About this blog

The purpose of this blog is for Quakers and interested fellow travelers to explore the Bible together as it speaks to our condition as individuals.

This discussion is open to Christians, non-Christians, atheists and Pagans; to those who are often confused or angered by the Bible and to those who see scripture as inerrant; to good Quakers and to not-so-good Quakers--to name just a few points of view.

All comments should be given in humility and tenderness, especially where the original poster's perspective is different from your own.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness"

So, I've been trying to figure out my best qualification to be a Bad Friend-- you know, get admitted to the club. According to the Facebook group introduction, I need to be "just not very good at being Quaker .... [not] always peaceable, humble, kind, loving, truthful." I wear plaids a lot, which isn't plain dress... does that count? I yell at people sometimes... I think that's my *real* bona fides as a Bad Friend. But in my unprogrammed circles, I sometimes get this vague suspicion that folks think I'm a Bad Friend for being so interested in the Bible.

Now, my brand of satire may be too light and dry, so I just want to get the disclaimer right up front that my monthly meeting has several people with divinity degrees in it, scripture is occasionally referred to in spoken messages during worship, and in reality folks are familiar with the Bible to some degree and do esteem it to a greater or lesser extend. But still... there are certain cultural norms, social mores and expectations, that I keep having to cross. The raised eyebrows, the don't-know-what-to-say-next pause after I mention a verse in conversation. After I visited Indiana Yearly Meeting the first time, I took to carrying around a compact copy of the Bible to every Quaker event I went to, modeling the evangelical style. FGC Quakers sure don't do that. (But, it's NRSV; and I haven't highlighted it.... If you really need to know, it's the zip-up kind, in admiration of Eden Grace's travel Bible...)

Well, when I was growing up, I didn't get too much exposure to the Bible. My Unitarian-Universalist Sunday School studied Bible stories one year --you know, Adam and Eve and Noah, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, out of a large-format picture-book for little kids. When I graduated from high school, the UU's didn't give me a Bible but a book about Thoreau (which was great... I love Thoreau...).

At the school where I teach we have some new faculty members who grew up evangelical, and the question of the inerrancy of scripture is a live question for the husband; we've had some great conversations about it. But it was never a question for me. The other day I realized I had to explain to him that where I grew up, the Bible wasn't believed to have any inherent authority at all. It was cultural heritage, thought-provoking moral stories, and troubling histories about holy wars. But I was curious, so in high school I started cautiously exploring it.

The first parts of the Bible that meant anything to me personally were the Sermon on the Mount, the first chapter of the gospel of John, and the first verse of Genesis. And I think the Sermon on the Mount is a fine place for a teenager to start getting to know the Bible, because it's about right action, and it's about avoiding hypocrisy, and it's about high ideals. Impossibly high ideals, indeed; but that's material for a different blog.

In college, I ran into evangelicals for the first time. Some were friendly, and some were argumentative. My first exposure to proof-texting was when a good friend, who was Christian and gay, arranged a debate between the campus chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ and the religious-or-Bible-studying members of the campus Gay-Straight Alliance, about what the Bible says about homosexuality. Needless to say, fireworks ensued. I was most struck by the sterile legalism that the debate created. It wasn't creating a welcoming atmosphere for spirituality, or for spreading any good news.

Some Christian friends advised me to read Paul next, but that's where I really ran into problems. I was too easily sidetracked by his boasting, and the parts where he tells women to be silent (but is it really Paul or an interpolation?) and verses that talk about Christians being "slaves to Christ" (but see Romans 8:15... and of course John 15:15!). So all in all, by the end of college I was attending Friends' Meetings regularly and finding Quaker writings such as Fox's and Woolman's Journals to be much more helpful to my spiritual/religious growth/quest.

