The Word: Imagining the Gospel in Modern America
By Ann Monroe
Westminster/John Knox Press

At St. Luke-in-the-Fields, an Episcopal church in New York City, the rector, Roger Ferlo, has recently become something of the ecclesiastical flavor-of-the-month, attracting small crowds to his Monday evening studies of the Bible. Ferlo, a former English professor, draws on literary-criticism techniques in his sessions, and uses Socratic dialogue to great effect. Certainly, Ann Monroe finds it engaging. Monroe explains in her book, "The Word," that she attends Ferlo's talks "for those moments when something hits me in a way I had not expected and opens my imagination to a new glimpse, a new facet, of God. . When I walk out, my soul is bubbling and slightly off-kilter, as though I am responding to an entirely different form of gravity."

In "The Word," Monroe works from a marvelous conceit: the search for the Bible as "a place of encounter with God." She wants to understand why Americans, ostensibly so devoted to the Bible, bring so many different attitudes to it and, perhaps more importantly, why we take from the Bible so many divergent interpretations.

But the most engaging journeys, in my experience, are those that take the pilgrim from one place to another--physically, intellectually, spiritually--rather than in a circle. It's difficult to escape the impression that Monroe, a journalist with generally liberal theological sympathies, knew all along where her journey would end.

Monroe offers three vignettes to open the book: a Billy Graham crusade in Tampa Bay Stadium, the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco, and a visit to Marble Collegiate Church in New York City.

Graham's audience, she says, is made up of those already in the Christian fold, looking for certainty. For them, the Bible offers "the promise of a relationship with God" as well as the assurance "that all will be well with you forever." This is what Monroe herself found enticing about Graham in her teens, and it is the appeal that Graham still uses, to great effect.

Next, at the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, Monroe comes into the orbit of scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, as well as lectures with titles like "The Implications of Gender-Bending in Micah." The author finds Borg engaging, but she encounters at the gathering a kind of terminal solipsism, with the overwhelming focus not on the Bible itself, but on the subjective reception of the text, known as "reader-response criticism."

At Marble Collegiate Church, amid the vestiges of Norman Vincent Peale's feel-good theology and studied attempts to be friendly, Monroe notices that the word "God" rarely emanates from the pulpit. But she discerns, lurking beneath the surface of the warm welcome, "a vision not of an accepting God, but of one who demands, judges, and rejects; and of a Bible that is the record of that God's rules and of his wrath."

Ostensibly unsatisfied with her encounters, Monroe sets out to explore what she calls "the staggering interpretive gap" between Graham on the one hand and the Society of Biblical Literature on the other. "Is there a way of reading the Bible," she asks, "that recognizes all that we have learned about it--its many strands, its complex history, the human intricacies of its development--and allows it, in and through all of that, to be a place of encounter with God?"

"The Word" unfolds rather predictably from here. Monroe's peregrinations take her to Congregational churches in Colorado Springs and in her hometown of Winnetka, Illinois, to a Baptist church in Charlotte, North Carolina and to a religious retreat led by biblical scholar Ched Myers. She goes to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, the bastion of what remains of Protestant liberalism, where Jim White, a Congregational minister tells her, "People believe more in the truth of the collective unconscious than in the revealed word of God." Monroe adds her own summary of the liberal approach to Scripture: "Everybody I met insisted that the Bible was important. None of them read it."

Meanwhile, "conservative" for Monroe is roughly synonymous with "fundamentalist." Her stops along this end of the spectrum include several megachurches and a visit with Kay Arthur, an evangelical Bible teacher, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Once she gets beyond her gee-whiz discovery of megachurches, Monroe observes that conservatives focus on Paul more than Jesus, but spend a lot more time with the Bible than liberals do.

These are hardly fresh observations. Monroe concludes that the God of the conservative's Bible is austere and demanding. "To take her path into the Bible is to move down a road that narrows as you walk," Monroe says of Arthur, "and her entrance gate opens only to those with the right key."

Having watched Monroe establish the inadequacy of both conservative and liberal approaches, we brace for the payoff, but what we get feels more like a setup. Monroe visits an art gallery, where an artist offers fatuous statements about "the hazards of literal interpretations of religious texts." Monroe talks with a poet, who says (apparently with a straight face): "I think truth is what it's about, and it's not that what's beautiful is true or what's true is beautiful." Another poet tells her, "I became interested in Job not as literature, but as a kind of koan. . When I was going through a very difficult experience, I felt magnetically attracted to the book of Job."

This sounds like reader-response criticism, the very morass of subjectivity that Monroe found among the Jesus scholars, and which she professes to find so detrimental to a full appropriation of the Bible. Worse, the author dives into the morass herself with her concluding vignette, a visit to her own congregation--Ferlo's St. Luke's. Has Monroe advanced our discussions about the Bible beyond the tired old liberal-conservative dualisms? I'm afraid not. Ferlo sounds like a swell guy, but he has positioned himself squarely on one side of the divide (according to Monroe, Ferlo spent the first six months of his tenure at St. Luke's putting to rest conservative theological reservations about homosexuality).

I wish Monroe had been more intrepid in her search for mediating positions. How about a conversation with Douglas Frank or Roberta Hestenes or Richard Mouw or Anne Lamott or others who have liberated themselves from the shackles of literalism but who take the Bible seriously--very seriously indeed?

The possibilities are as limitless as--well, as limitless as interpretations of the Bible.

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