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The Word

Caroline Langston grew up Southern Baptist, and remembers all the Bibles her family had around the house.  [1] Excerpt:

I look back at the Bible I owned then, a New American Standard as big as a clock radio—or at least as big as clock radios used to be. (Are there even still clock radios? Or is everything phones now?) The leather covers are torn as though by an act of violence, and to look at it, I took seriously the Jewish sage Yochanan Ben Bag Bag’s oft-quoted dictum to “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.” (Though he was speaking strictly about the Hebrew Scriptures.) The thin pages are wrinkled from reading, and the margins are laced with blue ballpoint commentary I can now barely read. Verse upon verse is underlined.

I jest about the Bible culture I received along with the faith, the ways the Bible itself (and I mean the object) became an icon (and far too often, an idol) expressive of our belief and hopes—and ultimately our pride. I do not, though, believe any less in the value of daily Bible readings, read—yes—every morning.

Now I read the Bible on my phone instead: Yes, via a simple online sign-up through the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, I have the daily readings of Epistle and Gospel delivered to the glowing blue virtual lozenge I hold in my hand.

Her children, who are growing up Orthodox (Caroline is a convert), receive the Bible in a different way — but receive it they do:

The “real” Bible, meanwhile—the one with gold leaf and bonded leather—rests atop a table at my home altar, under an icon of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. I have taught my children to search out chapter and verse, and am working on having them memorize the order of the books, but the Bible is something chanted for them, breathed in and out of the Liturgical year, and witnessed in brilliant egg tempera on frescoes, not a legal document leafed and interleafed for illustrations and exceptions.

Their understanding of the Bible both predates the West and postdates logo-centric culture.

I love this. When I was growing up, that was the thing I perceived separated the Baptists from the rest of us: they really knew their Bible. Their peerless knowledge of Scripture is one of the very best thing about Evangelical Christians. I was 12 or 13 before I started reading the Bible — really reading it, I mean — and I was amazed by the things in it. Jesus was a lot more interesting than I thought. I remember thinking, “If the man in this book is really God, then why do we live the way we do?” That is not a bad thought to carry with you every day of your life.

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9 Comments To "The Word"

#1 Comment By Naturalmom On August 12, 2013 @ 8:57 am

Raise your hand if you grew up doing drills like this one:
Hold your Bible over your head while the adult up front shouts out book, chapter, verse then “go!” Rush to be the first to locate said verse! If you are the first to find it, you get to read it aloud to the group.

Oh, and Bible Bowl. 😀
Good times!

Even though I don’t belong to that kind of church anymore, I still value the thorough familiarity with the Bible that it gave me. Both for my spiritual life (although I had to learn to re-frame some passages) and for my ability to recognize Biblical allusions in literature, art, music, etc. I have found it very hard to do the same for my own kids outside of the evangelical culture.

#2 Comment By Bernie On August 12, 2013 @ 9:22 am

“If the man in this book is really God, then why do we live the way we do?”

Ahh, that is the question…and asked, as many of the most profound questions are, by a 12 or 13 year old. The decision of who or what we will serve is arguably the most important one of our lives. How we live our lives, as imperfectly as it will be, depends on our answer to that question.

#3 Comment By Peggy On August 12, 2013 @ 10:37 am

“I love this. When I was growing up, that was the thing I perceived separated the Baptists from the rest of us: they really knew their Bible. Their peerless knowledge of Scripture is one of the very best thing about Evangelical Christians.”

Its funny that you should say this. I used to think the same thing until I attended a Baptist church for a couple of years. There was actually very little Bible in that church. A lot of hymn singing and extemporaneous or topical prayer. Two scripture readings, one OT & one NT. Sometimes the sermon wouldn’t have anything to do with either text.

But when I moved to a nearby Anglican parish, I got more Bible there in one week than in a month of Sundays at the Baptist church. The liturgy is saturated with it. Icons, statues and stained glass embody it. Its a difference that struck me immediately and one of the reasons I became an Anglican.

