This Wednesday, a lot of Christians are going to have a mixture of ash and olive oil applied to their foreheads. I am not. There are two reasons, one of which isn’t really very respectable. It is that it seems to “high church” for me. The churches that had access to me when I was young were markedly low church. I didn’t like that either, but when very high church things show up, I head back home in my mind.
The Ash Wednesday service at my church this year is going to be held at noon. That means that some people of our congregation are going to go about the rest of their day with a cross of ash on their foreheads. Why?
The second reason is really a better one. I teach a bunch of Bible study classes. It is what I am known for in the settings where I live most of my life. At the CCRC where Bette and I live, I regularly have the experience of seeing a new acquaintance learn that I teach Bible studies and then seeing them shrink back as if I have somehow become dangerous. If that’s how they react to learning how I spend my free time, how do you think they will respond when I show up with a dirty smudge on my forehead?
The principal resource I bring to the Bible studies is that I am not weird. Not, at least, in any ways that can be traced back to my religious life. In all the settings where I teach about the Bible, there are people who have been damaged by earlier teachers or—even more often, earlier preachers—and who welcome a chance to work it out.
I offer a framework of thought that is pretty robust. It isn’t going to bounce around or get distorted by anyone who says it’s ridiculous and self-contradictory. It is just going to stay there and the conversation we want to have will take place safely within it.
Often a starting point is that the Bible is ridiculous because it is self-contradictory and therefore unreliable. The issue there—the thing really worth talking about—is whether “the Bible” is a single thing, so that differences in the accounts it offers are “contradictory,” rather than just “different.”
Here are two examples. There are two Creation stories in Genesis. The first one—commonly attributed by scholars to the Priestly school of editors (referred to as P)—begins at Genesis 1:1 and goes to Genesis 2:4. The second one—thought to be the work of a Yahwist school of editors (and therefore designated “J”) begins at Genesis 2:5 and goes to the end of the second account.
When you give up “the Bible,” you give up the contradictions and then you get to ask what the P version of the Creation story is like contrasted with the J version. The “contradiction” vanishes. There are two accounts. It would be possible to press on to the question of which of them is true, but that is not ordinarily the concern of the people I talk to. Their common external response is, “Really? Why does P insist on this when it is of no interest to J at all?” Their internal response is likely something like, “Now that I have found a safe place to ask questions I have always been condemned for asking, I find that I am really curious.”
Ask yourself whether any part of that transaction would be improved by my wearing a cross of ash to class the next Thursday.
Another example is a course I have offered in several settings about how Matthew’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus differs from Mark’s. I’ll tell you why I think that has been so well received, then let’s go on and look at how it works. When attention is drawn to the differences between the two accounts, the conversation is not about what Jesus really said or did or what he was like. It is about why Matthew made the changes he made in Mark’s text, leaving some things out, adding other things, and rephrasing a good deal of the rest. That’s not all that horrible.
The material is taken over whole from W. D. Davies and Dale Allison’s study of Matthew. They list a series of occasions where Matthew makes changes and make observations about what those changes have in common. Matthew wants to use a much more reverential approach to his account of Jesus than Mark does, so every time Mark sounds caustic or critical, Matthew makes changes. Armed with Davies and Allison’s scholarship, all we have to do in class is look at the two particular texts and note the difference. Then we look at the next two and note the difference. Then we compare just how those differences are alike.
All those discussions arebiblical; they are all scholarly. They are all unthreatening to people who have been raised in the “contradictions in the Bible” culture and so they are a ground where real engagement with those texts can happen.
For me to help those things happen, I need to be knowledgeable. That means that I read Davies and Allison before they did. I need to be stable. I can easily do that. I don’t even have a dog in this fight. And I need to be willing to let them start from where the grievance is and work on it at whatever rate they like best—and to stop whenever they need to.
No one in any of those studies wonders whether I, myself, am a Christian. I am as candid about my own faith as I am about my commitment to secular study of the texts we work on together. I am reasonably sure that after a while, no one in any of the classes thinks I have designs—friendly or not—on their immortal souls.
Jesus does. Or so his followers maintain in the texts we have. One of the best-known of these texts pictures Jesus as standing at the door of someone’s house and knocking. The resident needs to decide what to do, at that point, and none of the answers is really easy. Listen to the knocking for a long time? Go to the door and say, “Go away.” Go to the door and invite him in? Then what?
So Jesus may be knocking on doors as I teach my classes. I wouldn’t know. But I am not. I need to keep on making that clear to people whose trust has been repeatedly abused. And wearing an ash cross on my forehead would not help. It would, in fact, be an imposition.