One New Book for the Church
I’ve been reading Anna Carter Florence’s new book Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community. It’s wonderful. Of the crop published in 2017 – 2018, this is the one book I most recommend.
Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, was a speaker for two of the three times we did the Festival of Preaching Northwest. Her presentations and sermons were terrific.
When my daughter Laura was at Emory’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, she cross-registered at Columbia for two courses with Anna. I think it fair to say that they were highlights of her seminary experience.
Anna’s book isn’t just for preachers. It is for the church. It offers a new vision for how we do church, particularly in relation to Scripture.
Break “rehearsing” into its constituent parts. You get “re,” “hear,” and “sing.” Rehearsing Scripture is about hearing Scripture again so that the church might “sing,” in the fullest sense of that word.
Last year marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. One of the rallying cries of the original reformers was sola scriptura, meaning the church looks primarily to the Scriptures for guidance (not simply to clerical authority or accumulated tradition).
Another reformation theme is the priesthood of all believers, also a critique of the clergy-dominated, late medieval Catholic Church. (And a newly relevant doctrine, we might add, in light of the systemic nature of clergy sexual abuse. One of the best strategies for dealing with that is to truly trust and empower the laity.)
An irony of our own time is that the churches that trace their origins to the Reformation (Presybterians, Lutherans, Congregationalists/ UCC, and to some extent the Methodists and Episcopalians) have lost a vital connection to Scripture, particularly on the part of laity, which jeopardizes their priesthood.
Interpretation of Scripture became the province of the professionals, the clergy — and sometimes not even the clergy bothered. Many churches more or less abandoned Scripture to the fundamentlists and literal interpretation — a terrible mistake.
In Rehearsing Scripture Florence offers a way for the church to re-hear Scripture that is accessible to all. You don’t have to be a professional or a bible geek to participate. In fact, it is probably better if you aren’t either of those.
Drawing on the world of theater, ACF proposes that the church become something like a repertory theater, that is a company of actors who work together over time, doing different plays, playing different parts. Repertory isn’t about creating “stars.” It is to work together to find something true and real in the script the playwright offers.
To get there, ACF places a lot of emphasis on “reading the verbs” as key to entering into a text and discovering its power. We have tended, as she notes, to prioritize the nouns.
For example, take a text like Genesis 3: 7 – 8, where I’ve bolded/ italicized the verbs.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loinclothes for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.”
Whether they melt in our mouth or stick in your craw, that’s quite a harvest of verbs in just two verses.
ACF offers a series of prompts that help a group explore a text by paying attention to/ reading the verbs. It’s a method that offers a very fresh reading and hearing of Scripture. Moreover, the idea — as the book’s subtitle puts it — is to do this in community: the repertory church.
One of the best things about the current time is that people are exploring a lot of new ways to do and be church. What most have in common is that church is something that a community of people do and create together. I’m thinking of St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn, built around doing a meal together, or St. Barnabas in San Francisco where people dance the liturgy together, or Gilead UCC in Chicago, where people create church together around stories shared.
“Repertory church” offers two very important things. A way to encounter God through Scripture (the point isn’t bible knowledge but God encounter). And a way to do this in community, one that builds relationships among participants seeking truth and meaning together.
Rehearsing Scripture: Discovering God’s Word in Community is not another quick-fix, which is good because those things never work anyhow. It is a vision for church which will take time, effort and patience to live into. But my hunch is that whatever we invest in such a venture will be repaid many times over.