will be needed but as auxiliaries to other means of power.  Clothing may become a more utilitarian industry eschewing so called fast fashion, stewardship of the land will have to become as important to agriculture and forest management as crop and timber production are.  Mining corporations can no longer be allowed to dictate terms of production methods and restoration requirements.  None of these changes will be easy, especially in our democracy, but policy makers can be goaded into a more rapid pace by ordinary consumer voices and behavior. 

Changing consumer behavior is a marketing problem.  It’s a matter of selling and way of thinking about consumables.  We know how to do it because we’ve had generations of experience in selling consumers on everything from toothpaste to crypto currency.  It’s time to turn it around so consumers will have a better way of thinking about what the good life is. The right marketing can make a more environmentally responsible life style a status symbol to be desired, and over consumption undesirable. Gentle ridicule, carefully used, can be an effective marketing tool.  Consider ads about bad breath, body odor and smelly houses.  Gently ridicule conspicuous consumption, frivolous waste and unhealthy foods.. Sex sells, it always has, promote healthy life styles as the ultimate measure of sexiness. It would mean taking on entrenched corporate interests head on and dollar-for-dollar.  Not easy, but doable.

Perhaps most important, sell the spirit and life of Mother Earth as the source of all that will sustain us if we only respect and honor her. Holy Scripture declares the sacredness of creation and our responsibility to care for it.  Some of my Indian and Hawaiian friends will scoff, declaring they’ve been telling this story forever and encountered total disregard of them and their ways of life. Sadly, that’s true, but we need to listen and act now. Listen to the Banyan Tree as a living prophet of what we must do, and what will happen if we don’t, 

The Black Hole in Adult Christian Education

Adults in many churches have access to excellent Christian education resources through classes, Sunday forums, and of course, through well crafted sermons.  Yet even life long parishioners remain sketchy about basic church doctrines and teachings, the Bible, and their own faith.  I think a lot of it is due to the enormous gap between their pre teen years when they stopped learning about the basics of Christianity and their mature adult life where they were well schooled in the ways of the world.   Imagine building a successful career in any field with only a sixth grade education that was taught by ill trained teachers using dumbed down materials.  I imagine also congregations of mature adults offered sophisticated teaching struggle to relate it to poor grade school beliefs.

What fills the gap are unasked questions, even among the most ardent Christians. They’re unasked for the usual reasons: desire not to be embarrassed, assumptions about what others know, determination to figure it out on their own, never being asked what their questions are, and so forth.  Surveys are likely to be of little help because adults have a keen sense of what they’re expected to say and no survey can be designed to elicit specific personal questions.

I just finished facilitating a six session program with members of our parish to discover what those unasked questions might be. It was a sort of experiment held at Noon on Wednesdays in hot midsummer – an inauspicious time to do anything  in a church. It was surprisingly well attended by mature adults with lots of questions all of whom were life long Christians, many of whom came to the Episcopal Church from other denominations. Here’s a sample of questions asked and issues raised.

  1. What is the relationship between priest and bishop
  2. What are the rules for priests? What is the lectionary?  How does it work?
  3. Explain excommunication
  4. Are there angels?  If so, what are they?
  5. Are there guardian angels? What is heresy? Has it changed over the years?
  6. What happens in baptism?
  7. What is the difference between John’s baptism and a Christian’s baptism?
  8. Why did Jesus have to get baptized?
  9. When was the first Christian baptism?
  10. What do we believe about communion?
    1. Do you have to be baptized to receive communion?
  11. Why?
  12. What’s required to be eligible for communion?
  13. Whatever happened to confirmation?
  14. When is first communion appropriate?
  15. Is there a catechism for first communion?
  16. Do we have the same saints as Catholics?
  17. How are we different from other denominations?
  18. What is predestination?
  19. Are Jews saved?
  20. Explain biblical metaphors.
  21. What’s the rapture?

I imagine the list surprises some clergy who wonder if these are not questions and issues addressed many times over in classes, forums and sermons…. They might be inclined to respond as one of my old professors did with a growl, “weren’t you here yesterday when this was covered?” Most clergy have dedicated their lives to the study of scripture, tradition, and doctrine, but parishioners have dedicated their lives to other things.  They have other fields of learning, careers pursued, and a variety of obligations that have nothing to do with church.  Even those most committed to following Christ are able to give their full attention to the faith for an hour or two a week at most and that seldom more than once a week.   It means the gap between what was taught in their Sunday school youth and what they hear as mature adults remains something of a black hole.  In truth, even the best attended class or forum attracts a relatively small portion of the congregation.

