Great Performance, Lousy Theology
You've read my rants before. About sermons disguised as prayers. About Ulysseses of the pulpit, wanderers around the chancel.
I add now another peeve. I'm entitled. I turn 80 soon. Andy Rooney has left us. Who's left to be cranky? Well, probably many. But their field of vision isn't confined as mine is to the church.
Today's rant focuses on reciting Scripture from memory during worship services. Mostly it's a preacher's ploy. But I've heard lay people give it a try. With no better results... at least in the sight and hearing of this cranky old Methodist preacher.
I followed, if not directly, in my last church, a pulpiteer who recited the Sunday morning Gospel lesson... every Sabbath! Maybe the Epistle too. Back in that day the manifold lections were not standard Sunday fare. When my predecessor's name is invoked, the next sentence would describe him as the fellow who, would you believe, spoke the morning Bible-reading without ever looking down at the Bible. Amazing!
No, disturbing. Of course, I am guilty of a smidgeon of envy, that I never did it, nor won the rave reviews that attend such a performance. Still there is a deeper reason for thinking the recitation of Scripture is not just inappropriate but downright misleading. More to this theme two paragraphs down the page, after what I hope will be a couple of illuminating anecdotes.
First, from Barbara's father, in Brooklyn, the night he stood to lead a service at a funeral home without a Bible (he brought his appointment book instead): he had read that service from the Book of Worship a hundred times, had a facility for memorization, and proceeded to do the entire service, including three Scripture Readings, from memory. He later smiled guiltily as he reported to his family that mourners congratulated him for his wonderful sermon, thinking he had composed, among several passages, John 14.
Recently (and secondly) I attended worship at which the preacher stood on the chancel steps and told, in the name of the text for the morning, the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. No Bible or notes in hand, he commanded everyone's attention with his dramatic reenactment of the parable. (It also helps when gesturing to have a seven foot wingspan.) I was tempted to check the accuracy of his recitation with the Bible in the pew rack in front of me. I didn't need to. Unless he was quoting his own translation of the original Greek, or some modern translation with which I am not familiar, his choice of words proved he was not reciting; he was paraphrasing. Which, of course, I and every other preacher do from time to time, but in the body of the sermon itself, not as a stand alone Gospel lection.
So here's the rub: we are People of the Book, not People of the Performance. I want to see the Bible in front of whoever is reading the morning text. I want it read with meaning and feeling, sure; but I also want it read accurately, exactly as written. When the ship's captain's orders are relayed to the crew, the communications officer doesn't correct or pretty up the message according to his own best judgment. In other words, don't try to improve on the Word of God, even if you are a whiz in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Scholars have spent their lives and argued until a consensus is achieved to bring us what is written in the Bible in our own language.
I know, I know: worship needs to be rescued from dullsville. All manner of innovation in worship has been justified in attempts to make religion relevant. But after two thousand years of history and plenty of experimentation there's not much left that hasn't already been tried. And found wanting. The principal goal in leading worship isn't relevancy; it's faithfulness. Careful thought and theological reason should attend every tweak in the worship service.
Jesus has the last word, albeit a non-canonical one: "Blessed are you if you know what you are doing." Regrettably, too often we don't.