In the June issue of Chronicles magazine, Philip Jenkins wrote a very interesting piece about the Revised Common Lectionary. A lectionary is a table of holy writings that are prescribed to be read in church or temple on particular days; the Revised Common Lectionary is the product of a collaboration among many of the largest Christian denominations in the United States and Canada. Throughout the English-speaking world, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants hear the readings appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary in their services.
Jenkins asks us to imagine a new Christian denomination, one founded with a close eye to market research. This denomination might find a stumbling block in the Bible. How might they clear such a hurdle? “Our focus groups tell us that many modern people do not like or do not understand large portions of the Bible, about half the book in fact, and we want to serve their needs. The God we preach is, above all, Nice, and the scripture must focus on that paramount reality. So our church has produced a new version of the Bible, carefully selected for Niceness, and edited to remove the half of the material that modern readers find difficult, unpleasant, or thorny. That is our belief- or as we call it, our Nice Creed.”
While this imaginary Nice Creed might be very different from the series of statements known in various times and places as the Nicene Creed, it would have a distinguished historical lineage. Marcion of Pontus, a major figure in the early development of Christian thought, was so troubled by the many passages of the Jewish scriptures that depict a vengeful God Who takes a particular interest in one chosen people that he decided those scriptures were describing a different God from the world-redeeming, grace-giving God of Jesus and Paul. Marcion did not deny the truth of Judaism, but claimed that while the Jewish God created the universe and the Messiah would come and establish a millennial kingdom for the Jews, the God of Jesus was quite another fellow, and Jesus Himself, though He were Savior of all humanity, was no Messiah. No church today claims Marcion as an inspiration; all that express an opinion about him call him a heretic. But the Revised Common Lectionary elides, in Jenkins’ words, “exactly those Old Testament elements that most repelled that ancient heretic. What remains in the text is an acceptable Bible Lite.”
For example, 94% of the Book of Esther is missing from the Revised Common Lectionary. While the lectionary leaves in the story of the hanging of the wicked Haman, it leaves out the revenge the Jews took on his people, a revenge that left 75,000 dead. This is the foundation story of the feast of Purim, and is important enough to Jews today that worshipers ritually make noise in temple when Haman’s name is mentioned. But it certainly isn’t Nice. So out it goes.
Jenkins puts it thus: “In terms of the ordinary experience of Christian Church life, the Book of Esther has ceased to exist. So has the Book of Ezra (not quoted at all in the lectionary); so have Judges, Leviticus, Nehemiah (each represented by one meager passage.)” Even worse is the selective editing within passages. “A passage will be cited as (for instance) ‘Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18’ without any explanation of what has vanished from that chapter. Just what was in verses three through eight?” Jenkins gives some examples of passages which are seriously misrepresented by selective editing of this sort. For example, this lesson gives us the first verse and a half of chapter 24 of Joshua, then jumps to verses 14-18. What’s wrong with verses 3-13? Jenkins explains that “these omitted verses recount the conquest and destruction of the Amorite and Moabite peoples, the annihilation of Jericho, and the ethnic cleansing of the seven peoples of Canaan. Leaving out that section, we imagine the rival peoples listed in this chapter as armed enemies in battle, not as civilian targets for genocide.” Definitely not Nice!
Jenkins two closing paragraphs make his point very forcefully, I think, so I’ll quote them in full:
Why should we worry about this radical purging of the biblical text? After all, Christians are not forbidden to read the troubling texts on their own, either in a private context or in a common study group. Yet having said this, many such groups like to use the lectionary as a guide for such activity, either using the texts for the coming Sunday, r else linking the study to a sermon. Ordinary readers are free to pursue Joshua, Ezra, and Deuteronomy, but how many do? If you are a faithful church attendee- a Catholic or Presbyterian, Methodist or Episcopalian, Lutheran or Mennonite- the odds are that you will simply never encounter some of the Bible’s most challenging passages, texts that must be understood if we are to see that work holistically. Jesus, after all, was really Yeshua, and He shared His name with the ancient warlord we call Joshua, the book of whose deeds has virtually disappeared from church usage.
The worst feature of this far-reaching excision of troubling texts is what it suggests about the churches’ attitude toward their ordinary believers, who must be protected from anything that might call them to question the orthodoxies of the day. God forbid they might hear these texts: They might be induced to think.
I am one of those who would be glad if there were nothing in the Bible encouraging war, or genocide, or slavery; if it spoke out consistently and clearly in favor of equality between men and women, of a mindful relationship with the natural world, of the rights and dignity of sexual minorities; if it fit easily into a scientific worldview and a liberal democratic political system. These are some of the values Jenkins would classify among the “orthodoxies of the day,” and of course they are that. I don’t mind being called orthodox. But it is simply false to pretend that the Bible really is that way, and Jenkins deserves commendation for speaking out against the infantilization of “ordinary believers” implied in the Nice version of the scriptures presented in the Revised Common Lectionary.
In the same issue, Aaron D. Wolf marks the 400th anniversary of the “King James Bible.” Wolf has fond memories of his fundamentalist boyhood and of the 1611 Bible as a presence in that boyhood, but now that he has left fundamentalism behind and become a more traditional sort of Christian he is constrained to point out some of the limitations in that translation. I hadn’t known just how dependent the 1611 translation was on William Tyndale’s earlier translation. Evidently 83% of the New Testament and 76% of the Old Testament in the 1611 translation comes verbatim from Tyndale, and the rest was shaped by the influence of Tyndale’s approach. As a Lutheran in an England whose established church was still subordinate to Rome, Tyndale was put to death for heresy in 1536, but it would seem he managed to get the last word.
Thomas Fleming isn’t a particularly humorous author, at least not intentionally, but his column did make me chuckle this time around with this story. He meets a man. “‘Been to church’? he asked. Dressed in a suit at 10:30 on Sunday morning, I was forced to admt the fact.”
Chilton Williamson writes about industrialization. He grants that the industrial revolution was in a sense inevitable, so that “the question of whether men should have created industrialism is a meaningless one, the kind of modern question-putting Chesterton deplored.” Still, t’s clear that he wishes he could answer the question in the negative. “Industrialism has two ultimate tendencies. One is to subdue nature and to exhaust it, while ruining it as a home for man, as well as for the thousands upon thousands of other species that industrial activity has driven to extinction, not least through the explosive growth of the human species that industrialization has made possible. The other is to subdue and exploit man, while progressively marginalizing him in the workplace and in society as a whole by mechanization, and finally replacing him altogether with robotic labor.” Williamson doesn’t mention Eric Gill, but Gill’s critique of industrialization seems to be behind this remark and his suspicion that “industrialism, in both human and natural terms, is patently unsustainable, and that its eventual collapse is therefore guaranteed.”