The New Christians

The New Christians

More on the Lectionary

posted by Tony Jones

It may seem a parochial concern, but the comments on the Revised Common Lectionary post last week have been very intriguing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the comments of two members of the Consultation on Common Texts, especially. That’s the ecumenical group that puts together the RCL.

Their comments have been enlightening, but they’ve failed to address what several other commenters and I have: The redacted portions of the Bible do not seem to be just for the sake of readability. They seem oftentimes to have a theological agenda behind them.

Why, for instance, is the first chapter of Job excluded? asks commenter Alan K. Or why are verses of Psalms that speak of taking vengeance on enemies or bashing babies heads against rock edited out?

So, I’m asking Andrea and Taylor, and anyone else from the CCT, to explain the theology behind these decisions…

Comments read comments(15)
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Bob Cornwall

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:09 pm

As one who often, though not always, preaches from the lectionary, I do keep the entire context in mind. But as for passages that speak about bashing babies heads against rocks or seeking revenge, etc., my question would be: what value is there for keeping such portions of the text in the readings for worship? Am I more likely or less likely to preach from a text if the offending parts are left in?
Maybe in due honesty they should be included, but as I discern whether to preach a text will I not decide to go another path?

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Greg Arthur

posted June 2, 2009 at 4:31 pm

I would challenge the idea of the text being offensive. Why is this a bad thing? If there are parts of scripture that make us uncomfortable doesn’t that hearken to an intent by God to make us so? There are always choices about the texts we use and how we use them, but if we try and submit to the uncomfortable parts it is very formative for the church.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I don’t think it’s about the text being offensive so much as it has to do with the communities in which the lectionary is followed.
Two things I think of:
1. kids are almost always present – and frankly, I’m glad my 3 year old doesn’t hear the story of the baskets of foreskins. In churches where a lectionary is not used, kids typically are in sunday school/kids church during the main service so doing whole series’ on creepy Bible passages is more common.
2. the lectionary, more than for personal use, is a book of COMMON WORSHIP. So the thinking (I imagine) is that a pastor/priest will be preaching from those passages and referring to the portions that surround it that might be relevent to the message. AND the scriptures are used for worship not necessarily deep pondering on why God told his people to kill innocent children. (and for the record, I don’t consider those conversations less worshipful or less important)
An additional thought – the Lectionary isn’t supposed to be the end all and be all of Scripture. When I go to churches that utilize a lectionary/church calendar I get more scripture in a month than I did in church growing up in a whole year. So even if people never read any other Bible during the week, they are still getting more than in a church that doesn’t use a lectionary. HOWEVER, I think that most churches would encourage their parishoners to read the REST of the Bible too.

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Aaron R.

posted June 2, 2009 at 5:24 pm

I’m just an observer, but here is a crack at it…
In the NT, Paul affirms the gifts of “tongues” and interpretation. But he tells the church at Corinth not to do tongues in public w/o interpretation, because it’ll make random unbelieving visitors like, “dood WTF?!
(1 Cor 14:23, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”)
Similarly, if you use the lectionary for *public* reading, you could say that some passages should be accompanied by interpretation. If the passage doesn’t have interpretation, and is taken out of context, it could be a stumbling block to unbelievers present.
Just like “tongues” are affirmed by Paul, we also affirm these passages of scripture–just use discretion in public use.
I’m just thinking out loud here.

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Bob Cornwall

posted June 2, 2009 at 8:30 pm

How do you get good news out of a text that speaks of bashing the heads of babies? Or, the text that was mentioned I think at the beginning of all this concerns Judas’ suicide. That passage is almost an aside, in a statement about why the church needs to add a 12th apostle. I preached that text and while I read the whole piece in preparation, I didn’t think it necessary to speak to it or have it read in worship. A Bible study session, now that’s different.
And as Makeesha reminds us — sensitive ears are often in the place.

