Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Reading All of God's Story

This post is the 2nd in Chasing Yoder's series of guest posts by different authors addressing the question, "Why does the Old Testament matter to Christians?" The Rev. Sarah Puryear is a friend and Episcopal priest, serving at St. George's Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN. 

If you missed the 1st post, find it here


Last year, my New Year’s resolution was to read through the entire Bible. I was inspired by a new edition of the Bible called Reading God's Story, which reorganizes the material of the Bible into one big story divided into several acts. Instead of reading in the traditional order, in which you read about the rebuilding of Jerusalem in Ezra/Nehemiah before you read the prophets predicting its fall, this Bible moves chronologically. Job follows right after Genesis (since Job is thought to be set in the time of Abraham), the Psalms David wrote are interspersed into the story of his life, and the historical accounts of the kings of Israel are punctuated by the corresponding prophets who lived and prophesied in their time.
I grew up in evangelical and charismatic churches where reading the Bible was as important as taking in oxygen or getting enough food to eat, so I had read all the books of the Bible before but never in this order. Plus, truth be told, I felt out of touch with the Bible. My long held habit of reading the Bible first thing each morning had floundered and fallen by the wayside. I had struggled to find my bearings with the Bible since becoming Episcopalian and going to seminary, not because I went through a crisis of faith, but because my overfamiliarity with the Bible made it feel flat when I tried to read it devotionally. In seminary it was all I could do to keep up with the readings assigned about the Bible, so I rarely read the primary texts of Scripture in my Old and New Testament classes, though they were assigned as well. I told myself, in a moment of evangelical smugness, that I already knew them well and certainly a lot better than most of my mainline classmates! So even as I spent time about studying the Bible, I wasn’t getting much face time with it. Then I became a priest, and much of my time with Scripture was spent preparing for sermons and classes. I had fallen into the classic clergy pitfall of making reading the Bible “something I do for work.” It was finally time for me to wipe the slate clean and reengage with devotional reading of the Scripture.
I began my reading on January 1st, 2012, planning to finish the whole thing in a year. But then 2012 turned into a very unusual year. In March I went on a first date with my future husband, and things moved quickly; we got engaged in June, and we were very happily married in September. It was a whirlwind of a year, and I wasn’t as faithful to my reading as I had expected to be. I started up again this January half way through the Bible and will get to the finish line in June.

This adjusted timeline means that I'm just now finishing up the Old Testament. Before my reading this past year, if you asked me why Christians should read the Old Testament, I might have told you about how the Old Testament was Jesus' "Bible"; he quoted from 24 of the 39 books. (check out this comprehensive list of all the quotes of the Old Testament in the New). I might have mentioned how the early church denounced Marcion as a heretic for excising the Old Testament from the Christian Scriptures, thus cementing the Old Testament’s place in our canon. And I would definitely have gone on and on about my wonderful Old Testament professor, Ellen Davis, who wowed us lecture after lecture with her theological interpretation of the Old Testament, deftly navigating around the many pitfalls that await anyone who tries to engage the Old Testament as a Christian.
Now that I’ve read the whole thing again for myself, I would say that I need to read the Old Testament, because there’s no way I can understand Jesus without it. It’s far too easy for us to remake Jesus in our own image (check out Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus for some entertaining and disturbing examples of this), turning him into whatever our model human looks like in our particular cultural moment. Jesus was part of the people of Israel, himself steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, and he doesn’t make sense without them – or worse yet, we may think we know what he means, when we’ve really only imposed a meaning upon the text based on our own context. Before we try to make the interpretive leap to our own day, we have to know the context in which he lived. As I’ve read the Old Testament, I have come across phrase upon phrase and story upon story that echoes and resounds through the gospels. It’s easy to look up the cross-references when the Old Testament is explicitly quoted in the New Testament, but there are hundreds of other resonances that don’t get a footnote.
As I’ve read, those resonances have stood out, not just as isolated verses that crop up again somewhere in the gospel, but as the traces of the grand story that God is writing across the narrative of the Bible. When we've read about how God comes to walk in the garden with Adam and Eve, when we've seen how he seeks out Abraham and makes covenant with him, when we've witnessed God’s faithfulness in calling Israel to himself and then watched the long troubled story of their covenant relationship unfold, when we've seen how the people fail over and over to uphold their end of the bargain, when we have heard God promise through Jeremiah to one day make a new covenant (Jer 31:31), then we realize that Jesus follows in the course of a much bigger, grander story. When we finally arrive at the Last Supper and hear Jesus say, “This cup is the new covenant of my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20), we know that this is the fulfillment of a long-awaited promise. We know just how long this has been in the works. God's faithfulness over the long haul to make his people his own and to be their God becomes evident. God has been faithful to the same vision from Mount Sinai to Calvary to the New Jerusalem.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Old Testament’s only worth comes from its connection to Jesus, as though it ought to be gleaned for its references to him and then put up on a shelf to gather dust. I do mean that we cannot read the Gospels well without knowing the Old Testament too; we are called to enter into the entirety of God's story and allow it to shape us as his people.
Perhaps one of the reasons that my reading of Scripture had gotten flat was because I was reading too little of it; I was reading my own little canon within a canon over and over until it got starved for air. That's a pretty common occurrence for those of us who commit to reading the Bible regularly; we have favorite parts that we like to revisit. If your reading of the Bible is getting a little stale, try expanding your horizons and taking in a broader swath of Scripture. I'm going to keep forging ahead into the New Testament and see how it comes across with a reading of the Old Testament fresh in my mind.

The Rev. Sarah Puryear serves as Associate Rector with a focus on youth and young adults.  Originally from the great state of Maine, Sarah attended Wheaton College, where she  studied English, Ancient Languages, and Theology. She received her Master of Divinity  from Duke Divinity School in 2008 and then served at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in St.  Petersburg, Florida. She was ordained by Bishop Dabney Smith in the Diocese of  Southwest Florida. Her interest in mission work has led her on trips to Nepal, the  Philippines, Mozambique and China. She had the honor of serving as a steward at the  Lambeth Conference gathering of bishops in 2008. She enjoys traveling, music, and reading. She is married to Dan Puryear. Read Sarah's blog here

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