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2009-12-01 issue:

A farmer's Bible

We need to allow the Bible to ask us questions.

by Dave Nickel

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My dad owns an 80-acre plot of land that we call the "Delft 80." It's a small field 13 miles from the home place. When I was younger, we had a tractor that reached 15 miles per hour on the road. I made the seemingly endless drive countless times and wondered why Dad had not sold the land. As I sat and sweated on the vinyl tractor seat, I thought to myself, Dad should sell. He should buy something closer to home.

The Delft 80 is hilly, and rocks abound. Usually such ground wreaks havoc on farm machinery and doesn’t produce bountiful yields. But the Delft 80 is different. Late in the summer, the rolling hills of tasseling corn have an elegant mystique. More practically speaking, it is fertile. In Dad’s words, "It produces good corn."

Why does the Delft 80 produce good corn?
Why does Dad hang on to it, making the monotonous drive numerous times every season? Why does he deal with the hills and the rocks year after year? I’d like to say it is because he is a romantic, but that he is not. Instead, he is patient and, through studying the Delft 80 over the years, he has allowed it to teach him how to farm it. He has not allowed the traditional methods of assessing land value affect his work ethic. He has let the land work on him, and the yields have been bountiful.

Like the Delft 80, the soil of the Bible sometimes seems full of interpretive difficulties; it may even seem like worthless ground. According to one scholar, "Scripture is full of embarrassing, offensive and internally contradictory texts, texts we don’t wish to live with, let alone live by."

In the past, I have both overly denied and overly embraced this statement. Sometimes I read the Bible as an inerrant science book and other times as an inaccurate history book. Both readings were problematic; neither took Scripture seriously. In both I chose which passages were authoritative and discarded the rest. I was lazy and uncommitted. I was unwilling to read the Bible closely and wrestle with those passages that seemed to provide "inappropriate" messages. I clung to the flat, rock-free passages close to home. Unlike my wise and patient father, I let the traditional ways of evaluating land tell me to sell.

More recently I have been introduced to the work of the late Swiss theologian Karl Barth. He teaches me that, instead of selling, I need to change my perspective. Instead of bringing my own questions to the text, Barth calls me to approach Scripture with a posture of humility. I need to allow the text to speak to me, to allow it to ask me questions about what I believe and how I live. The question is not how to get God to participate in my life; instead, reading the Bible pulls me into God’s eternal life.

Barth proposes that our struggle with Scripture
is how we join in what God is doing in our world. We penetrate into the heart of the text so that through the written words we may receive the Word of God, Jesus Christ, into our hearts. The Bible forms our spirits into a home for the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures invite us to live in what Barth calls “the strange, new world of God."

As we dwell with God's Word, the Holy Spirit lifts us into the new world of God's incomprehensible love and glory. This is the message Barth finds in Scripture, but he goes on to write that his answers are only a weak attempt because they measure God with his own measure, conceive of God with his own conceptions and wish himself a God according to his own wishes. Barth calls us to grow beyond these weak, human answers to hear the Word present in Scripture.

The work of biblical interpretation is full of paradox and contradiction, but Barth points out that we do not engage in this work alone. It is also the work of the Holy Spirit. God graciously enables us to reach beyond ourselves. Barth challenges us to develop both understanding for this strange world and goodwill enough to meditate upon it and enter it. Such entry means a changed life; interpretation leads to a life of discipleship.

Despite their inconveniences, the Delft 80 and the Bible produce bountiful yields.
The Delft 80 produces good corn, and the Bible produces good disciples. We do not need to change the Scriptures to meet our expectations; instead, we need to change our perspective. We need to navigate the interpretive difficulties with the hope that God will encounter us. We need to have faith that God has something to say to us, that God will change us through our reading and our wrestling. We must approach our Bibles with humility and patience.

Like my father, patiently and diligently working the soil of the Delft 80 and letting it teach him how to farm it, we need to work the soil of Scripture in the same manner, letting it teach us how to properly interpret it. We need to allow our lives to be shaped by how Scripture interprets us. We need to accept God’s invitation to join in his story on his terms. Then Scripture will lead us into new life, eternal life, the life of Jesus Christ. Then we will find ourselves in the strange, new world of God. Then our reading of Scripture will bear fruit in our lives and in the church.

Dave Nickel served as a ministerial intern for the Eastern Carolina District (NC) of the Virginia Mennonite Conference.

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