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posted June 2, 2009 at 8:50 pm

What the lectionary is for me:
3 years
52 Sundays+
Expose the gathered to a digestable chunk of Scripture
Center the choices around Christ, the Gospel, the Kingdom
I can live with that.
The alternative… selections picked by whom? Tim? Anyone of us?
Because there is going to be a picking and choosing process. It’s unavoidable.
No, the lectionary is not perfect.
Yes, the lectionary is good
Definitely better than the picking and choosing done by 99% of us.
That’s my take, Tim

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Chris Johnson

posted June 2, 2009 at 9:41 pm

ahhh! my last comment got lost! ahhh
ow well here is the readers digest version:
Preaching is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I was taught in seminary to read the whole passage and all the surrounding passage then pick out the part of the passage that speaks to what your congregation/audience needs to hear.
Basically who cares if the RCL “left” out parts make up your own mind as to what needs to be included.

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Andrea LaSonde Anastos

posted June 2, 2009 at 11:09 pm

I am deeply appreciative of the thoughtful responses from pastors and preachers who are using the RCL. I am hopeful that more of my colleagues on the CCT will express their thoughts and recollections, but I would note a couple of overarching caveats.
First, the CCT is not a monolith. What motivated one person at the table might be quite different than what motivated another. As Taylor pointed out, the theologies and ecclesiologies ranged quite extensively from Roman Catholic to Reformed to Protestant, from American Baptist to United Church of Canada to Missouri Synod Lutheran.
Second, while any one of those who participated in the creation of the original Common Lectionary or the revision that led to the RCL, may be able to provide his or her own explanation for certain choices, the lectionary was always intended to stand on its own and speak for itself. I would consider it a pointless offering if every time someone wanted to use it, he or she needed to ask what the intent was behind a certain choice. My personal opinion is that is should be useful as it stands.
Having said that, I have to admit that I enjoy sharing what I know and what I remember and some of the process that led to what is currently in use.
At the time of the revision, the CCT deliberately solicited response from persons who might otherwise not use the lectionary, but who had a theological investment in it. For instance, we invited several rabbis and Hebrew scholars to comment on our choices for the First Reading and the responsive psalm that had been paired with it. Several passages and psalms were altered, adapted, dropped, added, or emended as a result of those conversations.
I would note that particular appreciation was expressed by our Jewish sisters and brothers for the choice to use semi-continuous Hebrew scripture following Pentecost since this at least made a good faith attempt to respect the validity of the First Testament as scripture in its own right and not merely as a fore-runner for the Second Testament. I would say that using the First Testament this way was one of the theological agendas of the CCT.
In spite of the desire to use only semi-continuous First Testament readings for Pentecost tide, thematic readings were added during the revision as a second stream in order to meet the needs of those denominations and communions that are required by canon to read all three lessons every Sunday. It was felt that three lessons, cycling independently, as the Hebrew scripture, epistle and gospel do during those months was too confusing for public reading.
Much of this history is available in the introduction to the RCL in the book format. More of it will be available in a new resource that we will be publishing as a 20th anniversary edition and reflection. I comment on it here by way of noting that there were many agendas and many theologies at work…and some of the agendas were less theological than ecclesiological…
…or pastoral. Someone has already alluded to the issue of reading a passage without offering exegesis or interpretation, or without being able to hold it in context. Remember that the Common Lectionary had been in use for three full cycles before the RCL came out. We had been receiving both individual and corporate responses to the lessons and had asked very specific questions of users regarding how the lessons “preached,” how they worked together, what was missing, what needed to be dropped. We asked about doctrinal concerns and pastoral concerns, among other things. There was a good deal of lively conversation around passages that were frequently avoided by the preacher, but left echoing in the ears of parishioners; the rape of Tamar being a specific example.
We agreed that the pericopes could not be arranged to keep that particular story in a context that allowed the people in the pew to hear it with anything other than horror. It might work IF the preacher addressed it, but most clergy admitted that they chose one of the other lessons, both of which were more accessible and less fraught.
Would we make the same decision about that passage today? I don’t know; we made it 20 years ago when many of our congregations were just learning that there WAS such a thing as a lectionary. Many denominations admitted that their members were effectively Biblically illiterate when it came to the First Testament. We heard the concerns of the rabbis and the concerns of pastors who didn’t know what to do with the lesson, we weighed the concerns, and we made a choice. Given that we couldn’t include everything, anyway, we asked, “Is this something so important that it should displace something else? Or is it problematic enough that we should drop it for now.”
It is one story about one passage, but I hope that helps to give some small part of an answer to a huge and complex question. Sorry this was so long, but the whole topic is one I still find fascinating 20 years later.
In peace,