Is it worth trying to fill the gap and can it be done?  Perhaps.  Here a few random thoughts. Preteens and teens are smart, curious, and ready to challenge adults.  They are capable of engaging with sophisticated learning about  holy scripture, the church and its doctrines. Sunday school offerings should be at a challenging level. 

Some classes and forums should be dedicated to seminar type conversations about particular questions parishioners have raised when given the opportunity to do so. It would improve the process of selecting resource materials for other classes and forums.

Something like a Dear Abby column might be sent out to parishioners every week.  Some of you may be aware of the popular programs and newspaper column “The God Squad” featuring Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Tom Hartman. Each week they answered random questions from religious and non religions persons.  It’s an example of what I suggest at the parish level.

Hawaii A.G. to Review Fire Response

Hawaii’s Attorney General announced a formal review of decisions made prior to and during the Maui fires.  It’s a reasonable and necessary procedure but talking head commentators and some politicians have waded in with accusatory questions looking for fault and blame. Such questions are more than inappropriate, they are hurtfully ignorant.

Reviews are needed to find out what happened from those who were directly involved and not to find fault or blame.  It’s not an easy task. Each person from the first one to be aware of an unfolding incident to the last person involved in decision making has a fractional picture of what happened.  Each had a particular job to do.  Each saw or heard something, thought something, felt something, and did something.  They need to tell their story in their own words without fear of reprisal.  As the incident became critical each had increased tunnel vision as they concentrated on their area of responsibility.  Each depended on others involved to do their jobs with as much coordination as possible given the circumstances..

I dislike politicians’ and media obsession with blame, fault, and accusations of dereliction of duty.  Maybe it’s a holdover from childhood whining about everything being somebody else’s fault.  Oh the unfairness of it all.  I guess it’s not an uncommon adult tactic to avoid accountability or to stab a colleague in the back to avert blame from oneself. We see that kind of puerile behavior in today’s Congress and among candidates for office.

In most incidents people involved are doing the best they can with information and under the conditions they’re facing. In sixteen years of helping debrief critical incidents I’ve personally never seen it otherwise. Whatever mistakes were made were likely the product of being human. Reviews help anticipate the sort of mistakes likely to be made in the future unless new procedures and training are implemented.  If reviewers can determine probable cause or mistakes now why didn’t they anticipate it earlier so the disaster could have been avoided.  Most often it’s the old problem of not knowing what you don’t know.  Should they have anticipated and known?  Sometimes better preventative measures are known but there are no resources or political ability to implement them. There are some cases where willful disregard of known facts indicate leaders should have known and taken steps to avoid a tragedy.  That’s not often the case. Political and media attempts to suggest otherwise serve no useful purpose.

Yet perhaps, in a sense, maybe they do. Politicians can make themselves appear deeply concerned, sagely prescient, and declare the other party is to blame.  Media titillate viewers with impressions of scurrilous scandal in order to boost viewership and help keep the ad revenue stream flowing.  It’s a sleazy tactic. It means when true malfeasance is uncovered it’s more easily treated with a ho-hum sigh as just another sign of corruption being part of America’s signature. Is that what we want?  I hope not and I don’t believe it is.

The Images of God We Create

According to that irrefutable source, Alexa, the first known mirror dates from about 9000 b.c.e.  Humans have been obsessed with seeing themselves in the mirror for a very long time indeed.  I suspect we project into the mirror the image we want to see rather than the one actually there. It’s a little like the image of God we project into the mirror of our minds and imagination.  We see the God we want and expect to see not God as God actually is. We need to be reminded that we are created in the image of God, not God created in our image.

The image of God we create reflects back to us an image of our selves.  Some of us think ourselves to be strong, competent, and self reliant.  Others’ self identity is of powerlessness, vulnerability, and weakness.  We are complicated creatures capable of acting one way while feeling another unsure of which is real.  We are sensitive about what’s unfair, stacked against us, undeserved, etc.  We can be vengeful, generous, miserly and merciful.  We take great pride in accomplishments as if we had no help from anyone.  It’s our complicated, erratic nature that creates images of God who appears to imitate our own emotions, prejudices, assumptions, fears and beliefs taught since childhood. Scripture is clear that we are created in God’s image not the other way round.  The images of God we create are often what we expect of God depending on our mood, condition in life, sense of self, and the like. They are reflections of our own selves not. 

Our predilection to see God as mirror image of ourselves is not a condemnation. It’s just reality but there’s another and greater reality.  We see the fullness of God in the face of  Christ Jesus who is the image of the self God is calling us to recognize as our destiny.  In that image, we are called to become our better selves by following in the way Jesus prepared for us.  Our better selves are not perfect, they are just better, but with the sure and certain promise of perfection in a new life beyond the grave. In the meantime the image of God we are to see in the mirror is Jesus who calls us to work on becoming  the better person we can be with God’s help.  In the wisdom of AA it’s one day at a time.

