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Jason Byassee

Reading with the Saints

The art of biblical interpretation.

One Sunday, my Methodist minister wife made a mistake in preparation. She didn't glance at the assigned psalm text before she stood up, in worship, to lead the church in reading responsively.

Psalm 137 begins innocently enough, beautifully even: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion." This is the kind of language church people expect from the Bible: pretty, exotic, comforting—in short, religious, in the modern sense of dealing with feelings. But by the end of the psalm things have taken something of a turn: "O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he … who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

From my pew I watched my wife's expression change from that of the non-anxious presiding presence they taught us to be in seminary to that of someone who'd just swallowed a frog. Then the organ struck up the doxology, she turned to face the cross, and led the church in praising the God whose Word just blessed the smashers of babies' heads.

What was that all about? Christians are those who gather Sunday by Sunday not only to praise God but also to heed God's word in Scripture and shape their lives around it. Most mainline churches end our ponderous biblical lections with the concluding phrase, "This is the word of the Lord," and everyone mumbles, "Thanks be to God." Evangelicals go further, calling Scripture "inerrant" or "infallible." Catholics and Orthodox will process into worship with a gold-covered or otherwise splendidly decorated Bible just behind the cross, the priest will raise incense before the Word, and the people will bless themselves before hearing it. Our liturgical gestures suggest we are people with high esteem for this one book. So what do we do when the book is, well, not so edifying?

Ever since Martin Luther pulled the Bible and the traditions of the church apart by playing the former off against the latter, we have had problems. The Reformed tradition described the Scriptures as clear, "perspicuous," ...

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