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Taylor Burton-Edwards

posted June 2, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Thanks for this conversation, Tony. I and the other members of the Consultation on Common Texts really appreciate it.
I actually tried, three times, to post a response today. First from my phone—utter FAIL. Then from my Kindle—frustrating FAIL (forgot to put in the email address and it erased everything I wrote). Then from my laptop just a few minutes ago—but then I went back to try to make sure I understood your question, the screen refreshed, and what I had begun disappeared. More FAIL.
So I guess I’m hoping the fourth time is the charm.
Let me start with three places (well, two for now) where you can already find some of the answers to your question about the theology behind our work. Andrea has mentioned these, too.
1. One is the CCT website, Click on the Revised Common Lectionary link on the left, and that will take you to an overview article with links to deeper info if you want it. This is sort of RCL for beginners kind of stuff. It probably doesn’t answer your question directly, but it does lay out what the RCL is, what it does, and something about its history.
2. We actually published a substantially larger article about our work in 1992 when we released it in a book called, “The Revised Common Lectionary” published by Abingdon Press. That book is still in print. It includes the lectionary itself—in both the semi-continuous and complementary “basic” forms (i.e., before various denominations have customized them in certain ways to meet their needs)—plus the article in question.
3. And we’re working on a much more extensive volume—a complete commentary on the lectionary that will describe the considerations that went into the selections of each reading for each Sunday, including the history of including those readings (or NOT doing so, in many cases) in lectionaries East and West over time. We’ll be drawing on the extensive notes and archives, as well as living memories, of those who assembled this version of the lectionary. It should be a really helpful volume for folks looking for that kind of thing. We’re looking at 2011 or 2012 for the completion of that project.
So, to answer your question more directly, Tony (or at least to try to), what were the theological “agendas” behind these selections? As Andrea noted, there were many theological agendas behind many of these selections over time (the choice of some of these readings for some of these Sundays goes back as far as fourth century lectionaries). Add to that the many different theological “agendas” represented by the people and denominations who worked directly on the project—Roman Catholic, Mennonite, Disciples of Christ, Christian Fellowship of the Unitarian Universalist Association (yes, Trinitarian “Unitarians”!), ELCA Lutherans, LCMS Lutherans, Presbyterians, ELC Lutherans in Canada, United Church of Canada, American Baptists, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church in Canada, United Methodists, Reformed Church in America, Christian Reformed Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Polish National Catholic, Anglican in Canada, Episcopal Church in the USA (who didn’t start using it until 2007!), and perhaps a few others I’ve inadvertently forgotten—that what we hope we’ve done here is actually to represent listening to and across all of them. Consider what it takes to get a consensus across all these different and often divergent voices and theologies!
Two things to understand here, I think. One is what a lectionary is for. It is a selection of readings intended to be read, sung, heard, and proclaimed over a period of time in the context of Christian worship as Christian worship has been practiced in the “catholic” or “ecumenical” church. The reading, singing, hearing and proclaiming of four texts each Sunday—Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel—is very ancient in origins, with precedents in Jewish practices of reading from Prophets, Psalms, and Torah each week in the synagogue. As others here have mentioned, we do not believe that any lectionary replaces the need for Christians themselves to study, pray, and hold each other accountable to the Spirit’s voice through the whole of Scripture. What we do believe is that what we hear and celebrate with each Sunday needs to reflect as much of scripture as can be reasonably managed in the context of this larger and ancient tradition.