Five years later I went to Pendle Hill. Their Bible courses transformed my relationship with the Bible and radically deepened my spiritual life. (Many thanks to the teachers, Rebecca Kratz Mays and Chris Ravndal.) And here's what made the difference: sharing about it in a group. An accepting group, where you could honestly lay out what you disagreed with, what gave you the heebie-jeebies, what made you angry. What moved you. What brought tears to you. What you yearned for. What you loved. A group where we could weave together the experiences of our lives with this record of a window onto the transcendent. Reading the Bible together, out loud, in sincerity, formed a "Meeting for Worship for Learning" which gave God a chance to relate to us through the words.

I think Quakers like me are most open to the messages in the Bible when we can wrestle with it like Jacob wrestled with the angel; can argue with it like Moses argues with God (Exodus 32). Not argue with each other over it, like I did in those college debates (or like Cat's Bible-as-blunt-instrument), but share our struggles and our insights with our Friends, like I could at Pendle Hill.

So here's one of my now-favorite passages in Paul's letter to the Romans. It's chapter 8, verses 14-39, as informed by keeping in mind that beautiful summary, chapter 12 verse 2. Maybe the best short part to quote is verse 26: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. ... [and 12:2:] Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect."

As I studied Paul with others, prepared to argue with him about theologies I didn't like, I found so many advices that I loved, and descriptions of growth in spiritual life -- specifically, about transformation through faith. (And faith could mean: walking trustfully when we can't see, as in 2 Cor. 5:7.) Paul gets so enthusiastic! He's found this path, this way, and wants to leave landmarks for others; it's like the journal and map of an explorer. So my heart melted a little for him. Now when I read those passages, I think of those deep silent meetings for worship --maybe we've had a message praying for help, or grateful for God's love -- when you can tell that everyone really is gathered in the Spirit, and you hear the sighs rippling through the room, and I think, "There it is, interceding for us! Helping us renew our minds and discern the will of God!"

Frederick Martin is a member of Monadnock Monthly Meeting of Friends, and teaches history at The Meeting School, a Friends' boarding school nearby. He posts very occasionally on A West Rindge Quaker.


  1. "I was most struck by the sterile legalism that the debate created."
    Scriptures can be so rich when we enter into "the spirit in which they were written," and so dry when we don't.
    Thank you for this post

  2. This particular passage has always been one of my favorites although I think it makes most sense to me when I don't think about what it may have meant to the Pauline community. Oh dear. I'd like to hear more commentary about what is meant by "the spirit in which they are written." I don't think I understand the phrase accurately.

  3. The idea that Scripture must be read in the Spirit in which it was written, or else it will be misunderstood or not understood at all, was not original with Friends. Thomas à Kempis said it in the 15th century (Of the Imitation of Christ, I.5.i), and so did Luther in the 16th (in his commentary on the Magnificat; quoted by Barclay in the Apology), and William Dell about the time that Fox’s ministry was beginning; and Calvin said something very nearly the same.

    The fact that this idea was that widespread, taught in that many different places and languages, and endured through so many generations, suggests that by the time of Friends it was a piece of common received wisdom, understood by the general populace not according to the meaning given it by some scholar but according to whatever meaning that the general populace found in it.

    What is quite clear is that everyone who repeated this bit of wisdom in writing, or offered some variation on it, understood “Spirit” to mean the Holy Spirit, and not just emotion or passion or attitude. But beyond that basic, the variations seem worth pondering. Luther added the element of experience: the Spirit teaches us what the words mean once we have an experience of our own that we can connect the words with; and Barclay, Hubberthorne and Penington all seem to confirm that this was equally the view of Friends. Fox gave the idea an evangelical twist by declaring that one must come to the Light and Spirit first. And Penington drew a careful distinction between reading Scripture in the Spirit and reading it in his own will or according to his own preconceptions.

    I hope this is helpful.

