By Arthur Palmer
In most churches today the language used in worship, in prayers, in hymns and in readings from the Bible contains large elements we have inherited from a past era. Thought forms that were familiar and meaningful to most people in Victorian times or earlier, are presumed to be still appropriate to express our faith now, when our understanding of the world has changed greatly. It is not surprising that thoughtful people who are well attuned to the way language is used in the everyday world and in places of learning- Universities and the like- tend to be turned off by a flow of words and phrases and concepts that sound like an echo from another time than ours.
How shall we express truths which are eternal, in language which is honest and true to our present state of knowledge, while recognizing that this is always partial and provisional? Here and there the attempt is being made. Shirley Murray and a few others have given us hymns that are clearly inspired by the Christian vision, yet couched in a modern idiom. The Uniting Church of Canada has put together a creedal statement (“We Live in God’s World…”) which is far more meaningful to us in the new millennium than traditional creeds can hope to be.
Another question: how shall we take the Bible seriously without taking it literally? We cannot in these days believe a story of an axe floating, as recorded in 2 Kings 6 - 5. All through the Bible are accounts which, for most of us, require impossible mental contortions if we attempt to take them as literal truth. They come to us as seen through the eyes of devout men- yes, most if not all of them men,- men of another day and age for whom miracles and supernatural intervention were entirely believable. Indeed, after the passage of years the stories that had been handed down, stories of slavery ended, or great victories against the odds, were almost guaranteed to acquire colourful additions which, in a bygone age gave added credibility. Yet for us these stories create problems. We are liable to miss the truth if we sanctify the accretions.
This is not a call to replace all poetic language with modern scientifically accurate phrases. We can still appreciate Negro spirituals, long after we have ceased to believe in future golden slippers. Folk songs can express a deep yearning, and a conviction that love lives on, and justice will finally prevail, in language that is poetry and metaphor rather than literal truth.
There is a way to escape becoming enmeshed in the legends and the fantasy. If we accept these for what they are: expressions of wonder, thankfulness, warning or praise- then we can move on to what is meant to follow. This is more demanding, but also more rewarding. Our primary task is to discover what it all means for us in the context of life today, as we are moved by the spirit which Jesus embodied so completely. His life redefined what it means to love, and the power of such love to transform our world. This must mean much more than being kind to Granny and the cat. More too than the assurance of forgiveness, important though this is in freeing us for action.
I believe we are called on by Jesus to see the world of human relationships in a new light. We can so easily be over-awed by the power of things as they are at this moment. But new life is struggling to be born, and we can help or hinder its arrival and growth. Sadly the institutional Christian Church has sometimes been so fearful of change that it has sided with privilege and injustice. Silence too gives consent. We can’t escape the responsibility of seeking a better way forward in the difficult areas of personal and community and international relationships- answers that reflect the Christian vision and way. The spectres of poverty, racial and religious intolerance and conflict, war and violence and social malaise in so many forms, oppress our world. The gap between rich and poor, between the West and the Third World, continues to widen. We are in the business of challenging the unjust status quo.
Our troubled world is waiting to be convinced that we are really serious about a faith that is relevant to this day and age, and that we are committed to demonstrating its relevance. We need to find more words that make this clear. And more than words. Ultimately it is the action which follows that will speak the loudest. And if this sounds like preaching, I am preaching to myself too.