Perhaps another basic thing to understand is that we weren’t starting from scratch here. We were starting with a variety of lectionary traditions, from ancient to current, and seeking ways to do several things:
1) adequately represent them and the decisions they were making in appropriate ways in our work;
2) ADD to them in areas where THEY were, intentionally or otherwise, either simply not including enough or appeared biased in what THEY excluded.
The RCL is our second go at this, as Andrea also noted. The Common Lectionary project, completed in 1983, was our first attempt. We put that out there for “trial use” and kept garnering feedback on what was working, what was not working, what was missing, and what we needed to improve. All of that went into the release of the RCL in 1992. The biggest criticisms of our prior work were that we did not include enough of the Psalter, that we were not necessarily respecting the Old Testament readings in their own right, and that we did not include enough texts that showed the role of women in Jewish and Christian biblical history.
The first is more of a liturgical agenda than a theological one. We included more Psalms and more verses of a number of those previously included.
The second is theological—because the selection of Old Testament texts had been made in prior lectionary traditions many cases not for what those texts had to say, but for how they pointed to the gospel. This is a “typological” reading of the Old Testament. Some of our members needed for a variety of reasons to continue the typological tradition. Others desired to move away from that, at least at times. The compromise was to create two different cycles in “Ordinary Time” (after Epiphany until Lent, and after Pentecost until Christ the King). One is “complementary,” continuing the typological selection of OT texts to coordinate with the gospel. The other is “semi-continuous,” to address the concern that the OT texts do need to be heard in their own right.
The third is also theological. The critique was legitimate. Previous lectionary traditions had excluded the role of women by and large. So the RCL includes far more stories of the women in the Bible than any previous broad-based ecumenical lectionary project to date.
On to Job, then. Why “exclude” chapter 1? Again, it’s not that we were excluding it per se. Compared with previous lectionary traditions, we actually included more of Job in the RCL than they did. What some lectionaries over time have generally done is “hit the highest high points” of the dialog between Job and his friends and the appearance of God at the end. Others have read Job only Christologically (“I know that my redeemer lives” being one of the few texts that would be read in worship), not taking it seriously on its own merits.
We tried to include more of Job, especially in the semi-continuous version, so it would be read on its own merits without overdoing it (I think we can agree that the friend’s dialogs get really repetitive if you’re trying to read this in worship!). The sections that made sense for us to add were expansions and expressions of this dialog and God’s response, which is the core of the message of the book itself. The “intro” in chapter 1 doesn’t seem to be followed up in the overall story/drama and, really, appears somewhat peripheral to its main point. Is that a theological judgment? I think we might call it more of a literary judgment.
On praying curses down on nations? Well, yes, in general we have followed the Sunday lectionary traditions in not including these. Why? It is not because we have some agenda to reject the notion that God is a righteous judge. Read the Advent lections, really starting with two weeks before Advent each year.
The issue is what the Psalms are for. The Psalms, as we use them in worship, are for prayer. We do believe that Jesus himself has called us not to pray curses upon enemies, but rather to bless them and pray blessing for them. So you won’t find Psalm 109 in the RCL. That doesn’t mean we think it shouldn’t be studied or even preached about. It does mean we don’t believe Christian congregations should be asked or expected to pray this way.
Hope this begins to help. If I’m missing something, please do keep pushing. I really do want to answer your question, not avoid it.
Peace in Christ,
Taylor Burton-Edwards
Secretary, The Consultation on Common Texts
(and btw, Andrea was the immediate, and excellent, former Secretary– and one of the folks who actually DID this work “back when”!)

