The Bible, The Newspaper, and the Gospel of Advent
“Der Pfarrer und die Gläubigen sollten sich nicht einbilden, dass sie eine religiöse Gesellschaft sind, die sich um bestimmte Themen herum dreht, sondern sie leben in der Welt. Wir brauchen doch – nach meiner alten Formulierung – die Bibel und die Zeitung.”
According to the Center of Barth Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, this is one of the three closest shots that a person has to find a quote attributed to famous Swiss theologian Karl Barth…which the man never seems to have actually said, at least not exactly as people seem to remember that he did: “We should read our Bibles in one hand,” he is often quoted as saying, “and our newspapers in the other.”
Taking an English translation swipe at the above, it seems as if Barth more or less made that point, but with some decent added heft: “The Pastor and the Faithful shouldn’t imagine that they’re a religious society only interested in certain themes; they live in the world. We still need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.”
If I were to take some liberties with that translation (I’m self-aware enough to know that I have a tendency to take liberties, but honestly I try to be self-aware to also know when I take them!), I think Barth would have said it more like this: ”The Pastor and the Faithful shouldn’t imagine that they’re a religious society only interested in certain themes; they live in the world. We need – according to my old formulation – the Bible and the Newspaper.”
We need the Bible and the Newspaper.
Reading the text from Luke assigned for the first Sunday in Advent is like one-stop shopping for both.
Here it is:
25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees;30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
The week after the Climate Report released by Donald Trump’s administration (and, unsurprisingly, denied by Donald Trump, because he believes his gut, which is to be trusted more than other people’s brains) comes out, we can’t even get through verse 25 without seeing the parallels and connection between the Bible and the newspaper: the earth’s changing absorption rates of the sun’s heat (see Chapter 4 of the report), the changing tidal effects of the moon (Chapter 19 of the report), the stars (Chapter 20 of the report, on the star corals), and the earth’s distress (the Description of Report); the unrest and threats to peace and security caused by climate change (Chapter 16 of the report); and the warming arctic waters, increased acidity, and flooding (Chapter 9).
And that whole fig tree parable: trees are blooming when and where they shouldn’t, so even that is a sign.
Pretty much like Luke 21:30 says, Kingdom of God, it seems, is very much near.
And that, right there, dear reader, is Advent in a nutshell.
The Kingdom of God is near.
Given this text, maybe just maybe that isn’t so very comforting, after all, and in fact might explain why people tend to skip over Advent.
It’s a season that has all sorts of texts that are a bit…well, freaky.
Starting this Sunday, apocalypic images, fairly terrifying and threatening words of promise/description/prophecy, a few name-callings and a healthy dose of judgment greet us and hang around for four weeks.
And all of the above are signs of God.
It may be psychologically revealing that I happen to like Advent.
It might be my favorite season, even.
But if it is, it’s even more theologically revealing.
I like Advent because it serves up a healthy corrective both to the rampant schmarminess that takes over Christmas (even before the poor turkeys start fleeing for their lives), and, a la Barth, the rampant refusal of many Christians to see that the themes of their religious society aren’t ends-to-themselves, but have something to do with the world.
Everything, actually, to do with the world.
The Bible interprets the Newspaper, and the Newspaper interprets the Bible.
This text, though, hints that it doesn’t take Advent to freak us out.
Look again at verse 34: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap.”
Luke’s Jesus seems to get that life freaks us out.
Have you read a newspaper recently?
Have you braced for the holiday season with relatives you don’t like at the table and people you do like absent from it?
Have you looked at the fluctuating stock markets, the empty fridge, the empty bottle, the loneliness in life, the pace of life, the declining congregational budgets, the people sleeping under bridges, the starving children in Yemen?
We have every reason to be freaked out.
So we cope with our freak-outs due to the threat of life in all sorts of ways, including apathy, and escape, and fretfulness.
Each of these coping mechanisms (we think and hope) help us avoid both our finitude and our fidelity to God.
But Advent ain’t having nothin’ of it.
Not one whit of it.
It is not a season for conflict-avoiders, judgment-avoiders, truth-avoiders.
It’s a season of brutal honesty, self-reflection, and repentance based on said self-reflection and honesty…
…and on a re-calibrated understanding of who God is, and therefore of who we are called to be about too.
For example, as has been circulating around Facebook lately, you can’t worship the child in the manger while gassing the one at the border.
Or approving of gassing the one at the border.
