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The Open Book

By David Spriggs.

(This is the first part of a two part article about the Open Book project. The second half of the article will appear in the October 1999 edition of Ministry Today) Read Part II!

The Open Book began life as a 'year of the Bible' to happen prior to the Millennium. Its purpose was to help ordinary people face the human issues which were likely to become more focused under 'millennium pressure', by providing them with biblical insights. The Archbishop of Canterbury, through Churches Together in England, put the Group for Evangelisation to work on it. How things change! What was originally conceived of as delivering Bible text in relevant and attractive presentation has now become one of the most challenging and innovative projects around. It will last not for a year prior to the New Millennium but for many years into the New Millennium. In this article I will set out something of the opportunity which The Open Book offers to our ministries and our churches.

The unfolding of and progress with the Open Book in 1998

1998, the year intended for the original 'year of the Bible' project, did indeed see the start of The Open Book. The initial challenge was to convince people that Bible Society (who had, by invitation from Churches Together in England, become the resourcers and managers for The Open Book) were serious and that they could deliver. This they have done in spectacular fashion. The launch to the Christian Public at the Christian Resources Exhibition was an attention grabbing event, with Diane Louise Jordan arriving on the mobile stage on the back of a motor bike. Throughout CRE, the practical potential of the Open Book was demonstrated through art, drama, debate, story telling, videos and children's musicals. CRE was only one of a number of high profile opportunities to underline the reality of The Open Book. On the ground, equally significant work of a more substantial kind was being done. As requested by CTE a churches' Resource and Activity Planning Pack became available early in the year. This has since received two extensive supplements. Like the overall vision of The Open Book, the Pack was well received, often with exuberant approval. 1998 also saw enormous progress in raising awareness about The Open Book and in building partnerships with churches and organisations. However, although more than 3500 packs have been requested, most churches are finding it quite difficult to put The Open Book into practice. So we have been asking ourselves and local churches - "Why?"

The Challenge for the Churches

There are all kinds of reasons for this. First there are practical difficulties. Churches tend to have very busy agendas and it always takes more energy to become involved in something innovative than to repeat something already well tried. In the present Millennium situation this is ever more the case. Secondly, The Open Book 'events' were presented as concepts rather than 'How to's'. Again, it is easier to work with 'off the shelf' materials rather than such an approach which demands creativity from the users. However, I believe there are a number of deeper issues which make The Open Book extremely demanding for most churches. So let us look at some of those challenges.

1. The Bible as 'Story', not 'Book'.

For most people the obvious way to perceive the Bible is as a BOOK. This it surely is. It is for many of us not just any book but the Book. Emotionally it is the book to which we have the greatest attraction, it is physically the best presented book (leather bindings and gold edging), it is the biggest book (think of the number of pages, but also the size of the church edition for reading from the front) and it is the most revered book. For many church leaders it is the most read and the most studied book. It is the foundational book, the book which many other books comment on and illuminate. For many it remains the most useful book. Even Desert Island Discs takes it as a given that you will have this book gratis.

Now, The Open Book comes along and says to people, please perceive 'this' as book no longer - regard it as 'Story'. It clashes with common sense, and with years of emotional and spiritual tutelage. For some, even some quite sophisticated people who intellectually know better, there is also the downdrag of feeling 'story' is not quite a 'kosher' category, downgrading the truth claims we want to make for this book. Not only have we thought of the Bible as book par excellence, if we have moved into other categories they have not usually been 'story'. A source of wisdom, even divine wisdom, maybe. An invaluable resource for history is another felt option. Prophecy has also been for some a major interpretative category. Many preachers regard the Bible as the primary source for their sermons and teaching, hence the Bible is viewed as both inspiration for and guardian of these endeavours. 'Story' is a category we have been taught to dismiss as inappropriate or demeaning for such a great work as the Bible. Better to see it as God's gift for maintaining our personal spiritual life; a bespoke communication system yes, 'story' probably not.