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John Vest

posted June 3, 2009 at 2:55 am

I agree with Tony’s basic point that the RCL sanitizes portions of the Bible for public worship. Or, this is at least the effect of pastors who slavishly follow the RCL and have probably never read the background material from the CCT. I think it is a mistake to never read offensive or challenging passages in worship. I think it is important for congregations to hear their pastors wrestle with and even argue with/against these texts, especially in churches where most people only come to worship and don’t do adult education. When I preach I feel free to argue against these kinds of texts when I feel it is necessary. I think this is the beauty of having a multivocal canon. I don’t have to agree with every passage of scripture and struggling with passages I find problematic is a way to proclaim the gospel with integrity.

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John Vest

posted June 3, 2009 at 9:49 am

I should also say that I appreciate the comments from the CCT members about the purpose and function of the Psalm readings in the RCL. I don’t think most people understand this. Still, this only begs the question of why we edit historical (and canonical, right?) prayers to suit our own purposes. Are offensive psalms the “word of God” or inspired yet fallible words of ancient Israelites? The editing of the RCL suggests the latter. I don’t have a problem with this, but let’s call it what it is. And if we go there with Psalms, what does this say about the approach to the rest of scripture? Again, I don’t have a problem with where that leads, but I imagine some people might. I guess the question is really this: what theology of scripture is the RCL promoting (even unintentionally) in churches that use it?

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Timothy Matthew Slemmons, Ph.D.

posted June 3, 2009 at 10:36 am

Dear Tony:
A word of thanks to your reader Dan Mayes for alerting me to this conversation on the RCL. Perhaps you and your readers, as well as the members of the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT) who are responding to your posting, might be interesting in learning that over the last several years I designed Year D to supplement the RCL. I have read all the rationales for the design of the RCL, and while there is a certain practical phronesis to many of them, I find none of them take sufficient stock of at least two major considerations: (1) the question of our “common texts” was settled for Protestant/Reformed churches nearly 1700 years ago, and again in during the European reformations and at the Westminster Assembly; if nothing else we should at least gather that the CCT is poorly named; (2) the many, many places where scripture attests to the need to honor, keep, observe the fullness of the revelation of God, the blessings attached to doing so and the sobering warnings against reduction and partiality.
I have presented Year D to the Worship and Theology working group of the Academy of Homiletics, at a continuing ed. event at Princeton Seminary, to pastors reading groups, to M.Div. and D.Min. classes at Dubuque Seminary. What I can tell you is that pastors and preachers universally “get it,” even though denominational publishers (so far) do not. They recognize that the same limited repertoire of texts – admittedly never intended to supplant the canon as such – leads to boredom and complacency, a sense of the gospel being watered down or expurgated (as you say), and any number of other theological biases and distortions; indeed, the evidence is everywhere in the mainline churches that a diminished presence of the fullness of the Word in the pulpit and in the liturgy of the church leads to diminished congregational and denomination vitality.
Personally, I came to the task of designing Year D, not to draw people away from the RCL and all the many tools that derive from it, but simply to supplement them. The mainline church is suffering from a serious lack in its scriptural/spiritual diet, plain and simple. Here was my double bind: my own denominational (constitutional) standard, the PC(USA)’s Book of Order, lays the responsibility for text selection squarely at the feet of the the Minister of Word and Sacrament. That responsibility is to ensure that the congregation, over time, hears from “the full range of Scripture” and the “whole range of the psalms” [W-2.2002]. Then it goes on to state (lukewarmly) that lectionaries provide a “broad range of readings” [W-2.2003]. In other words, as a pastor I have a sacred responsibility to range beyond the lectionary into the breadth of the canon, respecting its (!) boundaries, not those of the RCL. Furthermore, I have been given no such tool to do so decently and in order. So I had to develop one myself. While my denominational publishing house is “Feasting on the Word,” there remains an important, if humble, instruction from the Lord: “Gather up the fragments.” This is what Year D does.
For more information, let me refer you and your readers to the following website, which has not seen much activity lately, mainly because I am concentrating on more face-to-face interactions.
Grace and peace to you in the Ministry of the Word,
Timothy Matthew Slemmons, PhD.
Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics
University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