Or doing nothing about gassing the one at the border.
You just can’t.
As but one example.
You can’t be preoccupied with avoiding life, for you will therefore not live it fully, and others will suffer while you enjoy your apathy, your drunkenness, or your private freak-out.
See, this text and Advent as a whole are here to remind you to be alert, because the day is coming when you and God will have a bit of a chit-chat about what you did, or did not do, by way of stewarding your faith.
And again I say unto you, “Gulp.”
On the other hand, this text and Advent are also here to remind you that, as we hear in 28, redemption is near.
There is hope to be had.
This awfulness will not last.
An end is in sight.
And this text and Advent are here to remind all of us that, in the meantime, God matters.
Our faith in God matters.
The world matters.
You are God’s.
The world is God’s.
So pick up the Bible.
Pick up your Newspaper.
Both will totally freak you out.
But Advent promises that the signs you see in both mean that redemption is near.
Keep the faith.
For the Gospel of Advent is this: the Kingdom of God is near.
Read Anna’s other Advent blogs here.
Discover Anna’s new offerings, themed monthly retreats, through her Spent Dandelion Retreat Center here!
And as if that OMG joy weren’t enough, thumb through Anna’s last three blogs here:
Small, Really Super Duper Small, Actually, Business Saturday
Pass the Blessings—and The Basket of Buns, While You’re At It
Interesting! When Fred’s 25th anniversary of ordination was recognized, the Bishop said, “I think of him with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Not so much anymore. The memory decline is more obvious!
Amen Anna, preach it to the world and I’m going to try and help.
Thank you, and be assured that you do, more than you will ever know.
I realized while preparing a sermon for Advent 1, the Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen’s recent blog (this one to be exact) was so spilling over into my unpacking of the Gospel text that I wished I could just read it aloud from the pulpit. Instead, I will do the honorable thing and try to distill (as best I can) a quote so she will get proper credit. My old (quotable) friends: Fred Craddock, Brian Stoffregen, David Lose, Brueggeman, etc., well, you guys have been amazing, but I think there is this new sheriff….ur…VOICE in town!! Thank you Anna!
Sheesh. That’s a bit over the top, is it not? Like, beyond over-the-top over-the-top??
But I feel the same about your tunes, so we’ll call it even.
We have an inherent need to be relevant to our hearers. It is important to us as Christian leaders to both make the Bible come alive and speak to the real world concerns in which people live. The Bible and the newspaper balance those needs, but there is a cost. Sometimes we have such a desire to stay relevant we try to prove our relevancy by starting with the newspaper and working our way back to scripture and the tradition. Observation and revelation are not mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily equal partners either. One interprets the other as a lens to read the other. It seems in our contemporary age where the church as a trusted institution and scripture as a trusted authority hold less sway with people, for well-founded and explicable reasons. As a result, we have inverted the relationship of revelation and observation, giving more weight to what we can see and experience with the hope that our faith might have something to say in response.
Thank you for your comment!
As preachers and as people of faith, we have not just an inherent need to be relevant, but an inherent call to be relevant.
We see it in last week’s text from Luke where the entire text was grounded in the relevant history (you can read my blog about it here), and you can see it in the text for today, the third Sunday of Advent, where John and Luke address the faithful response to consequences of the immediate socio-political context of the day (you can read my blog about that here).
True preaching and true faith has nothing of needing to prove one’s own relevancy,but rather illustrating the relevancy of the gospel.
In fact, I think the resistance to this sort of faith/life/social justice intersection is in fact a result of some segments of Christianity preferring the relevancy of their privilege over the relevancy of the gospel. We have heard from the Old Testament (e.g. Amos, Micah, Isaiah) and through the New Testament (Luke, Matthew—-perhaps most exquisitely seen in Matthew 25, which makes not faith the litmust test of God’s blessing/condemnation, but the social action of feeding, healing, welcoming, and visiting), that the intention of God and the gospel, namely the good news which announces that life, and not death, has the last word, compels people of faith to enact that relevancy by being ambassadors of life wherever death is found—-including poverty, injustice, racism, bigotry, and the toxic consequences of privilege (including ignoring the relevancy of the real world) at the expense of others (who do, in fact, live in the real word, and suffer and die in it unjustly too—hardly a sign of the reign of God).
I thank you for reading my blog, and I wish you the peace of the Gospel in your daily life, and in the lives of all whom you touch.