  4. Thank you, Marshall. That is helpful. My own belief is that the scriptures cannot be read apart from a knowledge of the historical/cultural context in which they were written if we are to even begin to approximate what the original intent of the document could be. However, I also find that once that task is accomplished, a kind of spiritual reading to try to perceive collective ahistorical Christian response to the readings is sometimes helpful. For instance, my readings of history make me sympathetic to ancient Egypt so how do I understand Miriam's song? I'm not likely to be thrilled about horse and charioteer hurled into the sea. But when I perceive this passage as a means of expressing exaltation and gratitude for the release from oppression and recognize its usefulness (as among enslaved African Americans thousands of years later)for those who are oppressed I better understand the mood in which the passage was written is related to but not synonymous with its historical and intellectual context.

    I communicate this badly... but it is like this: When I read the words to understand their historical significance, I understand one layer of meaning. When I hear the words as song or poetry, meaning melts past intellect and meets me at my heart.

  5. going out on a limb here, but this came to me as i read this post and comments.

    holy spirit is the connection between us all. not just us now, but us always.

    putting aside linear time, which i know is not acceptable to most, but putting it aside anyways, if one were connected to spirit while writing and one were connected to spirit while reading, well isn't this where that divine ah ha happens? not to mention that as more and more participate in the connection it becomes even more meaning full, more spirit filled.

    this is my understanding of the scriptures being read in the spirit. in order to do this a person must have had an experience of spirit. how else can you be connected without having experienced the connection.

    as a side note, wouldn't that help to explain why some parts of the bible are so wrong, because they were written without that connection to spirit?

    it's o.k. if you all think this is crazy, i'm becoming used to that.

    thank your for your post. it was most meaning full to me.

  6. I thought about this post today as I posted the following on my blog -- "The Inner Light does not lead men to do that which is right in their own eyes, but that which is right in God's eyes. As the Light is One, so its teaching is ultimately (though not superficially) harmonious. In actual experience, it is not found that souls truly looking to the Inner Light as their authority will break away from each other in anarchy."

    -- Ellen S Bosanquet, 1927

    What is the role of the Inner Light in reading scripture? How do we access Christ our Inner Teacher whilst reading the Bible?

  7. Oh, how I miss my days at Chabad...yelling across a table about the meaning of passages of scripture...then sharing a meal afterwards. I love this idea of wrestling with the angel. I was once told that "doubt is a function of faith", and it completely changed how I viewed this Way I walk, scriptures, what G-d wants from me, etc... If truly we are to have relationships with G-d, then certainly it should actually look like a relationship. Sitting down to scripture, if it produces only ecstacy and joy (no fear, trembling, indignation, aversion, etc...as well)...then we must be reading through a filter, putting it in a box. Having also been in the Evangelical world for a time...I left swearing I would never box up G-d again. Thank you for this!
    From another BAD QUAKER.....

  8. I'm glad this post occassioned Marshall's and Hystery's discussion about "reading scripture in the same spirit." I appreciate the history, Marshall. And as you can see from the personal narrative I included, it's true to my experience that you need some connection/ experience of the Holy Spirit before *really* understanding some parts. (Indeed, I might add, provocatively to some of my liberal Friends perhaps, some experience of the Cross as well. Material for a different post - the same one as the Sermon on the Mount post, in fact.) And, @ Brent, yes, it must follow that the teaching of the Light is ultimately harmonious. True leadings of the Spirit should harmonize with scripture, too. Oh, the yearning for clear sight and hopes not yet fully realized!

  9. @Wee Dragon: Chabad! The Pendle Hill course on the synoptics included guest appearances by Marcia Prager, a rabbi who gave many insights into Christianity-as-a-form-of-Judaism. She will be speaking there on the 13th!

    @ Everyone: Pendle Hill is this fall putting on a whole lecture series called "Who Do You Say That I Am?" with Colin Saxton, Lloyd Lee Wilson, Ben Pink Dandelion, Betsy Blake, Christopher Sammond, and two Hispanic Evangelical Friends from Philly, Norberto Guerria-Chacon and Elser Galvez. (And others.) Amazing group!