Worship & Celebrations
Religious Literacy or Can we Join the Conversation?
July 7, 2013
The Reverend Julie-Ann Silberman-Bunn
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Delaware County
When I began my studies in seminary, a young naive 24 year old, enthusiastic to become a UU minister, I was unaware of all that I did not know…make that ALLLL that I did not know. I had bought the books for my classes and arrived ready for my first class. The Bible I had brought to my class was one I had bought years earlier for a class at another school; hear that as I had had it for a number of years. Class began as all classes at our seminary did with ten minutes of silent prayer, my mind wandered…I flipped quietly through my bible…I find something I didn’t expect….class began, the professor introduces the Hebrew Scriptures and explains his approach to teaching I take notes, time passes….we reach our break. I show my new friend sitting next to me what I had found during the prayer time…the New Testament; it is at the back of my bible! Torn between laughing and crying, my classmate explains to me that most Bibles contain both the Old and New Testament…now I am the one torn between laughing and crying.
How had I a lifelong church going woman managed to miss out on the fact that the standard version of the bible contained both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures? That evening on the phone with my parents I found out…when I told my parents of my discovery my mother was shocked and my father said “you’re a good Jewish girl”. We realized that in part he was right-- my father’s mother had a Hebrew Bible and my mother’s mother a large print New Testament. In our home they really were frequently two separate books.
Here is where the problem comes to light. We as Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on being able to discuss things. We can discuss the latest novels, great films, and the weather. We can discuss travel to foreign lands, local politics, national and international politics and policy and we can discuss sports. We can discuss land management and architecture, fine foods and wines. We can discuss gardening, knitting, Goddesses, and baseball players. We can discuss beers and motorcycles and ballerinas. We can discuss Reggae, Hip Hop and country music, and, and, and, and the list can go on and on and on. There is one thing that many Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable if not unwilling to discuss. What is that one thing that was I told just last week that people in this church would not want to hear about? The Christian Scriptures. Why is that, it is because it contains ideas words terms and thoughts that make people uncomfortable…such as Jesus, God and Christ.
This service is about that topic, it is about the Christian Scriptures, more commonly known as the Holy Bible. So let me break that down a bit for you. Historically Unitarians and Universalists read the Bible, and Bibles were found in our churches and scripture was shared in our worship services. Over time that changed, and by the time I was a child growing up in UU churches it was a lot more likely to hear a reading from the New York times or the New Yorker Magazine than from the Christian scriptures. Why is that, I am not certain but my best guess is that people started joining UU churches as a refuge from other churches whose theology they had not felt comfortable with, and when they left those churches behind they wanted to leave everything about them behind and our clergy complied, and in time our services and the life of our congregations became devoid of references to anything that resembled “traditional church” except for the fact that we continued to gather in church buildings on Sunday mornings and conduct a program that followed a pattern set forth in traditional Protestant worship.
This sermon is about that one book Unitarian Universalists are uncomfortable admitting they own, let alone read. This service is about the Bible and why we as Unitarian Universalists must return to our roots and become comfortable with the texts of the bible if we ever want to be part of national and international conversations on policy and politics with other people of faith.
I will admit that for most of my life I was in these same shoes. I was raised in two Unitarian Universalist congregations. I regularly attended Sunday school. My grandparents were of different faiths- one set orthodox Jews the other protestant. Had I seen Bibles? And even had a few conversations about them in Sunday school. What did I know about the Bible when I graduated from Sunday school and into youth group? Not much. Did I learn anything about the Bible in youth group? Absolutely not!
In college I was an art major, the applied studies were great, I enjoyed painting, printing and pottery. When I got to art history I began to realize I was missing something, some underlying knowledge that others seemed to have. I took literature classes and again I was missing things, history and sociology also found me wondering why I was working so much harder to get some of the references that others were picking up on seemingly instantly. As my college education progressed and I explored in depth the art of the Italian Renaissance I came to realize what it was that I was missing. I was missing a familiarity with classic stories that were the basis of the vast majority of western art for centuries.
Patrick de Rynck even begins the Preface of his book How to Read Bible Stories and Myths in Art with these words: “It is stating the obvious to say that the Bible and Graeco-Roman mythology and history have had a major impact on Western art. Many of the ancient stories have been illustrated by the greatest painters of all time in the works that rank among the most outstanding masterpieces of art.” This is what we miss out on when we choose not to be biblically literate; we miss out on an instant understanding of some of these masterpieces, the complexity of their content and their back story.
