Lenses

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, October 21, 2021

Lenses

I wear vision lenses. They change my perception of the world. Wrong lenses would distort it, but the right ones clarify it. Our ability to read well depends on having the right lenses for the job.

Karl Barth famously said that the preacher ought to have the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. A sermon that does not engage both is less than the sermon the church truly needs.

That said, the Bible and the newspaper are not equal sources for the preacher. Barth went on to say that the Scripture interprets the newspaper, rather than vice versa. We gain clarity about what’s happening around us through the lenses of Scripture, rather than reading the Bible through the lenses of our culture.

The recently-released 2021 American Family Survey revealed that the deepest differences in how families talk about race, racism, and antiracism do not lie between people of different racial-ethnic identities, but between White Republicans and White Democrats.

On the whole, conservative White Republicans more likely get their news from Fox, while liberal White Democrats get theirs from CNN (or their online equivalents). As a majority White denomination that is roughly half-Republican and half-Democrat, our church is marked by the reality that we read one Bible but different news sources. Apparently, our newspapers influence how we read the Bible, more than the converse.

I had a clarifying moment not long ago when I realized I am more comfortable in conversation about political and cultural issues with people from another religion (with a different holy book) who follow my news channel, than I am with some Christians who read the same Bible as I do but follow a different news channel. Where we get our news determines and reinforces many of our political and cultural views. Our media lenses shape our values and our choices of conversation partners more than our scriptural lenses. Beloved, it ought not be so.

We have recently been exploring our church’s claim that an authentic church is marked by sincere preaching and hearing of the Word. (My earlier letters on this topic are archived on our website.) As we make this claim, we must soberly confess our tendency to let our reading of the Word be significantly shaped by our cultural lenses.

This raises the basic question of which lenses we use when we read the Bible. Are some lenses more reliable than others? Can some lead us astray?

The same Bible can be cited to defend slavery and emancipation. The same Bible can be cited to defend patriarchy and feminism. The same Bible can be cited to defend the pursuit of wealth and giving everything away. Which readings of the Bible are right and good, and which are spurious and harmful?

Responsible reading of the Bible is done together with the whole church. The Bible should be read personally, but not idiosyncratically. This is why we have a Book of Confessions to guide our reading of Scripture. In fact, in our ordination promises the church’s officers promise to be continually guided by the Confessions as they read Scripture and seek to guide God’s people faithfully by its compass. The consensus of the church in listening to God’s Word is the work of the indwelling Spirit who teaches us the way of Christ.

Responsible reading of the Bible is shaped by reading the Bible as a whole, rather than snipping bits and pieces to support the point we want it to make. As a whole, the Bible witnesses to God’s desire and design for creation rather than destruction, order rather than chaos, redemption rather than punishment, wholeness rather than brokenness, unity rather than division, mercy rather than wrath, love rather than hate, generosity rather than parsimony. These broad streams inform a responsible reading of any and all biblical texts. They are the ends for which we pray as our Savior taught, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Responsible reading of the Bible is shaped by lenses that focus our attention and our message like this: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Yours in faithfulness to the Word,

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