Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Christopher Bryan has written numerous books, studied under J.R. Tolkien at Oxford and taught many a seminarian (including myself) how to read and listen to the New Testament.

Christopher Bryan has written numerous books, studied under J.R. Tolkien at Oxford and taught many a seminarian (including myself) how to read and listen to the New Testament.

The other day I read an article by a fellow hospice chaplain, Emma Churchman, reflecting on ministry to the sick and the dying. The job of chaplain, as Churchman puts it so beautifully, is primarily that of “midwifing the Holy.” The metaphor is wonderful, and the article is a good one, with one rather intrusive exception—a seemingly out-of-place paragraph on Churchman’s personal biblical hermeneutics that features this far-too-distracting throwaway line, “The Bible is a helpful reference guide for me, but certainly not the word of God.” A bit more ridiculously, if equally dismissively, Churchman goes on to diagnose the apostle Paul with “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”

There were a few reasons why I had trouble with this part of the article. That the chaplain felt qualified to give this diagnosis was one matter; she does not appear to be a trained therapist or psychiatrist. That she felt entitled to apply a contemporary diagnosis to someone she had never actually met apart from through ancient letters—which, ironically, she had only just tossed out as meaningless with a blanket rejection of Scripture anyway—was another matter.

An easy, convenient, and maybe “politically correct” way these days to dismiss the veracity of a particular source’s argument is to diagnose that source with one or another clinical disorders, I guess; but it seems strange that a pastorally sensitive person who would no doubt refrain from making such diagnoses about living persons (at least in this sort of publicly disseminated way) would have a hey day with a dead authority like the apostle Paul (who, barring some psychic medium’s summoning of Paul from the dead, cannot be here to defend his words or offer a counter argument). It is also, ironically, a rejection of postmodernism’s contributions. These helpfully would insist that Truth must be mediated by our own experiences, and that what may be my truth may not be your truth and so on. Why can’t the apostle’s truth at the least be his truth, not some manifestation of OCD? It seems Churchman wishes to affix this label to someone she disagrees with.

I just finished reading retired New Testament professor Christopher Bryan’s book Listening to the Bible (and I commend it to you). There Bryan makes the convincing case, in a nutshell, that the Bible, regardless of whether it is read by secular academics or religious types, qualifies as “great literature.” And he goes on to offer some suggestions on how we, both in the church and out, might read the Bible as it was originally intended to be read.

For starters, he writes, we need to show respect to the writers of Scripture by listening to what they are trying to say. We listen first, before being quick to impose our own inevitably subjective interpretations on the text, with a view to “hearing [biblical voices] in the context of their own times and assumptions,” as Bryan puts it. In the case of Paul’s letters, then, this attentiveness would imply according the apostle Paul, as an author of letters that for centuries have belonged to a work classified as “great literature,” at least the same respect that we would show our own written work. Such respect might entail taking Paul seriously as someone who means what he says; and it would refrain from amateurish diagnoses of our ancient interlocutors, even if such modern labels like OCD are entertaining to contemplate. Sure, it’s funny to imagine the apostle Paul as a short, loud, slightly overweight Danny Devito character with peculiar neuroses. Why not add OCD to the mix? But insofar as these diagnoses make it easy to dismiss Paul’s thought as uninspired or unimportant for the life of the church today, are such comments really helpful beyond offering a bit of a laugh?

Got an opinion? Leave it below. I’d love to hear how you regard Scripture and what it means for you to “listen to Scripture.”





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