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Playing with Scripture Helps Us Remember

God’s people must never forget what God has done

We don’t need examples of how we are forgetful people. I’m reminded of my forgetfulness every time I go to the basement and stand there because I’ve forgotten what I wanted to get. On occasion I’ve met people with impeccable memories, who remember things like what I was wearing the first time we met. This astonishes me. I am good at remembering which years my husband and I took certain vacations. He remembers the route we drove to get there. But mostly I forget stuff.

It’s helpful to remember we’re forgetful. And remembering our forgetfulness is useful in worship too.

One reason we read Scripture in worship is because we’re forgetful. We forget what God did (historically) and we forget what God did in each of our own lives. So we worship to remember. “Christian liturgy is fundamentally an act of memory or anamnesis, an act of rehearsing God’s actions in history: past and future, realized and promised,” John Witvliet wrote in A More Profound Alleluia.

You may recall that remembering is a primary focus in the Old Testament. Why? Because God’s people are always forgetting what God has done. Over and over throughout the book of Deuteronomy, God’s people were reminded to remember the story of their enslavement, redemption, and wanderings in the wilderness. In Numbers 15, God even commanded that the Israelites put tassels on their garments so they would remember God’s commands. Traditional communion liturgy (and traditional communion tables) include the words “Do this in remembrance of me.”

We gather with other Christians to remember together, to remember what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is going to do. And a huge part of this is the remembering we do through story, the Bible.

But I wonder how corporate remembrance, the creation of a metanarrative, has changed. What’s happened, since the dawn of the printing press, is that biblical stories no longer live in our corporate imagination because we read silently. (Individual reading, when it occurred in Scripture, was aloud, such as what the Ethiopian eunuch did in Acts 8:26-40.)

Well, we mostly read silently if we read Scripture at all, and most residents of the United States do not. According to the 2014 Barna Group and American Bible Society State of the Bible report, though 88 percent of American households own a Bible, and 62 percent of those interviewed wanted to read the Bible more, only 37 percent of Americans read the Bible “once a week or more.” Note: this “once a week” could constitute a single verse; no amount was defined in this question. Moreover, 26 percent of adults and 39 percent of Millennials never read the Bible.

This “translation” from oral culture to print culture (and now digital culture), has changed the way human beings interact with sacred stories. Where Scripture stories used to be experienced primarily communally, today many of them are experienced individually, especially for the 37 percent of Americans who read the Bible once a week or more.

Let’s think about this metaphorically, playfully, and a bit simplistically. Imagine a frog. One community sits around, looking at the frog hop and watching him breathe. They are in the presence of the living frog. But another community dismembered and dissected the frog. This group knows how the frog works; they’ve seen his guts. They know how the frog hops; they’ve seen his bones and muscles. But they don’t experience the joy of the frog hopping around as the first community does. I wonder if this is a bit like what’s happened to the biblical story. We’ve stopped letting the frog hop around, and instead we examine it on a card, all the parts accurately labeled. We pass the cards around and study them. Some of us know an awful lot about the frog! But some of us have also never heard the “plop” when the frog’s body hits the water.

Scripture references to hearing and speaking abound. Pastor and biblical storyteller Dennis Dewey notes that, in Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus, he counters the devil with “It is written…” in the first two temptations. But in the final temptation, the Devil catches on and tempts Christ saying, "It is written..." This time, Jesus counters with "It is said [eiretai]…" In other words, "it is said," trumps "it is written.” We must not forget the oral tradition of Scripture that proceeded us.

Of course, in reading and in listening to Scripture, God’s Spirit empowers us to learn and understand. Most, if not all, Christians, can attest to times when God has spoken to them directly through Scripture. This is one significant use of Scripture. But another way God’s Spirit works is the way the Spirit forms the community of faith through God’s story in the public act of hearing Scripture together in worship.

One reason I like the word “remember” is the way it puts things back together: it “re-members” a community, a body (or even a frog). I wonder: How can the corporate act of Scripture help us re-member God’s story and re-member our own identity within it?

For further reading:

Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament by Performing It by Richard F. Ward and David J. Trobisch (Eerdmans, 2013).

The Bible in Ancient and Modern Media: Story and Performance, edited by Holly E. Hearon and Philip Ruge-Jones (Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence (MCS, Regent College) is an M.Div. student at Calvin Theological Seminary, a writer, a speaker, and a biblical storyteller. Find her at www.pathlightstories.com.

July27, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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