The Answer Book

People today are busy and stressed out. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans pioneering the west were likewise too busy to sit down and wrestle with deep issues in the bible. The Roman Catholic Church produced the “Baltimore Catechism” which is a question-and-answer format to understanding the basics of the Roman Catholic faith. Although the Episcopal Book of Common prayer contains a very similar catechism, I have derided such things in the past as “paint by numbers religion.” But the point of the Baltimore Catechism was to provide a basic understanding of the faith for people who were too busy planting crops and managing farms to do much more.

And so, the other day on the highway going into Tulsa, we saw a sign proclaiming “Got Questions? …The answers are here.” Pointing to the Bible. I remarked to Joan that “The bible is not a book of answers to all of life’s deepest questions.” She then asked, “If not, then what is it?”

I replied that “The bible is the story of God’s revelation to the world, first to the Jews and then to followers of Jesus…It is no more a book of answers to questions than the book Moby Dick is an answer book for sailors.” With narrative stories, we are supposed to sit down and engage with the story. What does it mean for you that when Jonah tried to run away from God’s call, he was swallowed by a fish and spat out on the beach? Do you take that literally? If so, then we need to ask what kind of fish could do that and how could a human survive the digestive enzymes in the belly of any animal? If it is story of God’s never-failing love for people, and how even our attempts to run away will eventually be met with a surprise guiding us back to what God has in store for us, then perhaps we can extrapolate a more important message for our life right here and now.

I find myself with mixed feelings about the highway sign and preachers who reduce the bible to a set of easy answers for busy people. On the one hand, I appreciate that they are providing some kind of basis for belief in a loving, forgiving God. On the other hand, I am deeply suspicious of motives and intentions. When dumbing down a powerful book into a caricature is combined with deception and manipulation, the preachers often get rich, and the people are denied a right relationship with God. The easy answers provided may not be helpful at all or at best they put a band aid over a deeper wound. Oftentimes, the easy answers fail spectacularly when a faithful relationship with God is needed the most.

Maybe my sermons and teachings are too esoteric or too advanced for what people need today. Maybe I need to step back in my preaching not to the level of a third-grade coloring book, but perhaps a Readers’ Digest level. I am still pondering these questions as to how the church might reach and teach people in an authentic way guiding them deeper into the mystery of God incarnate in Jesus and the sacramental mysteries of the church. One thing I can be certain of. I never got rich from the church, and I never set out to distort the message so that it deceived or manipulated people through feelings of guilt and fear.

May God bless you and keep you. May you not find in the bible easy answers to life’s challenges, but at least stories that draw you closer to the ineffable mystery we call “god.”

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