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Taylor Burton-Edwards

posted June 3, 2009 at 10:38 am

Good questions, John.
I think Andrea’s example of how the CCT wrestled with the rape of Tamar probably is exemplary of the considerations that support not expanding existing lectionary traditions to include all of the “unsavory” (if you want to call them that) elements of the Bible.
But again, the point I hope we’re all hearing is that the issue has been less about what to exclude than what to add over time. The RCL includes more scripture, including more “difficult” passages, than any previous wide-use lectionary for Sunday worship.
What theology does the use of the RCL promote? I think that would be a really fascinating doctoral dissertation– or maybe many. The answers there could be as variable as the traditions that use it, and even down to the congregations and the people that encounter these texts over time. How congregations use it, for example– whether they use only one reading or all four or some combination of these– could all impact the “implicit,” “explicit” and “null” curricula being conveyed by the use of the RCL as a guide for the use of scripture in that particular place among those particular people at that particular time.
Speaking for a bit from my own tradition– United Methodist– what we know of our churches is that about 2/3 of the use the RCL 75% of the time or more. What we don’t know is how many of the texts from the RCL they use each week or how they choose which ones they’ll use or how they’ll actually use them. My own guess, based on my observations across our denomination, is that this might mean one or two of the readings are read and part of the Psalm (not necessarily all of it) might be adapted as a call to worship or a responsive reading. United Methodists, from what we can tell, by and large are not “praying” the Psalms in Sunday worship– despite the efforts of my office and a number of others over the years to try to help our congregations recover this practice. For us, the RCL is voluntary. And frankly, even if we were to try to make it mandatory that just wouldn’t fly. So slavish use? I can’t say United Methodists, at least, approach the RCL that way.
As far as approach to scripture is concerned, I’d say we’re all assuming that the phrase “The Word of the Lord” applies to the entire Bible in some sense. There is great variability about what that “sense” is precisely. United Methodists, for example, along with Anglicans, hold that the Bible “containeth all things necessary unto salvation.” Others among those of us who formed and still form the CCT have other approaches that would be representative of perhaps the entire spectrum one might imagine from “inerrancy” (in several varieties) to “witness” (if that’s even a good way to describe the spectrum).
So our effort has not been to underwrite one or the other of these approaches to scripture per se. It has rather been to continue to expand upon the lectionary traditions that have been part of the Christian faith across many times, cultures and places. If that represents “sanitizing” per se, then I suppose one would have to conclude that lectionary traditions for Sunday worship have been “sanitizing” scripture for quite some time now.
Peace in Christ,
Taylor Burton-Edwards
Secretary, The Consultation on Common Texts
Director of Worship Resources, The United Methodist Church

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Andrea LaSonde Anastos

posted June 3, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I would briefly support one of the major points Taylor has made: the purpose of the lectionary is not to exclude anything. The purpose of the lectionary is to include as much as possible given the parameters of a lectionary format.
Members of the CCT would strongly encourage other groups to engage in the process of creating a fuller lectionary in any way the group chooses to do that. It is a humbling experience to make the choices that need to be made if Sunday worship is to include anything beyond the reading of scripture. Remember that there are (basically) 65 or so holy days in which scripture is read in the Assembly.
If it works better for you, by all means divide the Bible into 65 equal portions and try it out as a way of inviting the congregation into worship. My own guess is that it isn’t going to fly in most churches.
But the very experience of wrestling with the issue and realizing that the end product will be used (or not) by thousands of Christians across the globe…and used without any chance to defend your choices to them…is an exercise in discipleship in its own right.
Again, I am so grateful for this conversation.
In peace,

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Richard Houskeeper

posted July 8, 2014 at 1:25 pm

obviously like your website but you have to test the spelling on several of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling problems and I to find it very troublesome to inform the reality on the other hand I’ll certainly come back again.

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