You have to be there

By Byron Rempel-Burkholder, book editor

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I sang that song three times on Easter weekend, and each time I was moved by its power to take me into the gospel story. More than the traditional Caucasian-written hymns of the season—this African American spiritual got me in the gut.

There’s much more going on in the song than mere words. There is personal testimony and passion: “Sometimes it causes me to tremble.” There is a dialogue between the “you” and the “me” that begs participation. And there is an overlapping of past and present: obviously I wasn’t physically at the foot of the cross or at the empty tomb, but by asking if I was there, the song forces me to know that that story is still running in my life.

I hope this is what is happening in the Bible study materials we at MennoMedia produce. One book that is soon to go to press is Creating a Scene in Corinth—A Simulation by Reta Halteman Finger and George D. McClain.

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Like Reta’s earlier book, Paul and the Roman House Churches, this book takes us back to the first century of the church. Through solid historical research and images, it shows what life must have been like for the Corinthian believers, and it helps us play-act the drama of the original readers as they heard the words of the Apostle Paul being read to them. By participating in the simulation, we begin to recognize the uncanny parallels between Corinth and our own church and society. And we begin to grapple with how the gospel challenges us in our community life.

Tom Boomershine, in his foreword, notes that Creating a Scene rides a wave of biblical scholarship known as “performance criticism”—a way of reading the Bible by entering the dramatic and sometimes raucous situation that surrounded the early text and its readers. In contrast, traditional Bible study has been much more “silent,” and focused on the face-value of the text’s words and grammar. The latter alone have their important place, but they are not enough to engage contemporary people. As readers, we have to “be there.”

Our new Dig In curriculum (see last Wednesday’s post by Amy Gingerich) also tries to catch this wave as it seeks to support Mennonite denominational efforts to revive our passion for Bible study. Dig In uses video clips of Mennonites across the continent reflecting on their experience of the text. Everything from the opening sharing of each session, through the discussion questions and closing prayer, has us personalizing the text, finding ourselves and our faith community inside the story.

In various ways, “being there” is at the heart of other learning tools for all ages. The quarterly Adult Bible Study uses a “life-to-Bible-to-life” movement in each session. Our Believers Church Bible Commentary series is unique in its inclusion of a section entitled, “The Text in the Life of the Church” in each chapter. And, of course, our children’s curriculum often has students acting out the story as if they were there.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Anabaptist Christians lean toward studying the Bible in this way. We’re not content with abstract theology and belief as the main products of our study. Our concrete lives as Jesus’ faithful disciples are what preoccupied the writers, readers, and characters of the biblical stories themselves. And that’s ultimately what matters for us, today, too.

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Byron Rempel-Burkholder, book editor

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