What Sort of Claims Does the Bible Have Today?

[1] Last summer my home church was shaken out of its life-as-normal routine when one of its church council members was arrested for sexually abusing both his daughter and his niece. The following weeks were particularly fraught for the pastor, as he tried to minister to both the abuser and the victims. His difficulties were perhaps best exemplified on the day of the preliminary hearing when both parties were in the courtroom and he had to choose where and with whom he would sit. But alongside pastoral protocol issues, my pastor also had to contend with a deeper angst. The daughter had been his family’s babysitter for years. And on all those chauffering trips between his house and hers, she had never once alluded to the abuse. Granted the many factors that conspire to enforce the silencing of childhood sexual abuse, my pastor still agonized over what he might have done differently, or if there was something he could have said, that might have ended the abuse sooner. As it was, the abuser spent several months in jail and lost his job, the wife divorced him and moved back to live with her family, and the daughter’s own marriage is now in trouble. They have all moved away from town. And no one in the church asks after them anymore.

[2] Lest you think my home church is an atypical congregation, let me assure you that it is not. It matches almost perfectly the “average” profile of an ELCA congregation: it’s situated in a small town in a semi-rural area; it was founded about 100 years ago by European immigrants; average Sunday attendance is about 100; total membership is about 450; the vast majority of its members are white; and most have at least a high school diploma.[1] Presumably my church is “average” in other ways, too, by which I mean the life experiences of its members are in tune with the life experiences of Americans more generally in this time and place. To wit: 1) one in three to one in five girls are physically sexually abused by the age of eighteen, with one in six girls victims of abusive incestuous contact;[2] 2) one in eleven to one in sixteen boys are physically sexually abused by the age of eighteen;[3] and 3) battering-whether emotional, psychological, or physical-has risen to epidemic proportions (indeed, battering is the most common and least reported crime in America today[4]); and even though our society is doing better in recognizing and responding to instances of women being abused, the possibility of husbands or boyfriends being abused by their female significant others is still scarcely acknowledged-even though some authorities think the numbers of women who batter are actually close to the numbers of men who batter.[5]

[3] Our panel was asked to address the question: “What sort of claim does the Bible have today?” But, given what I’ve said above, it seems to me that the more urgent question is not what sort of claim does the Bible have on us today, but rather, what sort of claim can or should the Bible have on us today? Are there resources in the Bible that can help in shaping a response to the agonizing questioning done by my pastor a year ago? Are there elements in it that can provoke us into sharing his questioning, so that we all begin to more centrally ask ourselves: What might we do differently that would more readily acknowledge the brokenness that is at the center of so many of the lives of our parishioners?

[4] I believe the answer to these questions is “yes,” though I came to that conclusion only very indirectly, and mostly through the help of a conversation with a former pastor. He told me of several instances when church members had come forward and shared with him deeply painful issues from their own lives: one admitted to alcoholism, another talked about being neglected by her husband, a third disclosed that she had been sexually abused for ten years by her father while growing up, another woman informed him that her husband was battering her. Each time such sharing occurred, these persons always prefaced their disclosures by saying, “You said something in the sermon on Sunday that made me feel I could trust you with this information, that you would understand.” As it turned out, his sermons on those Sundays were always thematically centered on sanctification-not that this pastor ever actually used that word! Rather, he spoke of pilgrimage: Christians should think of themselves as on a journey in which the goal was a gradual maturing into the glory of Christ. But in conveying this lesson, this pastor also named many of the negative cultural forces in our society-such as violence, obsessive materialism, and the desire for power and control over others-that can hinder our Christian growth. And it was the naming of these latter forces that seemed to open the door to some persons sharing with their pastor a dark truth about their personal, private lives.

[5] This pastor’s experience has two elements I find suggestive: 1) sanctification as a key theological datum helping to elicit an active response from hurting parishioners; and 2) the sermon’s importance in authorizing what his parishioners might, or might not, do, say, or think. Building on these elements, let me suggest the potential role the Bible could have in helping the members of our churches speak the truth about some of the hidden pain in their lives so that the gospel message of love, truth, and freedom could be more powerfully unleashed. But it depends on opening out our reading of the Bible-especially as it happens in our churches-beyond both a Lutheran hermeneutic and the revised common lectionary.

