If you were present in worship on Sunday, December 9, you heard my view that the Bible offers more than one way to understand the end of the world as we know it. Rather than a single narrative about how God will destroy the earth and its inhabitants, the different voices of the Bible offer a variety of perspectives that do not necessarily fit together like the pieces of a single puzzle. Some images are all gloom and destruction for everyone; others portend punishment only for those opposed to the work of God. Some images of the end in scripture make sharp distinctions between those whom their author(s) consider good and evil; while others depict a time when “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” or all nations shall share a giant banquet together.
It’s not just the end which scripture views through multiple perspectives but also the beginning and everywhere in between. At the beginning of Genesis, we get not one but two different creation stories—and other stories of creation pop up now and then elsewhere in scripture. If we ever bother to read through the Bible, we find more than one version of the Exodus stories, the Ten Commandments, the Israelites’ return to the Promised Land, the reigns of King David and King Solomon and so on. The further we read in the Bible the less we are surprised by multiple versions of a story and the more we are surprised when there is only one.
This multiform view of God’s activity in the world comes into stark relief at Christmas time. Although our Christmas pageants and services often mash up the shepherds gathered around the Bethlehem manger and the Wise Men from the East and all the other elements of Jesus’ birth together into one narrative, they actually come from different stories with different details. Matthew contains the Wise Men and tells about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s perspective. Luke tells about the shepherds and the manger and offers Mary’s perspective. John gives us nothing about the baby Jesus and instead describes the Word made flesh. Mark just fast forwards to Jesus as an adult with no concern at all for where Jesus came from.
Libraries of books have been written to reconcile the different narratives and theologies within scripture. When it comes to the Gospels, church leaders in the first few centuries of the church wrestled with whether to keep more than one Gospel in the Bible or to somehow combine them all into one story about Jesus. Ultimately they chose to go with four (they could have gone with more!), because Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were each already too popular in different parts of the church. I’m thankful they chose to live with multiple stories rather than forcing the issue.
When it comes to scripture (or theology for that matter), we are only troubled by multiple points of view when we expect to find only one. If we approach the Bible as a single story written by a single author rather than a collection of writings written by different authors in different times, cultures and languages, then we are troubled and must insist on conformity where none exists. Yet, if we can live with the ambiguity of multiple points of view existing side by side in dialogue with one another, a whole world of depth and meaning are possible.
In church as well, we can enforce conformity or live with diversity. We can insist that our views of God and the world fit within the confines of a particular tradition or follow the proscriptions of a particular pastor or other church authority, or we can allow for different points of view to be in dialogue with one another. When it comes to scripture or theology, we can opt for monologue or dialogue. I much prefer the latter. It can be scary sometimes to live with the tension that comes from a lack of certainty, but the abuses which come from those who claim to possess absolute certainty are more frightening still.
This Christmas season, as visitors encounter our church community and come for reasons that may not even be clear to them, we can offer then an invitation to dialogue rather than a chance to listen to a monologue. We can welcome them to join their voices with our voices as we seek to grow in our relationship with God together. Not everyone is looking for such a dialogue; some come looking for a kind of uniformity we cannot provide, but I believe many more come wondering if a church exists that will accept them along with their particular beliefs and doubts. This Christmas let’s learn from our Bibles and celebrate our various stories of what God has done in our lives. Rather than viewing different stories as a threat, we can experience the many ways God comes to us as a blessing.
Grace and Peace,