Getting New Yorkers to Hear the Word
"Bad books always lie," says Bethany Jenkins, quoting the novelist Walker Percy. The quote continues: "They lie most of all about the human condition."
But Jenkins is convinced that Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling do not.
Jenkins and I are walking toward a bench in Central Park in New York City, where the best and worst of the human condition is amplified by 8.34 million residents.
"Where comedians fall into place is that they are so honest about the human condition," says Jenkins, a 30-something resident of NYC for ten years, who says the two comediennes are "like friends." She says, "My generation . . . [doesn't] have much interest in authority. The Four Spiritual Laws, used during my parents' generation to contextualize the gospel, just isn't going to [resonate] for my generation. It's going to be the lived-out lifestyle of the Christian person that will be our biggest example of faith."
After a career on the New York Stock Exchange, the State Department, and Capitol Hill, Jenkins founded the Park Forum to "promote Bible engagement in the urban church on a daily basis." A member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where she is mentored by Kathy Keller, Jenkins and the Park Forum provide daily devotionals and small-group curricula for Christian urban professionals seeking the common good throughout the five boroughs. "As the Park is to the City, so the Word is to Life—we can rest, run, and play in the Word," says Jenkins. The Park Forum blog, "843 Acres," has about 2,200 email subscribers, but many of them don't know Jenkins's name. Yet she has a strong network of friends and fans, as well as a dedicated board and growing donor base.
Sitting near the Reservoir in Central Park, Jenkins and I spoke about TV's funny ladies, the time she listened to Scripture for an entire weekend, and how the Park Forum equips Christians to seek the common good.
One of your readers, a tax lawyer at McKinsey, said that the Park Forum creates this virtual community of professionals who can read your blog devotionals [400 words or less] on the subway. Does The Park Forum create community—either online or off?
One thing an organization that's not the church can do is support the local church. I have no interest in the Park Forum replacing the local church. At the same time, I want to support the community as it is. One way we've done that is through an Advent Series last Christmas in which I asked local pastors and Christian leaders [including Tim and Kathy Keller of Redeemer; Ryan Taylor of Apostles; author Sally Lloyd-Jones; Clay Cook of Cru; Melissa Tamplin Harrison of PURE; Mitch Glaser of Chosen People Ministries; David Cho of City Life in Boston] to write devotionals. I wanted the city to realize that they are part of their local congregation and that we are a part of a "city congregation." In the same way, Trinity Grace Church hosts a Citywide Worship.
I'm actually not trying to create an online community. Not that it's wrong, but it takes a lot of manpower, and I'm only one person with a part-time staff person. I see the Park Forum as an online tool facilitating in-person community.
Speaking of all the local churches that you reach out to, how do you write to your different audiences?
People come from all types of churches, and I try not to talk about theological hot-button issues that would be divisive or a stumbling block. I will say that I had someone unsubscribe after I quoted the Pope—
Yes. [laughter] And, actually, I'd be shocked if this person were a New Yorker.
A New Yorker would have unsubscribed if you had quoted Billy Graham.
In August we'll do Reader's Choice, and I'll generally try to get businesspeople and lawyers and all types of professionals to write the devotionals. We also have seasonal Bible listening gatherings, where we get together in person to hear the Scriptures.
What do you think of the public listening to and reading of Scripture? [I had recently seen Jenkins at a weekly Scripture listening gathering hosted by a businessman in Midtown.]
There's something about listening to Scripture in community. These letters weren't meant to be read only in part. People in the time of their writing didn't read just five verses—there were no verses anyway. These letters were from the apostle Paul, and people wanted to hear them.
We took a group to a donor's home in upstate New York and on Friday night [using one of the popular Scripture listening productions] we listened to prophets pre-exile—one to Judah, one to Israel—then we did Lamentations during exile, then Malachi post-exile. Then we turned off the lights to manifest the 400 years of silence where after Malachi spoke and when the Gospel writers came in.
The next morning, we did all of Luke; in the evening we did all of Acts, then on Sunday morning we did the Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134). It was an amazing weekend.
Inductive reading is one approach to the Bible inductively. But really, the Jewish tradition is to read it like a story. And not asking questions after every single verse. Sometimes I'll read a book of the Bible in one sitting, and instead of stopping and looking up every single word, I'll just put a question mark next to things that I want to look up later. This way, you get the whole picture. When you have a public reading, likewise, you don't pause and talk about one specific verse. There's beauty in just going through.
Even secular feminist Camille Paglia has said, "[The Bible] is a fundamental text that everyone, atheist or believer, should know." Why do you think cities need citizens who are deeply familiar with Scripture?
It is dangerous to think about the "common good" without first thinking about our own personal renewal. The most fundamental call that any Christian receives is to be in relationship with the Caller—to be a part of the Trinitarian love of the Lord. We see this in Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17. Whether or not we experience any other call on our lives is, in some ways, irrelevant if we pursue them at the expense of knowing and experiencing God.
How do we know and experience him? One way is through reading Scripture. Our intimacy with the Word affects the fullness of our prayer lives, the trust we have in his promises, the robustness of our communities, the public faith we display to others, and, most of all, the core of who we are. We are changed when we stop worshiping idols and begin to experience being a child of God.
I recently wrote a piece for The Gospel Coalition about how to humanize the workplace. Christians are not the only ones thinking about this, but we—unlike the city—think about what it means to be human by thinking about what it means to be made in God's image. We don't willy-nilly pull ideas out of our heads about what we think it means to be human; we look to the Scriptures. We see how God made us. Then we implement them into our workplaces. What better way to impact the common good of our cities?
We go to church on Sundays, where we are "the gathered church," but then we go into our offices and our homes and our workshare spaces, where we are "the scattered church." At The Park Forum, we hope to equip "the scattered church" with the truths of Scripture so that we can live out the realities of God's original intention in our cities.
How has your legal training influenced your work?
After law school, I found that the skills I'd learned were so helpful, especially inter-textual interpretation, like figuring out the Old and New Testament. That's what lawyers do all the time: we interpret the statute against the Constitution. Legal thinking also comes into play when we consider an author's "original intent," and figuring out whether a particular teaching should be interpreted broadly or narrowly based on its directness, context, and so forth.
Along more general lines, most lawyers strive to be objective and to weigh competing concerns without displaying emotion, and we also have an ability to live in the grey in many areas, which I think is important when talking about the transcendent holiness and mystery of the Lord.
When it comes to my writing, I think legal writing requires clarity. When I was in law school, we were taught that adverbs were "needless words" (in the words of Strunk & White), so I rarely use them. I also rarely use exclamation marks. My goal is to be clear and concise. [Editor's note: Jenkins has good precedent in going to White; it was E. B. himself who wrote the seminal "Here Is New York," a robust and pithy 1947 survey of what makes New York vibrant.]
If the Park Forum weren't already based on the park, what would you name it?
In spring 2009, I was running in Central Park, and it was the first nice day of spring. And it was packed. And it was probably a weekend, so it was extra crowded.
And I got this phrase: "As the park is to the city, so the Word is to life." I had that phrase before the name. After the long, dead winter in the city, this is where people come. And that's what I wanted. I wanted that symbol for city people. We don't have backyards or grill-outs.
The bad part of the park—and I'm pretty passionate about this—is that people will take a picture of nature and post it on Instagram and say, "Isn't God good?" And that's true, but God is in you and in me, sinful human beings. That's where he placed his image. Even more than in this park.
So in some way, it might be the subway—a subway car. Because, as Tim Keller says, there's more square inch of the image of God in a subway car than most other places.