Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Baseball Cards, Babe Ruth, and the Bible

A few years ago, I came across what has to be one of the most interesting works of art in New York City. It's not at the Guggenheim or the Museum of Modern Art. (Hate to say it, but I've never been to either). No, this one is preserved in the rarefied air of the ESPN Zone.


It's a large mosaic that's made of baseball cards. But as it is with all mosaics, you don't see the baseball cards (tiles) when you first see this one. What you initially see is the big picture.

In this case the picture is the face of Babe Ruth. Only when you get closer do you realize that the Babe is depicted by a large number of creatively-placed cards. The effect is similar to that of a towering home run. It's fantastic. To get a taste of what I'm talking about, check out these photos.

Anyway, I've been reflecting lately about how a mosaic can resemble a piece of literature. I'm especially thinking about the books of the Bible. When a person first starts reading, he encounters it as a series of cards (each verse representing one card or tile, let's say).

Of course, this is true of any sort of reading. But people have ways of reading the Bible that don't match up with how they read anything else. I'm thinking about that method of Bible that study spends a lot of time looking at one or just a few verses. According to this method, the student will often skip from one verse to another verse found in a different book. The comparisons between the two passages seem very natural. In this method, a person or group might spend a half hour on one or two verses, with no big picture in sight.

Now, there's something to be said for this method. It can be engaging and instructive. Provided that it's governed by a healthy theology, it can itself be healthy. I've done some of this myself.

But there's also something to be said for looking at all the cards together at the same time in order to get the big picture. Of course, when it comes to Bible study, "the big picture" can refer to any one of a series found in ever-expanding frames. Some examples:
  • A psalm or a parable can be the mosaic.
  • So can a whole book, like Psalms or one of the Gospels.
  • Old Testament scholars think that Deuteronomy through Kings (not counting Ruth) is a mosaic.
  • New Testament scholars now treat Luke-and-Acts like one.
  • Biblical theologians sometimes look at either the Old or the New Testament as a mosaic.
  • Out from there, of course, is the Bible as a whole.

One problem that preachers and Bible teachers encounter is the challenge of teaching a text as it relates to and is informed by the larger whole. Let's face it, if a person preaches from, say, Romans chapter 5, there's a good chance that most of the audience will not hear the sermon in light of the whole letter.

However, allowing a passage to be heard in the context of the larger whole is next to impossible given the time limitations we've placed on Bible classes and sermons. A few tiles here. A few baseball cards there. Never the whole mosaic.

Something closely related is the ironic dearth of biblical knowledge in the U.S., including in our churches. Read some of the sermons that were preached many years ago. It's amazing to hear how often the preachers could make a passing reference, knowing that most listeners would either catch the allusion, or at least want to figure it out.

But before I get too far off the track here, I want to say that what I'm describing is a real problem. It has the potential to frustrate teachers of the Word and impoverish churches. Christians should work to overcome it. So here are some of my questions:

1. What are some of the ways that churches--parents, elders, preachers, ministers of education, etc., etc.--can effectively work to make sure that the church sees the big picture(s) of the Bible?

2. Who are some of the teachers who most effectively overcome the problem I've described here?

3. Of the different churches you've known, which one knew its Bible the best? Why were they more knowledgable than the other congregations?

1 comment:

Faughn Family of Four said...

What a wonderful illustration. The Bible, when presented in bits and pieces, can seem to many to be beyond comprehension.

Thanks for this great reminder!