Most preachers know the quote attributed to famed theologian Karl Barth:
“We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
We have an inherent need to be relevant to our hearers. It is important to us as Christian leaders to both make the Bible come alive and speak to the real world concerns in which people live. The Bible and the newspaper balance those needs, but there is a cost. Sometimes we have such a desire to stay relevant we try to prove our relevancy by starting with the newspaper and working our way back to scripture and the tradition. Observation and revelation are not mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily equal partners either. One interprets the other as a lens to read the other. It seems in our contemporary age where the church as a trusted institution and scripture as a trusted authority hold less sway with people, for well-founded and explicable reasons. As a result, we have inverted the relationship of revelation and observation, giving more weight to what we can see and experience with the hope that our faith might have something to say in response.
I recently discovered that the more accurate version of Barth’s quote is:
“Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” (Time Magazine, May 1, 1966.)
This makes me a little less nervous than the popularized version of this quote. We are not to give equal value to God’s word revealed and handed down through the generations and the daily word reported and experienced with the fresh voice of a journalist this morning. We don’t just read the newspaper and figure out what to do about it on our own. Nor do we keep our head in the book, and shut the doors to our churches and leave personal experience aside. We need a contemporary voice and one of wisdom that scripture provides. The preacher’s task (as is the task of every believer) is to connect the stories of God and God’s people with our own. Our story is interpreted in light of what we know about God, and what we know of God primarily comes be what is revealed. For Christians that revelation is given in Jesus; so that the themes of God walking alongside us, welcoming us, including us, forgiving us, healing us, raising us and sending us become the interpretive lens in which we engage the real world around us with all its corruption, pain, division, violence and suffering.
The ancient stories of the Bible are not out of touch with life filled with technology, travel and the influx of ideas. The truths told in those stories are just as relevant to our lives as they have been to former generations. Stories of jealousy, selfishness, greed, destruction and betrayal – can be ripped right from our own headlines today, and stories of compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice and faithfulness are needed now as much as ever before. The constant voice of scripture within those ancient texts is one of discernment – “Where is God in all of this and where is God leading us?” Those are not questions the newspaper asks, but one we can continue to ask as we read it. We certainly could use that voice in our world and in our relationships today. Martin Luther once reflected that Jesus only matters when he is Jesus, “for me.” Faith is always a contemporary exercise revealed in the present. Our task is to pay attention – not just to the world around us; but to God’s story entering our own lives and experience so we can better engage our neighbors’ concerns and challenges. Barth’s reflection about the news and the Good news provides both wisdom and relevancy. We need both voices, and too often sacrifice wisdom for the sake of relevancy.
One more piece on relevancy is an honest confession: I don’t read newspapers; at least not in their printed versions.* I find they often offer one voice and/or perspective in a time where many voices compete for our attention and allegiance, and it is helpful to find a variety of thoughts on any given subject. Yet I must also claim my own bias – and that is to see the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and take it from there.
So I offer this 21st century update, on what I think what Barth was trying to say:
“We must hold the Bible in one hand, and our hand-held device in other – filled with Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, blog subscriptions, news articles from a variety of sources and perspectives, societal studies, and local gossip. We must open our own experiences to reflection, and listen for God moments in the stories of others. We must look beyond our doors, books and screens, and spend some time in the real world, in our community among our neighbors and through our networks as we pay close attention to those voices too.
Yet at its heart, scripture still interprets them all, interprets us all, and brings us into God’s timeless truth again and again to us…right now.”
* I know it is a contradiction, but in our digital age I do still love the feel of a real paper book. For those who love the feel of a real newspaper, I understand that too 🙂