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This blog records my transition from the Churches of Christ to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Public Reading of Scripture

Paul tells Timothy to "give attention to the public reading of Scripture." (1Tim 4:13) Paul instructed that his letter to the Colossians be read publicly in the Collosian church and the Laodicean church. (Col 4:16) Ezra read the Law of Moses to the Jews restored to Israel out of captivity. (Neh 8:1-3) And Jesus participated in the public reading of Scripture in the synagogue. (Luke 4:16-21)

Of all the churches of which i have been a part, probably between 1/2 - 2/3 of them included a regular scripture reading in their worship service. Among those congregations that included the public reading of scripture, most of those were token readings done during the Lord's Supper. Others that included public scripture readings did so as a prompt for the sermon. I may be alone in my impression, but most of the public scripture readings in the Church of Christ i have personally witnessed seemed cursory and chore-like. The public reading of Scripture was never an end in itself, nor itself an organic, key-stone-like part of worship, but rather a brief defense or explanation or prompt of a practice. As a musician, i'm thinking of a "grace note." A grace note is not a note in itself played rhythmically or melodically for its own sake. A grace note is a note which is so closely fixed to another note to create the illusion that the more important note has an extra texture or layer or thickness it would lack without the grace note. In my experience, the public reading of Scripture that takes place within the Church of Christ is at best a metaphorical "grace note." (i grant you that the Bible gets arguably more attention than this from preachers with stylistically Book-Chapter-Verse-saturated sermons; but i would argue that even then the scriptures such preachers quote are really "grace notes" attached to the arguments and claims they wish those scriptures to support.)

Why?

The Church of Christ historically developed out of a notion to 'return' to the Bible and the Bible alone rather than creed or tradition. Yet we have no tradition of showcasing the Bible in our worship. Some of us pride ourselves on being "people of the book," yet "the book" often receives little spotlight (if any) in our assemblies.

There's a high school friend of mine that i studied with and who was baptized as a result. His parents, devout Methodists, were quite concerned about his conversion to the CoC. He doesn't know for certain, but he suspects from various clues that they visited a CoC to see what it was he had gotten into. He remembers walking in on a conversation they were having which he gathers was a critique of the CoC service they had visited, and he heard his father ask, "Why weren't there more Scripture readings?"

Is that not a valid question and worthy critique? If we claim to do everything just the way the Bible says it (not that i believe we necessarily do, but the claim is a common one, right?), why are there so few readings in our assemblies? And when there are public readings in our assemblies, why do they occupy such a state of de-emphasis? --why do they merely "piggy back" on our other practices?

My thoughts here were prompted by reading a small-but-significant section of N. T. Wright's book The Last Word. Notice a few quotes:

If scripture is to be a dynamic force within the church, it is vital that the public reading of scripture does not degenerate into what might be called "aural wallpaper," a pleasing and somewhat religious noise which murmurs along in the background while the mind is occupied elsewhere. (130)

Wright speaks here of degeneration, but has public scripture reading in the CoC ever occupied a place more significant than "aural wallpaper"?

In our public worship, in whatever tradition, we need to make sure the reading of scripture takes a central place.

The primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God's story, power and wisdom and, above all, God's son. (131)

To have a reading that lasts about ninety seconds, flanked by [songs] that last five or ten minutes, conveys the same impression as a magnificent sparkling crystal glass with a tiny drop of wine in it. The glass is important, but the wine is what really matters. (132)

And Wright remarks critically: Western individualism tends to highlight individual reading as the primary mode, and liturgical hearing as secondary (133)

Is Wright correct or is he mistaken? If he is even close to correct, i'm nearly frightened when i reflect that i have never seen public scripture reading treated this way in the CoC. What is emphasized in a CoC worship service? I think a nearly hunanimous answer would be the sermon and the singing. Scripture readings never occupy the same emphasis and prominance had by the sermon or the singing. Scripture is never publicly read for its own sake as an act of communal worship and edification. It is at best an accent tacked on to other practices. The scary thing is that public scripture reading in the CoC is often done in such a way that the worship basically would've had the same quality and impact with or without that scripture reading.

Is our de-emphasis of public scripture reading a tradition worth keeping?

3 comments:

Dusty Chris said...

I would be OK if that is all we did after praise and worship...let God speak through His Word...who knows? Maybe something spirtual might happen next. I am getting goosebumpy just thinking about it.

Warren Baldwin said...

Definitely, the text should have more emphasis in our services. Why doesn't it? Perhaps b/c with the advent of tv and video technology we don't listen as well to the written word anymore. I don't know how to turn that around except to have more public readings and train people in the value of it. Good post here.

reborn1995 said...

Dusty--what if scripture reading was itself a manifestaion of our praise and worship? --that is, we read scripture aloud *as* an act of worship?

Warren--i think attention spans certainly may be different, but i also think that too often this is used to excuse us all from the fact that we should just grow up and learn to pay attention to what really matters. i find it interesting that we will chide a preacher scornfully for going over thirty minutes, but we still expect students to pay attention in a class for 55 minutes. i think if something is important enough to someone, they'll listen.

i think you really hit it with the word "train." We've trained ourselves to think church can only go a certain way, can only be presented a certain way, etc. Maybe our tragic de-emphasis of scripture is something worth RE-training ourselves about.

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