Many years ago, a theologian by the name of Karl Barth made a now famous statement to faithful Christians to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read them both.”
It’s probably not a wise thing to say when writing a newspaper column, but in our day, I would imagine Karl Barth to say, “take your Bible, your newspaper, and your other chosen electronic news sources, and read them all.”
About 40 years later, Barth, then late in life, was interviewed and asked about his now famous quote. He remembered when he first told young theologians to do just that. Then he added an additional comment: “But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
I remember being taught that same quote when I attended seminary. And yet the more I read the newspapers, or find myself tuned into the news on TV, or find myself looking at a computer screen at the latest information that the algorithm in my server determines that I need to read, the more I am convinced that you and I need to get the order right.
The Bible views God’s Word as a Living Word, that enters into this world and changes everything, including the way you and I look at the world. John’s gospel (chapter 1) speaks of Jesus as the embodiment of that Living Word, and through him, God changed the way we look at the world. Simply look at the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew (ch. 5-7). There Jesus says, “you have heard it said…but I say to you…” and what follows is a completely different way of looking at the world.
This week we have heard once again about President Donald Trump — in spades — and turmoil around the Middle East, the Ukraine, and turmoil in Washington D.C. about impeachment. There has been news about sexual harassment, the Harvey Weinstein trial, and there are more sexual accusations against former Today show host Matt Lauer, featuring additional details of the routine mixture of sex and power completely separate from love and commitment. There was an important editorial about local government and how important it is to know about what’s going on locally and globally (thanks to this newspaper, often!). There are stories of drought, flood, changes in the environment. The Supreme Court is hearing cases about gender discrimination, in particular about gay and transgender people dismissed from their work. Immigration and race relations are often on page eight, if they aren’t on page one. We’ve heard about the achievements of humanity with the offering of Nobel prizes and many amazing discoveries in science and academics. There are often letters to the editor in this newspaper that lay down a firmly conservative or liberal point of view. Back them up with the appropriate news channel or website of choice.
“Interpret newspapers from your Bible,” Karl Barth added to his initial quote.
It describes an order: God’s Living Word comes first, and it changes the way we see the world. Now, before you shake your head vigorously to agree, recognize that one temptation the faithful have is to use God’s Word as a proof text. As I was once told, “It’s a poor preacher that can’t make the Bible say what s/he wants it to say.” To do this is to come to a conclusion ourselves, and then use the Bible as a source for our own arguments. But God’s Living Word operates differently, and it often turns things upside down: “You have heard it said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44). That’s one single word from Jesus that changes a lot of what we want to hear or say or do in this day and time. The Living Word of God often challenges the way we look at the world. And invites us to a different way of living.
It’s amazing to think that we’re only two months away from December, and a celebration of Christmas. Karl Barth, as he continued his reflection on our living in the world faithfully with Bible and newspaper in hand, recalled the angels announcing a Living Word to this world in the birth — and life, death, and resurrection – of Jesus: “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” “[We] should never be formed by the world around [us],” Barth added. “Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?” God’s foolishness, is what the apostle Paul called the Good News of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 1:25). For us, in this world of tumult, it is a Living Word of hope, and our way of life.