Really? Scripture is Missional? Have You Actually Read It?
This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.
This is all fine, well, and good, but are we saying that every passage of Scripture is a “missional” text? In my course on the Missional Imagination we spend a good deal of time addressing how to read both the text of scripture and our local context from a missional perspective. One student in particular raised the question, “Aren’t there plenty of stories which are either directed purely towards the formation or correction of insiders, with little application toward the larger mission of God? What about stories of God’s people doing awful stuff – particularly those texts which never pause long enough to condemn the guilty folks (Judah and Tamar come to mind.)”
These are important questions. The first is answered by considering the purpose of our formation. In Genesis 12 God blesses Abram and promises that not only will Abram and his family be blessed, but through them all people groups on earth will be blessed.
In Isaiah 51 the prophet declares that God is at work through the people of Israel so that God’s “justice will become a light to the nations.”
In Acts 17 Paul tells the Athenians that God has been at work throughout human history “so that [people everywhere] would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”
The formation of God’s people, even in specifically internal contexts, is always bound up in the larger purpose of God’s mission of reconciliation. This does not mean that every act, every practice, every piece of instruction will be immediately applicable outside the community of faith. However, if the result is not a people who are hospitable toward the Other and committed to justice for the oppressed; if the worship and spiritual practices of the people are detached from a calling to live as light to the nations, then something is missing.
Consider the practices of Jesus. Often he would withdraw from the crowds – not healing, not teaching, not agitating the religious status quo. These times of solitude, reflection and prayer, while not immediately connected to his public ministry, are presented as an essential component of Jesus’ larger mission.
But then there are the stories that are decidedly not missional. In fact, there are many that are just…well, awful. When we really start digging into Scripture we find some very offensive stuff. And if we’re honest about what we read, the narrator often fails to point out, “This is bad.”
How much of Jacob’s story should be emulated? Abraham’s? The Israelites? Part of the problem is that we want Scripture to be more like Aesop’s Fables…every story should have a moral. But it doesn’t conform that easily. Much of what we find in the Bible – particularly in the narratives of the Old Testament – feels like it needs a good editor to come back through and ask, “What are you trying to say here?”
But it doesn’t happen. Often we’re just given the story. That’s it.
What about Noah’s curse on his son Ham in Genesis 9? Noah gets drunk and passes out naked…wait, why was he naked? Ham sees him, goes out and tells his brothers who then perpetrate the first recorded cover-up (see what I did there?). When Noah wakes up, he’s furious at his son Ham and curses him and his son…Canaan (if you aren’t familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, Canaan is the land that the Israelites conquer after their escape from Egyptian captivity…oh yeah, Egypt? Also a son of Ham.) Nothing is mentioned about the fact that the old dude was passed out drunk in his birthday suit.
Of course, Noah lucked out. When Lot got drunk and passed out in Genesis 19 his daughter slept with him and got pregnant. Then the next night they get him drunk again and the other daughter followed suit. The sons born from this little indiscretion would become the fathers of the Moabites and Ammonites – also enemies of Israel.
What words of condemnation do Noah and Lot receive in the narrative for their sloppy conduct? None…immediately. Their actions do lead to problems for the Israelites in later generations. These stories are etiologies (a story that explains how something came to be so) – they are part of the Hebrew narrative explaining the presence of enemies, suffering and woe. On their own, as individual accounts they seem to suggest that the Patriarchs were untouchable. They could get away with anything by making a pious speech after the fact.
However, when placed within the larger context of Israel’s story we see that this is not the case at all. Their actions had grave consequences. By framing the stories in this way, the people of Israel were forced to look no further than their heroes and ancestors to answer the question, “Why are we surrounded by enemies?”
Interestingly, while the individual narrative seems to let the guilty off the hook, the larger narrative turns it right back around. The message is only clear from a holistic reading – our actions have consequences that last for generations, but may not show up for generations. Brokenness has a way of doing that, like the drunk driver who walks away unscathed while the innocent are snuffed out in an instant. But we are mistaken if we think this is the end of the story.
Of course, this is only meaningful within a framework which takes a larger view than just “my faith is between me and God.” Without a missional orientation, without a call to care for and love the other, then these stories just say, “If you have power, do whatever you want and let someone down the road deal with the fallout.”
That narrative is already being told in this world…and it is precisely the narrative which the Bible, the God of whom the Bible speaks, and the people of God informed by the Bible and transformed by God are subverting. If we aren’t reading the Bible through the lens of the sent-people of a self-sent and people-sending God…then we aren’t really reading the Story, just the words.
The final post in this series is scheduled for Monday…have a nice weekend.