This is not to say that people find it difficult to see that the Bible is a big story of God's dealings with the human race and certainly they do not overtly reject this as a plausible category for our task to-day. Equally they can appreciate that and why the Bible is a closed Book and therefore we need a different approach. Nevertheless, there are many under-currents which constantly drag people back from the perspective the Open Book advocates.

2. The Audience - out not in.

The Logo used for The Good News Bible 25 years ago was indicative of a revolution in our approach to the Bible. The four circles each set within an arrow, represented 4 people looking at an opened Bible. The formation corporately made a cross between them. This logo was indicating Christian people reading the Bible together, sharing their insights and learning from one another. There were two revolutions. First the transition from the normal 'quiet time', on your own, personal spirituality to a recognition of the value of and need for a more corporate approach. More fundamentally however, this logo marked the transition from Biblical communication from the preacher to a (passive) congregation (an authority/teacher- student model) to a 'house-group model' (peer, experience based sharing model). Nevertheless, I think the presupposition for most English Christians would be that the four people were Christians, sharing and learning together. The Open Book is now indicating a second and potentially more radical and threatening change. For we are saying the Bible is God's Story with everyone, therefore we (Christians) have the responsibility of making this Story accessible to everyone. Therefore please tell your neighbours, your work-mates, your friends and the whole community around you what this story is. It has taken us time to feel free to share our insights with our Christian friends at the home group. No doubt it will take some time to have the confidence and competence to tell those beyond the church. For many this will be a really 'scary' message. But it is at the heart of the Open Book.

For others it will be a theological challenge. Explicitly perhaps, implicitly probably, the message has gone out that the Bible is the Book of the Church. Not only in the sense that it is the book which provides guidance and models for the churches' life and the individual Christian's life-style, but also in the sense that only within the church can it be understood properly. For some this is a question of order, but for many to-day it is about the necessity for the active presence of the Holy Spirit to interpret the book for which the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author. (1 Corinthians 2: 10- 15). To put it another way, are we not in danger of casting pearls before swine? Perhaps the answer is contained within Bible Society's foundational parable, The parable of the Sower. Indeed, what we are doing in terms of audience is the same as the original vision of Bible Society - making the book available to all, believing that the Holy Spirit will be at work to assist understanding. But some will struggle with this, because of the hidden theological baggage.

3. Communication -creative not word based (only)

The Open Book is also about methods of communication. Inherently it is claiming that books no longer communicate as well as once they did in ways that change life, styles, views, values, actions and commitments. In many of the approaches which The Open Book recommends there is the implicit message that more creative approaches are likely to be more effective in our post-modern culture. Of course, word is not ruled out. Story Telling is word based, the spoken word is part of the message of Testament or any other video. But there is a bias towards the non-verbal. The Arts, Media, Image, Drama, activities where things are experienced, is the predominant motif. And where word is recommended it is in forms which are probably less comfortable for Christians. Take debate for instance. Whilst this is clearly word based, there are at least two levels of discomfort. First, in debate we Christians are not in control, we are vulnerable, exposed, we may not be able to defend the truth properly. Secondly, debate appears to be 'confrontational' and that feels suspiciously unchristian to many of us. So there is a felt change being demanded of the ordinary Christian in terms of the preferred methods of communication for The Open Book. Of course, as with all these points there is a very positive side to all this. Different people will be able to use their gifts in the communication process and will feel affirmed and more properly valued. But initially there is a challenge here which may indeed be more of a threat to the 'gate-keeper' in the church - who is often the preacher and minister.