If they have a major impact on art and culture why is it that we UU’s don’t spend more of our time focusing on these Biblical stories? My personal guess is that in previous generations, the generations that moved away from teaching these stories, didn’t realize how completely we would leave them behind, or how almost phobic our reaction to the traditional texts might become. And I admit that phobic is a harsh word and it is my word, and I will own that in my childhood and youth my own reaction was phobic when it came to the idea of reading the bible. I did not however understand how amazing some of the stories are and no one helped or encouraged me to make sure I have them as part of my understanding. So today I am here before you to advocate for becoming more biblically literate.
Why do I think we should be more biblically literate? Well first of all because we are missing out on a tremendous amount of the world’s most powerful art and culture but that isn’t the only reason, it is simply the reason that first brought this failing to my attention. The reason I think we should be more biblically literate is so that we can be comfortable in conversation with other people. We should be able to be in conversations with politicians, with people of other faiths, and cultures. If we do not understand and hold the biblical texts in our literary arsenal we cannot even begin to come to the table in conversation because the bible is the text that others do come comfortably to the table with as their tool and at times as their sledge hammer.
What I learned in seminary was that I come to the biblical texts as a Unitarian Universalist with an open mind and as such I am willing to see the texts through wide open eyes. Many of my classmates approached the biblical texts through the lens of repetition and dogma. One classmate even told me that he was envious of me because I could look at the bible as a collection of stories rather than as the basis of all of my religious understanding. As Unitarian Universalist we have an amazing opportunity set before us --we can read this classic of literature, this foundation story of the world’s art and culture without judgment without lenses crafted by others.
As you might have guessed by now I would not be preaching on this subject if I did not really believe in what I am saying. It would be easy as a Unitarian Universalist minister to completely avoid preaching on the bible. It would be easy to avoid speaking of the content of the bible, it would be easy to suggest you read anything but the bible, however I am here to advocate for each and every one of you picking up a bible and opening it up and reading it. I am encouraging that because I want us to be biblically literate. I want you all to feel you can engage in conversations with people who want to tell us our society should and should not do based on the biblical texts, and tell them how they are or are not reading that text in all the ways it could possibly be read, and the only way to do that is to familiarize yourself with it.
Here we are in Pennsylvania one of the last two Northeastern States to have not passed a bill making marriage equality a reality---- and we have many people trying to tell us that biblical marriage is what we should stick with. Well having read the bible, and I am not as well versed as I would like mind you, but I am comfortable saying that what the bible advocates is not one man and one woman, rather it advocates one man and as many women as he can afford. Biblical marriage is also the treatment of women as property as they are sold by their fathers to husbands and forced to leave their family and community. Biblical marriage is also the exchange of property to prevent war. None of these are the types of marriages that the modern advocates of biblical marriage are comfortable having lifted up to them. Marriage as it exists today is a very modern concept and has nothing to do with the bible.
Where biblical marriage can take us however is to the wedding at Cana. What happened at the wedding at Cana? Jesus was told by his Mother Mary to help provide wine when they had run out. How did Jesus provide the wine? Jesus turned the water into wine. I am sure many of you had heard the phrase turning water into wine, and some of you even knew it came from the Bible and you probably guessed it had something to do with Jesus. Were you aware that Jesus was not ready to disclose his abilities that it was only because of Mary’s insistence that he did so. Reminding us that listening to our parents and particularly our mothers has roots in the bible, and that the actions and messages of the New testament and Jesus are tied to the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures as Jesus was a Jew and would have lived by the ten commandments which include the commandment to honor thy mother and thy father.
Jesus and the stories of Jesus come from the New Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament also hold stories that are very familiar, like the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The story of Noah and his Ark as well as the stories of Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac these classic stories repeat in today’s literature, as they were repeated in Shakespeare we limit ourselves and our children by not educating ourselves. We would not cut out all of Shakespeare, or all of any genre of literature because of personal affronts or injuries we suffered at the hands of an English or a history teacher why do we cut out the bible because of the sins of pastors of generations gone by who used this book as a weapon to hold us back. I want to encourage each of you to familiarize yourself with the bible, don’t begin in the beginning and don’t begin with King James, but find some stories, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John and read a few, see what you know, what you have absorbed from our culture, see what other people have told you that was not accurate and what was not. We UU’s explore everything for ourselves, why is it that the Bible isn’t in that same category? It should be! Let’s put it on our nightstands and at the top of our pile of books to be read. I am sure you will find many interesting things in the bible, and you might even learn a thing or two…enjoy your reading!
Salaam, Amen, and Blessed Be