There is a phrase pastors use, “Well, that will preach,” and it’s opposite, “Well, that won’t preach.” It speaks to the reality that there are some things that are easier to communicate to your congregation than others. Some things spark inspiration, conviction, or renewal better than others. Some things may be a little more boring, dry, or just plain confusing.
I’m always struck when I’m reading through a book in the Bible and realize that there are portions of well known stories we leave out of the sermons we create. I don’t think most teachers and preachers are trying to hide or avoid things, I simply think that in a 20-40 minute message you cannot convey the complexity of the culture and history in relationship to the text.
I became a Christian in college. Before leaving for school, I had a friend that considered himself a very well educated atheist, and he was. Many years after my experience and life change, we met for breakfast. I had just had Kyle, and we were talking about babies. Somehow nursery decorating came up. He remarked, “I always laugh when people decorate their nursery in a Noah’s ark theme. They have this border with cute Precious Moment style animals, two by two, and a smiling Noah standing at the helm of the boat. I always want to ask, ‘Where are all the dead bodies floating by? Where are all the people screaming for help because they can’t get on the boat?’” Meanwhile, I’m picturing the nursery I was so excited to have just decorated in … wait for it … a Noah’s ark theme. My response? “Yeah, I know, right? So odd.”
Several years later, having my faith dismantled and reassembled through grad school, I have a different vantage point on both the sanitized and graphic version of most Biblical narratives. But from time to time, the disconnect and way we engage scripture, when it comes to these facets of the texts, make my head tilt.
We know Haman’s plot gets turned back around on him. We know Esther’s bravery leads to the Jew’s ability to defend themselves and “the nation is saved!” But if we keep reading, it keeps going.
“If it pleases the king,” she (Esther) said, “and if he regards me with favor and thinks it the right thing to do, and if he is pleased with me, let an order be written overruling the dispatches that Haman devised and wrote to destroy the Jews in all the king’s provinces,” and King Xerxes does …
“The king’s edict granted the Jews in every city the right to assemble and protect themselves; to destroy, kill and annihilate the armed men of any nationality or province who might attack them and their women and children, and to plunder the property of their enemies.” So they do, and that day the king asks Esther what else she would like …
“If it pleases the king,” Esther answered, “give the Jews in Susa permission to carry out this day’s edict tomorrow also, and let Haman’s ten sons be impaled on poles.” Well, that’s next level.
Why am I bringing this up?
I recently heard someone say that the reason they struggle with Christians and the Bible is because the Christian community refuses to acknowledge some of the contradictions and violence in the Bible.
A while ago people didn’t read the Bible for themselves. Then later, people read it, but didn’t question it. They leaned and trusted in the interpretation handed down from the pulpit, but now we have a generation that questions everything and has access to a million viewpoints and resources instantly.
There are textbooks full of examinations of the Old Testament, exploring the context, the culture of the time, the reality of economics, lineage, property, etc. Learning these things helps passages that, when viewed through a modern lens, seem harsh and counter to the character of what we see in Jesus. And when I say “helps,” I mean clarifies, makes more sense or illuminates realities of a time we cannot relate to. I don’t mean dilutes or softens.
I believe God gives us varying capacities for understanding. They vary as we age and as generations unfold. We understand so much more now than we did. Imagine what four more generations will understand. I, as an individual, understand so much more now than I did. I love the story of Noah. 1-year-old Kyle could point at the animals. Now, with 16-year-old Kyle, we have very different conversations about these books. I wasn’t hiding things from Kyle, but he did not have the capacity he does now, and he continues to grow in his understanding.
I’ve had both professors and friends rip back the curtain on certain parts of the Bible, seemingly excited to prove something to me, almost as if there was an accolade for them when my ignorance was revealed. I have chosen not to lead in that way. I have also had mentors, professors and friends ask me amazing questions, guide me on eye opening journeys and share with me what they’ve learned without judgement or pressure. I have chosen to teach and lead in this way.
The Bible is a complex and beautiful set of books where God shares the journey of His children; clearly exposing the reality of their humanity. There is so much to learn and experience through these pages, and while some sections “preach” better than others, I am thankful God is patient with us as we explore. Allowing us each the time to space to see what He might say.