4. Community -partners not targets.

The Open Book starts from recognising our responsibility to communicate in ways which are helpful to our intended audience rather than in ways which are comfortable, time-honoured and thought to be helpful to us. Core to this approach is a recognition that communication is a partnership; implicit in it is a relationship of mutual helpfulness rather than dictatorship - take it or leave it, here is the Bible in black leather covers. Already, of course, modern translations and presentation styles have been moving in this direction. What The Open Book does is to move this on significantly. One way I explain what The Open Book means in practice is as follows. At your church you might have a regular coffee morning to which some non-Christian people come and you decide that this is where you will 'open The Book'. You decide that you will stimulate debate by hanging some paintings up. Having rejected the icons as too radical you have a problem - who can paint? Whether or not you could do them yourselves you decide to go to the local school and offer them £100 of art materials if they will produce some paintings for your community coffee lounge. For this to happen, you tell the story to the teachers and to the children (how else can they paint appropriately?). You now have 50 paintings of varied quality. Rather than use only 5 you decide to put on an exhibition, to which initially you invite the parents, and incidentally, the local press. You tell the story to them and then the press print the story in the paper. Finally you put the best pictures in the coffee lounge to get your 'customers' talking about the issues so that you can share with them God's insight from the Bible. You have accomplished your objective, but in the process have been able to 'open the book' in a variety of ways and in so doing accomplished far more than you initially envisaged. In this process teachers, children, parents, press, readers and others have become partners.

It seems to me that this kind of chain re-action is The Open Book working properly. It frees us from having to have all the answers and allows other people to make a significant contribution. We learn to work smarter! Which brings me to the final paradigm shift for the churches.

5. Learning - discovering not telling

Behind much the churches' teaching and communication is the presupposition that we hold the truth and therefore should tell it to others. Reading the Bible aloud (especially when people do not have their own copy) models this, as does preaching. Today most people do not come to own truth this way. Today people are much more comfortable in discovering truth. So, the child will not be taught 2+2=4, but will discover it by being encouraged to put two red bricks with two green bricks and find out how long they are when placed together in an appropriate grid. People want to work out how a computer works by doing it, not reading the instruction manual. The Open Book is seeking to generate contexts where people can discover God's truth for themselves rather than being told it by some external authority.

Some Christians will sense that this is an inappropriate methodology for those who believe there is an ultimate authority and that whether we like it or not God has told us what is truth. So, the question arises - is The Open Book, in seeking to correlate with contemporary culture, actually betraying something fundamental to the nature of our belief? For those who struggle with this issue may I suggest two clues. First we need to distinguish between the way people arrive at truth and the status of the truth they reach. Just because people discover truth through their experience, it does not mean that the truth itself is subjective. Although, I agree, that there is a tendency for people making the discovery to assume this to be the case - it is true because I now know that it is true! Second, it is important to reflect on the methods Jesus used. Inherent in his parables is an invitation to people to investigate, engage with and explore the stories for themselves until they inhabit their meanings and understand their messages. Although Jesus was the ultimate authority and was often recognised to have authority, his authority does not appear to have resided in his method but his person and his message. Indeed, it was those who had an authoritative method who lacked the authority! So, I believe that The Open Book is not betraying or diluting the divine authority of Scripture by opting for a different methodology of learning. But initially it is understandable that many of us may feel that it is, thus making it harder for the churches to become whole-heartedly enthusiastic about it.

Conclusion

When these five conceptual challenges to the churches are identified, it helps those of us who are advocating for The Open Book see some of the hurdles that church leaders and ordinary Christians have to cope with in order to become deeply involved in the practice of The Open Book. In saying this, I am not claiming that they must face all the theological and philosophical issues involved, only that these factors of difficulty are operating whether people can identify what is the cause of their disquiet or not. We will therefore need to be patient, supportive and encouraging as people attempt to make the transitions we are looking for. All the more so, because people will not always be aware of these issues at a conscious level but will be experiencing them as nagging doubts, waves of uncertainty, or hidden hesitations. In addition to all of this there are also practical challenges for our churches. No wonder then if it is taking most of them a while to get going. The great thing is that some churches already are and that when the vision is properly cast, most people recognise the validity of the call.

The Revd Dr David Spriggs is Open Book Project Director with Bible Society. He was formerly Secretary for Prayer and Evangelism with the Evangelical Alliance.

Ministry Today

You are reading The Open Book by David Spriggs, part of Issue 16 of Ministry Today, published in June 1999.

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