Using Senate. Rules to Hobble America

At the start of a new Congress, each house adopts a set of rules to govern legislative procedures.  Minor tweaks to existing rules are the norm with minor tweaks adding up to major changes as the decades pass, while well entrenched rules become “traditional” long after they’ve served any useful purpose.  The rule allowing one or more senators to place a hold on legislation is one of the entrenched rules long overdue for a change.. 

I don’t know the precise date but think it was adopted early in the 20th century as a courtesy to senators who needed a bit more time to study legislation that would affect their constituents. As far as I know it was little used until the hyper partisanship of the post Reagan years when it was used to stall floor votes until the Senate caved to special pleading demands that could not stand on their own..  In short, it became a legislative form of extortion legitimized by a rule

That brings me to two current examples.  Senator Paul recently released his hold on approval of ambassador confirmations until the executive branch met his demands for more information on the source of COVID he believed would point to China’s malfeasance.  Apparently he was given adequate information to remove the hold but has remained quiet about what it said. In he meantime he jeopardized the nations diplomatic capabilities.

The other case seems to know no end.  Sen. Tuberville has put a hold on all military promotions requiring Senate confirmation until the Military abolishes its policy of paying for travel expenses incurred by service members who need to terminate a pregnancy. However heartfelt his anti-abortion beliefs may be, his intent to force his private beliefs on a public agency is serving to undermine its ability to function.  

Tuberville displayed his ignorance of basic American civics during his campaign, and has shown little improvement during his short time in office.  However, he has learned to use one powerful tool –the hold.  What is he trying to prove, and to whom?  That he is a tough guy not to be messed with or else?  That his Alabama constituents will think him a hero?  I don’t know.  I only know he is an embarrassment to the Senate; that he has revealed the cowardice of Republican senate leadership; and that he has contributed in a major way to the Fitch downgrade of America’s credit rating. His tactic has all the signs of barroom bullying and I imagine he goes home at night smugly proud of himself. 

Will no one rid us of this tuberlesome senator’s holds? (With apologies to T.S. Eliot)

When Did Humans Become Aware of God?

A parishioner in one of my classes decades ago was a confirmed creationist: one who believes in the literal and historical truth of the creation stories in Genesis.  He attacked the idea of evolution with the demand to know the exact date when humanity became aware of God.  I didn’t have a good answer at the time and the question bothered me enough to ponder it at length. Last Sunday I was asked if Neanderthals had any idea of God.  It moved my pondering to write this short essay.
What I would say to him today is that the story of our relationship with God begins with Abraham, not Adam and Eve, who were never intended to be taken as literal persons in history.  It was the man whom we know as Abraham who had a personal relationship with an unknown, invisible God, a God lovingly engaged with Abraham to become the first spark of a divine light to enlighten the nations and the glory of a yet to exist Israel. That’s where our story begins.  But it is not the beginning of humanity’s awareness of the holy.

The oldest known records of religion come from about 3,000 b.c.e., a good thousand years before Abraham.  The records are known because they existed in the first known writing.  No doubt the idea of the holy goes much farther back than that.  The obvious explanation for the invention of religion is that humans created gods to explain natural phenomena like weather, fertility, wars, and just plain bad luck.  The gods were merely exaggerated versions of people who lived somewhere inaccessible to humans and to whom some form of immortality was attributed.  True enough, but to come up with the idea of gods at all there had to be an awareness of something beyond human existence and natural phenomena that we call holy, sacred or divine. have no idea when that awareness came into being but imagine we may see remnants of it in primitive tribal animistic religions, and the more sophisticated version of them one finds in the religious understanding of a Great Spirit held by some North American Indian cultures. It’s just a guess of course.

In the end, I don’t think it’s fruitful to agonize over when or how humanity became religiously or spiritually conscious.  The only question for Christians is when was the time right for God to act by engaging in a personal relationship with humanity to begin the process of progressive self revelation that would reach its penultimate blossoming in Christ Jesus.  I have no idea what made a moment somewhere about 2,000 b.c.e. the right time but for us and for our sake it did come.
That is not to dismiss the origin stories in Genesis altogether.  They have important meanings for an understanding of who we are as a people of God and they are not so terribly different from the origin stories of other peoples.  Consider the stories of the ancient peoples of the American Southwest that say they arose from under the earth and are a people of the earth.  Its makes the earth sacred for them, with certain places set aside for more intimate meditation and renewal of life.  Our people did not arise from under the earth but were formed from the earth and given the breath of life by a loving God who also gave us the power of procreation.  We exist more for relationship with God than with the earth per se, though we have been given dominion over the earth and its creatures it’s in the form of being given responsibility for its care and well being.  It means the earth and its creatures are to be sacred to us as it is to those ancient peoples of the Southwest.