[6] Although I am not a professional theologian, my experience as a layperson in the Lutheran church is that one of the key features-if not the most key feature-of a Lutheran hermeneutic is our focus on justification. We are fond of talking about what God has done-not on what we humans have done or are doing now. Although I readily affirm that the Lutheran stress on God’s free gift of grace is one of the paramount gifts that Lutherans give to the Church catholic, can there not also be a place in our churches for talk about sanctification, for talk, that is, of Christian character formation, for the ongoing pilgrimage journey we make towards living out that gift of grace? And can that talk not also make a place for the full-truths of our life-situations-even if those truths include painful personal elements, as well as the toxic aspects of our culture that so often further aid and abet the continuance of personal pain?

[7] Here I think we would also be immensely helped if we expanded our reading of the Bible beyond the confines of the Revised Common Lectionary. In particular, we need to draw on many of the rich and complex-if also sometimes difficult and challenging-narratives in the Old Testament. For instance, do we, as members of the body of Christ but also very real human beings, struggle with difficult, even painful or abusive, relationships with our fathers? The stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jephthah and his daughter, and David and his children reflect some of these same difficulties. Are there instances where one spouse ignores, even neglects, another? The story of the relationship between David and Michal refers to the same sort of pain. What about rape? Dinah’s story, in Genesis 34, is a scriptural witness of that sort of violent abuse. What about sexual violence within a family? The story of Tamar, raped by her half-brother Amnon, could easily be the story of the very many sexually abused young women today.

[8] Neglect, abuse, sexual assault-these are realities that ground the lives of many people today. How gratifying, and perhaps reassuring, it would be for many to know that God’s Word sees and stands with the hard and painful pieces of their lives. If we could back up and begin with an acknowledgement of the brokenness that is a part of so many of us, how much more meaningful and richer would be our reception of the good news of the gospel.

[9] But in order for that to happen we need to stop putting our reading of the Bible into a straightjacket. And, I would contend, there is a danger that a Lutheran hermeneutic, operating in conjunction with the lectionary, does that-at least if we only read the lectionary parts of the Bible and only by means of the prism of the Lutheran hermeneutic. We need to encourage our pastors to at least occasionally preach outside of the bounds of the lectionary. We need to encourage them-and us-to take on the challenge of preaching and teaching the “difficult” texts. We need to break free of the lectionary/Lutheran hermeneutic straightjacket-or at least loosen it up, as it were!-so that the gospel message of truth, love, and freedom can be made more accessible to all of us.

Talk given at the 2003 ELCA Convocation of Teaching Theologians (August 17, 2003, Milwaukee, WI)

© 2003, Karla G. Bohmbach

[1] Comparable averages for the ELCA as a whole were derived from “The Context for Mission and Ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” a collation of a number of recent surveys put out by the ELCA’s Department for Research and Evaluation. Among the statistics reported by this document are the following: 1) the congregational setting in which the largest number of baptized members lives is the small town of less than 10,000 persons; 2) the first golden era of membership growth in the ELCA (and its predecessor bodies) occurred at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, with growth at this time due mostly to immigration from Germany and Scandinavia; 3) the majority of ELCA congregations (5,738) have less than 350 baptized members; 4) non-whites make up only about 2.5 percent of the total ELCA membership; 5) 98 percent of ELCA worship attenders were born in the United States and 98 percent say English is their first language; 6) 41% of ELCA worship attenders have been attending the same congregation for more than 20 years; and 7) 47% of the worship attenders have a high school diploma or less. See Kenneth W. Inskeep, “The Context for Mission and Ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” 12 May 2003. Accessed 6 August 2003.

[2] Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p. 152. Another, but similar, set of statistics can be found in The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1992), p. 131. It reports that one in three American women is sexually assaulted during her lifetime, and one-fifth to one-half of American women were sexually abused as children, most of them by an older male relative.

[3] Cooper-White, p. 152.

[4] The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, p. 137.

[5] For the battering of men by women, see Susan Brewster, To be an Anchor in the Storm (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997). Brewster argues that the frequency of men being battered by women approaches that of women being battered by men, but, because of cultural forces, remains much more hidden.