More on Those R-Rated Texts

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Maybe it’s bad form on a running blog like The Twelve to tee up off a prior day’s posting by a colleague, but Rebecca Koerselman’s post yesterday on “Kiddos and the Bible” was too much fun to read–and sparked too many other thoughts in me–to ignore. So, Rebecca, I shamelessly pick up where you left off!  (And I realize I probably have posted blogs along these lines before but some things bear repeating and anyway, this has a Lenten angle to it too.)

As a pastor, one of the greatest joys I’ve had in the pulpit has been precisely in uncovering the real stories of Scripture, especially the ones that got sanitized (or flat out deleted) in Sunday School or Christian dayschools. Rebecca in her post ponders primarily the best way to explain tawdry stories to children but then ends with the question of whether even adults engage these texts long after they have left childhood behind. In my experience a degree of wariness and resistance does indeed remain for many people. I well remember the discussion at Elders Meeting a week or two after I preached from 2 Samuel 13. I was doing a series for Lent on the Seven Deadly Sins and found in the story of Amnon and Tamar a pitch-perfect portrayal of lust and especially of Shakespeare’s famous observation that lust is that sin that is “Past reason hunted, and no sooner had, Past reason hated.”

The rape of Tamar and Amnon’s immediate self-loathing is a raw and mournful story, full of the very heartbreak that lustful actions bring to so many people in this world. Well, I preached on the text and left the text unvarnished. But my Elders were not so sure about that sermon. And it was not just the way I preached on 2 Samuel 13: a few of my Elders concluded that there are some texts that just may never be preached at all, and this was one of them. “But it’s Scripture!” I declared incredulously. “It doesn’t matter” one man said to me, “it doesn’t belong in worship.” One wonders what “canon within the canon” folks like this would come up with if it were up to them to edit the Bible down to only the approved preaching texts.

That would be a bad idea, of course, for all kinds of practical and theological reasons. And among the reasons why it would be a bad idea is because it caves in to our tendency to want to make the lives of biblical characters neater, smoother, holier. We want plastic saints, not gritty people with foibles and flaws like the rest of us. But that’s just the problem: smoothing out the wrinkles in biblical narratives and bracketing the less-than-noble actions of Jacob or David or Peter may yield some nice stained-glass figures but it leaves the rest of us frail and flawed folks out of the picture (until or unless, one assumes, we can rise to the level of pristine holiness that characterize the lives of biblical folks).

Imagine setting out to write a novel about a saint, the preacher and novelist Frederick Buechner once observed. How could an author fail to fall flat on his or her face if the goal was to present a saint? Because what you would end up with is not a real human being but some idea of a saint as someone whose feet barely touch the ground as the saint glides through a peerless life of godliness. But, Buechner said, real saints are not born they are made and they get made in the hard-knock realities of real lives that are filled with failures and mistakes, doubts and embarrassments.

The truth is that the real Bible stories–the ones where you don’t have to pretend Jacob was not a sneak and a crook or where you don’t ignore the fact that Joshua 2 tells us that the Israelite spies went to Rahab’s place not in order to hide after they had been discovered but first thing the moment they hit town, eh-hem–those real stories are the ones in which we all properly see our own frailty as people trying to serve a holy God. Those real stories are also vastly more interesting than their sanitized versions!

Years ago I did a series on the narratives of Genesis. One man who did not attend my congregation but who read my sermons in print form every week wrote to me eventually to ponder with me how curious it is to notice that in the Bible, you find almost no families that are not what we today would describe as dysfunctional. Apparently God not only can but very often does work smack within all our familial brokenness, all our sibling rivalries, all our disappointments at the choices our kids make, all the big and little ways spouses wound each other. I happened to know that this particular man bore tremendous pain in his heart for a number of things that had happened among his own children. So when he observed that biblical families were routinely in dire straits, too, he did so as a comfort. Maybe the Spirit of the living God was still active among his own dysfunctional brood too.

Yes, we need to find age-appropriate ways to talk about the Bible with children. And yes, preachers cannot use biblical rawness as an excuse to be ham-fisted in the pulpit, using language or imagery calculated to verge on the pornographic just for shock effect. Thoughtfulness is required. But our real lives are mirrored in the real Bible if only we let it speak. And like my friend, we may find a lot of comfort in that fascinating biblical fact.

In this Lenten Season of our lives, we believe Jesus came to carry our every burden, our every failing, our every piece of human tawdriness to the cross. Small wonder that he came from a long line of folks (cf. Matthew 1) who knew all about such things first hand. We know this is true.

The Bible tells us so.

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It's encouraging to me to read these "real" stories of the Bible - It gives me hope that the Lord can use even the likes of me.

Regarding 2 Samuel 13; it's a passage that is dear to my heart for many reasons. One is the nobleness of Tamar. Another is the time that I was asked, as an InterVarsity campus staff member, to give a presentation in which several members of the MI State University Counseling Center were present. They were curious to know how a Christian talks about sexual assault. They wanted to improve their service to Christian students on campus (there are lots of Christian students at MSU). They recognized that the experience of sexual assault often became an issue of faith for Christian students. So with a primarily secular audience I opened my Bible to 2 Samuel 13. They were amazed that this story was in the Bible. They said, "this is the same story we hear every day" in our work with those who have been victimized by sexual assault. From the unsuspecting one who was overpowered, to the responses of others, to Tamar's grief and desolation - it was a familiar story to them. And they appreciated hearing why this experience impacts faith. Christians need a safe space to explore questions that arise, such as "Where was God?" Or, "how can an all-powerful God allow this to happen to a child he loves?", etc. It was a wonderful, God-blessed, discussion all around. On the Safe Church website there is a discussion guide for this passage; you can find it here under group discussion resources. I think there is a reason that this passage is in the Bible, and it shouldn't be ignored.