The early chapters of Genesis illustrate how we were created as autonomous self conscious beings who could decide for themselves whether to follow in God’s ways or not.  We are prone to choose not and blame God for the consequences.  I don’t know why God created us as sentient beings, but I do know God has given us guides to challenge and correct us toward greater maturity of thought and deed.  It’s been a long slow struggle and we inch forward by degrees.It should be a warning as we plunge headlong into the development of A.I. with the intent of making it sentient as well.  If God has found us difficult to manage, how much more dangerous will our own imperfect creation be.  It reminds me of the ancient Gnostics who postulated a good and perfect God vs. an imperfect not so good god that messed things up.  It seems we are that god.  It ought not surprise us if the Lord God Almighty holds us accountable for our foolishness and lets us suffer the unintended consequences of it.  

But again I digress. To return to the original question, the creationist was wrong about the literal historicity of Genesis.  However we came into being, we need to start our story of the intimate relationship between God and humanity with Abraham.  We need to grasp the truth that we are called to be a people of God not for ourselves only,  but for the good of the whole of creation as we are led to understand that good through the prophets and most especially our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  That following Jesus is also the way to eternal life should be secondary to our responsibility to God for our stewardship of all that has been put into our hands.  We Christians may be vessels to carry the message through word and deed, but it is not ours exclusively, nor are we permitted to browbeat others into ways comfortable to our localized culture and times.

Adult Christian Education: Understanding the Bible

Adult Christian education has been my passion for the last thirty years. For the most part participants come to classes with open curious minds, ready for learning more about what the Bible and Church can be for them.  The most common request from adults new to bible study is “where do I start?”  Others with more experience  want to get beyond Sunday school verse memorization, or the confusion of having read much of the text without gaining the meaning they had hoped for.   Some have been discouraged at finding the Bible is not the handbook for fixing life’s problems  they had been taught it was.  There are of course many other reasons for desiring too dig deeper into scripture and its meaning, and each is worthy of respect and the best effort a teacher can give.

For many it’s tempting to start with Genesis and slog through the entire text.  It’s something I strongly discourage.  There is little to be gained by the effort without first knowing something about the Bible: what was the context in which each part was written; how do oral and written traditions work together; what kind of literature is in it; how did it get to us in the form we have it today?  Exploring questions like these provides the foundation for understanding the text itself.  Parenthetically, I think the same goes for teaching adults a second language. Rather than just vocabulary, an explanation about the language and cultural context can make learning vocabulary and grammar less difficult, at least for adults.  But I digress.

I prefer to spend several sessions probing the history and culture of the ancient near East from the time of Abraham to the end of the first century c.e.  The same sessions are filled with the story of how scripture came into being in the form we now have it. When it’s time to start reading, I suggest beginning with Matthew.  It summarizes the core teachings of the faith in a way the other gospels don’t.  It better links Christianity with its Jewish roots.  With a little help from a qualified teacher, it opens the way to reading the other gospels with greater understanding.  The second book to read is Isaiah.  Its several writers take the reader through the struggle to understand God as One, the reasons for exile, the hope of restoration, the prophecies Christians understand as messianic, and how easy it is to slip into old ways once life looks good again.  

It’s  a preamble to a meaningful reading of the Old Testament, which is necessary if the New Testament is to be comprehended in its deepest meanings.  The bible’s record of pre-history, history, prophecy and wisdom reveal God’s progressive self revelation to a people called to be a “light unto the nations.”  Their two thousand years of struggle to understand what it means to be people of God is nearly a mirror image of our two thousand year struggle to understand what it means to be a people called to follow in Jesus’s way of love. The way of Jesus does not annul the Hebrew Scriptures, nor does it dissolve the role of Jews as a people of God. The way of Jesus simply adds gentiles, us, to the people called to bear the light of the kingdom of God in a broken and sinful world. 
With a basic understanding of Hebrew scriptures in hand, then it’s appropriate to take on the other gospels, epistles, the revelation to John, a little of the Apocrypha, and a bit about how the canon came into being.  An essential element in that process is to declare without fear of contradiction that Paul is not Jesus. Paul’s letters are always secondary to Jesus’s words and deeds.

From my experience, adults who participate in an understanding of the text’s history and structure are better prepared to proceed with deeper study, one that will nourish them for the journey of life.  Hopefully they will continue to participate in classes that will advance their search for God’s holy word revealed and illuminated through biblical texts. Many often do continue but if not at least they have the necessary basics to become a more faithful Christian in worship, daily prayer, and the way they live their daily lives.