[NFR: It wasn’t the reading in church services that distinguished the Baptists. It was the reading that they did outside of the service — the emphasis they put on that. — RD]

#4 Comment By Noah172 On August 12, 2013 @ 11:55 am

When I was growing up, that was the thing I perceived separated the Baptists from the rest of us: they really knew their Bible

With the caveat that a lot of people in the evangelical culture memorize Scripture passages without understanding them, or (even worse) think that they understand the passages, but with a hyperliteral, America- and present-centric interpretation divorced from cultural context and Christian history and tradition (e.g., premillenial dispensationalism).

My liturgical, non-dispensational, Presbyterian church is wonderful in that it combs the Scriptures, Hebrew and Greek, chapter and verse by chapter and verse, week after week. Our pastoral staff is excellent in studying and explaining the Scriptures with historical context and Christian history in mind, always interpreting every passage through the prism of Jesus as messiah and his sacrifice for our sins, and eschewing the flights of fancy so typical of allegedly “conservative,” “Bible-believin'” evangelical churches.

It is fascinating, and unsettling, for me to worship and engage in Bible study through a church that (rightly) places such heavy emphasis on Scriptural literacy with the knowledge, in the back of my mind, that the vast majority of professing Christians throughout history (and many to this day) could not and never did personally read the Scriptures, due either to illiteracy, lack of a vernacular translation, or the general scarcity of the printed word before Gutenberg.

Tangent: In Islam there is the honorific hafiz (or hafith), literally a “memorizer,” to designate one who has memorized the Quran in the original. This appelation can be earned even by a Muslim who is not (as most Muslims are not) fluent in Arabic, and has memorized words he does not understand fully or at all. The madrassas of the non-Arab Islamic world are full of students chanting Quran passages that are essentially jibberish to them, and whose interpretations are fed to them by their instructors. Even native Arab speakers, if illiterate (as many are), cannot, or cannot fully, understand the 1400-year-old text that forms the basis of their religion.

#5 Comment By Noah172 On August 12, 2013 @ 11:57 am

**sorry about the redundant “historical context and Christian history”; edit function!**

#6 Comment By European On August 12, 2013 @ 1:32 pm

I am reminded having grown up intimately in a Baptist Congregation in Europe , indeed, where God was so far from public or personal consciousness, one can feel separated from life as the world really is. The Bible and the way it should be we learned, and largely lived it out in the Community. But when real live met me, with all the brutalities, crimes and injustices, I felt lost. It brought to mind what it taught me… I am the light…., and I knew eventually I would see light after a dark tunnel, I came for the lost….., and I was lost not knowing how to respond to the real world being raised in a very protective environment, etc. etc.
Though I’ve grown up and had to reevaluate everything that I was taught, I survived. On the other hand, had the church been more realistic and tolerant, or taught all the imperfections in this world, or maybe I was not listening, I would have had an easier life. Never the less I learned the hard way to be kind to the “Tapestries of All Life” that I was presented with. And it is good to know what is written, “I will never leave you or forsake you”. All things considered I am very thankful to have known all my teachers in real life, as well as those in the Bible. Balance is the ultimate task and achievement, and still working on it.

#7 Comment By JonF On August 12, 2013 @ 1:53 pm

Re: Even native Arab speakers, if illiterate (as many are), cannot, or cannot fully, understand the 1400-year-old text that forms the basis of their religion.

True for a good many years in Christendom too. Even in countries where Scripture had been translated the language was often severely archaic (Slavonic, Koine Greek, the KJV) and could baffle or mislead those reading it. To be sure translation into the modern idiom carries its own dangers, notably the temptation of the translators to make sure Scripture says what they think it should.

#8 Comment By B On August 12, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

As a protestant, it baffles me when my pk Orthodox boyfriend doesn’t know a whole lot about Scripture. “The church has a saying…” No, that’s Jesus. Jesus said that.

#9 Comment By Deggjr On August 12, 2013 @ 9:54 pm

It baffles me too when people speak passionately about the Bible and God’s Word and don’t display any knowledge at all of scriptures. What is their authority, a childhood memory of a homily?

But God didn’t make me his equal, I’m not omniscient, and have my own problems.