A fairly high proportion of the people who read this blog like words. Not just the efficient or elegant use of words, but also the words themselves. I understand that; I am like that myself
To those people, I offer this morning a choice of problems. You could either work out an understanding that would keep the people who find out that I teach a collection of Bible studies from flinching and hurrying to change the subject. That’s one. That’s the Mission Impossible version.
The other is to think of something else to call them. I am working on an acronym of sorts. I have gotten as far as ANERT (hence the title, as if this faux adjective were kin to a faux noun). As far as I have it so far, this would mean Ancient Near Eastern Religious Texts. It would be much more useful, of course, if I could come up with a different first letter: I am thinking of an I. That would open up all kinds of playful possibilities.
But I can’t think of an appropriate word beginning with I. It’s pathetic, really.
And that is the reason I keep drifting back to the first problem. I don’t mind calling these gatherings of friends and colleagues “Bible studies.” In fact, of the three I teach, one of them is a part of a church and I don’t get as much of a flinch there as elsewhere. But even in church, the difficulty is not what we do when we meet, it is what the expression “Bible study” calls up to the people who hear it.
It reminds me very much of a cartoon I once saw in which two guys are waiting for a bus. One is wearing a tee shirt that says LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS. “Oh no,” he says to the other guy. “I’m not really religious. But this guarantees that I will have a seat to myself.”
In fact, the two Bible studies I teach that are not associated with a church are secular studies. They are not more than studies of ancient Near Eastern religious texts except that all the texts come from the Old Testament or the New Testament. Let me illustrate. The three I am teaching or preparing to teach are: a) Foundational Myths, b) Mark and Matthew, and c) Post-exilic Politics.
Foundation Myths is a study of eight stories—beginning with the Creation in Genesis 1:1 and ending just before Exodus 1:8, which describes the coming to power of a “a new king which knew not Joseph” (in the King James version that everybody in my generation grew up on). A “myth” is the story that a “people” tells because it selects and preserves something out of their past that enables them to be the people they are trying to be. It is a “foundation” myth because these people build things on it.
Mark and Matthew is a study of the changes Matthew makes in Mark’s text which, as we picture the situation for the purposes of studying it analytically, sits on Matthew’s desk. The changes are obvious; especially the omissions. But just why Matthew makes these changes is hard to explain. We’re working on it. Why, for instance does Matthew take a text where Mark says that Jesus was not able to do any miracles in Nazareth and change it to “did not do many miracles there.” Why the change? That’s what we work on.
Post-exilic Politics is a study of just how the Jews who returned to Canaan from their captivity in Babylon set about organizing their society so that God would not punish them again. They had about 150 years of prophetic announcements that told them that if they didn’t get their act together—didn’t organize their public life and their private lives so that they were in accord with the character of Yahweh who rescued their ancestors from Egypt (see Myth #8 above) they were going to get “punished.” Or “undergo the cure” as later prophets understood it.
But “politics” is the organization of public life so that various valued goods—wealth and power at one end of the scale and fertility and social status at the other end—are distributed as they should be. The seductions of power are just as real as the Jews come back into their old homeland as they were before they got expelled from it. How to organize the cultic practices and the property laws and commerce and judicial proceedings so that they are “fair” or at least tolerable. Those are the problems Ezra and Nehemiah, a priest and a diplomat, worked on.
Now I ask you, what is there about those really interesting problems that has the effect that the LET’S TALK ABOUT JESUS tee shirt has? I have not idea. But it does.
So there you are. I need for you to change the way people react to the expression “Bible study.” Or, if that is not your problem of choice, to come up with a good word beginning with I that will enable me to call these courses INERT. You remember…the near-eastern religious texts. So whichever one you choose, do good work and let me know if you get lucky.
 One involves a collection of my fellow residents at the Senior Center where my wife and I live. The other involves a collection of very good students—and now good friends—whom I met when they were undergraduates at a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and I was trying to teach them political psychology. That was 40 years or so ago and this new project allows us to work together again after all these years.