When asked about my favorite Bible passage, my first response is that I don’t have one, and then, if I am feeling curmudgeonly, I add — under my breath — “and neither should you.”
The first half of that response is simply true. Nor would I quickly come up with a favorite color, movie, food, or season of the year. Apparently, I’m just not built that way.
The second part of the response is more complex, and it arises from viewing the biblical texts from the perspective of a preacher who learned from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially as interpreted through his counterparts, several of whom were my teachers in Heidelberg.
Most directly, in his lectures on homiletics, Bonhoeffer said, “Do not pass judgment on various texts, such as ‘nice,’ ‘deep,’ ‘true,’ or ‘correct,’ etc. [and we could easily add ‘favorite’]. We are not the judges of the Scripture. We should let ourselves be judged by it!”1
One thing Bonhoeffer was trying to minimize here was tearing verses out of context and marking them, anachronistically speaking, with “Like!” or “Pin It!” — or perhaps pasting them on our car bumpers or parading around in the outfield with a sign that says “John 3:16.” In what sense are such uses still “Bible” at all, since, as we all know, verses out of context are at best trivialized and at worst manipulated to prove anything we choose.
Bonhoeffer again: “The HolyHoly is a term that originally meant set apart for the worship or service of God. While the term may refer to people, objects, time, or places, holiness in Judaism and Christianity primarily denotes the realm of the divine More Scriptures do not consist of individual sayings, but are a whole…. The Scriptures are God’s revealed Word as a whole.”2 That’s why it is important to follow some kind of discipline in the reading or use of the Bible, such as, say, a pericope system or lectio continua: the former “teaches the pastor to become involved with texts that are not his or her favorites” (WP, 130); while the latter makes the Bible something other than “a fragmented anthology of sayings” (WP, 131).
So, no fragmented favorites in my opinion. But what of longer passages, where the context and argument of the text are kept intact? That seems better, certainly, but even then I have a problem. How do I know in advance what will turn out to be a “favorite”? Will not something unexpected happen in the very reading or study, especially perhaps if it is a difficult or even troublesome text? I never spent much time with the Letter of James, but writing on it for a recent issue of Word & World, I saw a lot of interesting (and troublesome) things I had previously overlooked.
“Troublesome” is not a bad response to Bible study, because it indicates that something is going on between the reader and the text. As Gerhard von Rad discovered in his study of Deuteronomy (Isn’t it all just bone-crushing legalism?), “It does not lie within our power to determine from which part of the Bible God will speak.”3
Here, I share the experience of C. S. Lewis, who wrote that those, like him, “who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working through a tough bit of theology [or Bible?] with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”4 I ditched the pipe decades ago, but I’m happy to report that the experience remains. This is why another of my answers to the “favorite verse” question is, “Whichever one I am working on at the moment.”
Von Rad again: “What finer moment than when such a text begins to speak, often quite differently from what was expected!”5 We will have to talk now about whether texts actually “speak,” but I hope all Bible readers and preachers know the experience of which von Rad writes. I frequently told students that until they had such an “Aha!” experience, they were not ready to preach. They would simply be repeating the same old stuff; and stuff that was already “old” to the preacher before the sermon began would hardly ignite anything new in the congregation. Maybe that’s why, over the years, I have been repeatedly drawn back to the second part of the book of IsaiahIsaiah, son of Amoz, who prophesied in Jerusalem, is included among the prophets of the eighth century B.C.E. (along with Amos, Hosea, and Micah)--preachers who boldly proclaimed God's word of judgment against the economic, social, and religious disorders of their time. More. Isaiah has more uses of the word “new” than any other book of the Bible, and none of those uses is trivial.
Just one case in point: Isa 43:16-21. Both the theological argument and the literary form never cease to excite. The argument, as I read it, goes like this, with God speaking to Israel: “Remember the exodus? Good! Now forget it, because I am going to do an entirely new thing.” Then Israel seems to ask in amazement, “Oh, entirely new? What will it look like?” to which God replies in effect, “Well, remember the exodus?” The old was a dry way in the sea, the new will be a wet way in the desert. Total surprise, yet not unrecognizable. Exodus (that is, liberating the oppressed) is what God is about.
In other words, there are no “good old days” in God’s history with the world. Israel’s outlook is always directed forward by God — not, to be sure, to some distant future “over the rainbow” but to God’s tomorrow and ours, which will always come with surprise but always with that hint of deja vu, that, although this is entirely new territory, we can sense we’ve been there before.
1Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Worldly Preaching: Lectures on Homiletics, rev. ed., ed. and trans. Clyde E. Fant (New York: Crossroad, 1991) 149. Hereafter, WP.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, in Bonhoeffer, Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 60.
3Gerhard von Rad, “Ancient Word and Living Word,” Interpretation 15 (1961) 11.
4C. S. Lewis, Introduction to St. Athanasius on the IncarnationIncarnation literally means "embodied in flesh." It is a Christian doctrine, based on the witness in John's Gospel, that God's Word was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The Apostles' and Nicene Creeds confess the central importance of the incarnation of Jesus. More (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1944) 8.
5Gerhard von Rad, “About Exegesis and Preaching,” in Biblical Interpretations in Preaching, trans. John E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon, 1977) 14.