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Worship & Music workshop explores dialogue, dissonance and debate in the Bible

Old Testament scholar Dr. William Brown says that in our polarized time a dialogical approach can be useful

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. William Brown chats Monday following one of two classes he’s offering during the Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

MONTREAT, North Carolina — The Bible is sprinkled with dialogue, dissonance and debate. That’s a good thing and it’s something that makes the Bible unique among sacred texts, Dr. William Brown said Monday during a class he’s offering at the Worship & Music Conference being held this week at Monreat Conference Center by the Presbyterian Association of Musicians.

Brown’s week-long course is called “Dialogue, Dissonance and Debate in the Bible.”

A Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, Brown said he’s found the dialogical approach to reading and engaging Scripture helpful. In our polarized time, “the church and American culture really need a healthy dose and appreciation of dialogue.” The Bible “points us in ways that encourage dialogue rather than debate,” he said, adding the Bible does not speak in one voice, “and some of the perspectives are held in tension.”

According to Brown, marks of genuine dialogue include:

  • Attentive and deep listening
  • Respect for each other even in disagreement
  • An openness to learn
  • A truth Brown has learned from African American friends, that “differences are not deficient”
  • Cultivation of curiosity and wonder
  • There’s no shame in changing one’s mind.

Brown appreciates the African American descriptor of the Bible as “the talking book.” As literacy gained a foothold among African Americans, “they realized the Book could talk to them too,” Brown said. The Bible is diverse, “and it talks, and it’s open to be talked back to.” That’s especially important on Juneteenth, “a day of joy still filled with a sense of sorrow and responsibility,” Brown said. “Dialogue generates action and a renewed sense of responsibility.”

As reflected in a traditional U.S. motto, “E pluribus unum,” the Bible has diversity of literary genres and theological perspectives. “It describes communities struggling to describe God’s presence in their midst,” Brown said. “The Bible did not descend on golden plates from heaven. It wasn’t dictated to one person. It’s the accumulation of traditions from one generation to the next, interwoven together with all its diversity into one book that talks and invites us to talk as well.”

Brown pointed out some differing view found in Scripture, some in close proximity. Proverbs 26:4 says not to answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself. In the very next verse, we’re told to “answer fools according to their folly, lest they be wise in their own eyes.”

“This is a classic dueling proverb. They’re saying, ‘It’s up to you to decide,’” Brown said. “Wisdom is all about finding the right way in a given context. They are not utterances of timeless truth — they are utterances of timely truths. You decide.”

Still, “there is a time and place to walk away. That has become clear to me from my African American colleagues,” Brown said, quoting James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The psalmists have different views of humanity, as we see in Psalm 8:4-5 and Psalm 144:3-4. Proverbs offers us two conflicting views of poverty. Proverbs 6:9-11 includes these words: “How long will you lie there, O lazybones?” Proverbs 13:23 says, “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.”

“The thing about wisdom literature,” Brown said, “is there is freedom given to the reader to decide.”

Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 offer us two different theological rationales for observing the sabbath.

Here’s how Katherine Johnson, a student of Brown, summed up some of these themes a couple of years ago: “Perhaps a Bible that makes room for tension between divergent perspectives, a Bible that models a brave refusal to delete the voices that disagree, a Bible that is comfortable with leaving questions open and unanswered, a Bible that invites dialogue, a Bible that compels us to take an active role in wrestling with its ideas in our own hearts and in community with other people who interpret it differently than we do, is precisely the kind of Bible that God intended for us to have.”

“Couldn’t have said it better myself,” Brown said.

PAM’s Worship & Music Conference has about 1,450 people attending this week and next. Next week’s conference is also available online. Learn more here.

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