Friday, November 22, 2013

Biblical Creativity

The way we learn to read the Bible is wrong.

Wait, let me go back a bit...  I was thinking this week about the topic of creativity and education. There have been many articles (like this one), speeches (like this), etc. in recent years bemoaning the loss of creativity in the American population and many place the fault at the feet of our education system. I'm not going to dive into why that is (educational theory, standardized testing, and core requirements are complex topics I can't speak to with any authority), but suffice it to say, (a) I believe creativity is an important part of education and (b) much of my own education was built on teaching facts more than encouraging creative thought. For many of my classes, the implicit idea was that every question had one correct answer and I was to memorize and regurgitate that answer on command.

What struck me this past week was that much of my Sunday school education was identical to my secular education. For every Bible story, there was one answer as to what it meant, such as "The Parable of the Good Samaritan means be nice to others." Ideas were often dealt with in absolutes like always, never, sacred, and evil.

The problem is that the more I read the Bible, the less those prove to be true. Very rarely does a text mean just one thing. Depending on my mood, my current situation in life, or what I watched on TV last night, I can often come up with many lessons from a single text. For example, I generally preach using the texts appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, which uses the same texts every three years. I've gone back to read old sermons from three or six years ago and found I've preached radically different sermons on the same text (though still sound and meaningful). I've used Psalm 23 ("The Lord is my shepherd...") to preach comfort in grief, loving our enemies, and God's relentless pursuit of us. (Or try reading Jewish Talmud or Midrash! I read a Midrash on Genesis once where the rabbi offered dozens of ideas as to why the first letter of the Bible is bet [Hebrew for B]. Sounds strange, but it was fascinating.)

If we are taught from an early age that those possibilities are wrong, that reading the Bible is about finding short, pat answers to complicated life questions, then the Bible loses its vibrancy. This book hasn't stuck around for thousands of years because it was a well organized how-to manual; it has been important because it records stories and poems about complicated people who had complicated relationships with a complicated God and we've continued to say, "Hey! I can relate to that."

What if we treated Sunday school not as a way to get kids to memorize facts about God, but invited them to explore the stories? What if we taught kids to use the Bible to find good questions, not just answers? What if we all approached the stories asking, "Where do I fit in this story? How is this about me?" (One excellent model is Godly Play, which you can see in action here.)

The opposite result is what I saw once when I was leading a Bible study with some high schoolers and I asked them an open ended question that was something like, "What do you think Jesus meant when he said that?" I honestly don't remember the exact question I asked, but I do remember the response. After about 10 uncomfortable seconds of silence, one of the students said, "Can't you just tell us the answer?" The thing is that I wasn't looking for "the" answer. It was (meant to be) an open-ended question: "What do you think?" But the students had learned that there was one answer and their fear of being wrong was stronger than their interest in the story.

If we can't read the Bible with a supple and open mind, it becomes a solid, stale block. Like a tree, faith grows better in soft soil than in set concrete.

“As if there wasn’t anything to say about the justice and the mystery.” -Jars of Clay, “Good Monsters”

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