While doing some work at home on a recent Saturday morning, I had my radio tuned in to an oldies station. Being an “oldie” myself, it seemed appropriate. Anyway, the DJ played the song “On Broadway” by George Benson. It reminded me of the night when my wife and I joined two close friends to see the Drifters perform at the B.B. King Blues Club here in the city. When they began to sing that number (“On Broadway”), Page leaned over to me and said, “Listen. They’re doing a George Benson song.” I replied, “No. George Benson did a Drifters song.”
Some people think “Up On The Roof” is a James Taylor song. Nope, it was Taylor doing a Drifters song. Some think “This Magic Moment” is a Jay and the Americans song. Nope, it as Jay doing a Drifters song. Some people think “Spanish Harlem” is an Aretha Franklin song. Nope, it was Aretha doing a Drifters song. Some people think “Save The Last Dance For Me” was an Emmylou Harris song or a Griffinheart song or a Heidi Hauge song or a Michael Buble song or a Bon Jovi song or a Spank song or a Harry Connick song. Nope, they all were doing a Drifters song. I could go on and on with this. In my opinion, the Drifters were the most important R&B group ever, opening the door for later acts like the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. Whereas it can be argued that the door was originally opened by the Ink Spots or by John Tanner and the Five Royales, the Drifters more successfully transitioned traditional R&B into the rock market and were the first R&B group to employ strings as background instruments. As noted, it’s hard to number the succeeding groups and individual acts who covered their songs with amazing success.
What’s the point of writing this in a church blog, as opposed to an issue of Rolling Stone? The point is to say that sometimes oldies are, indeed, goodies … and what we have heard before is what we long to hear again. It is also to say that sometimes what we have heard and long to hear again is made even stronger by new voices, new nuances, minimal edits to appeal to new audiences.
And that brings us to scripture. It is my opinion that no manuscript is so critical or so timely as the Bible (Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament). My seminary professor, Mickey Efird, used to say that, “Whatever literary topic most fascinates you is available in the Bible, if you’re just willing to read it.” He was correct. The problem is that sometimes we think it’s an “oldie” and, thus, do not read. And, admittedly, sometimes some of us who have been singing the song for generations fail to realize that “the old, old story of Jesus and his love” can be positively interpreted in fresh and contemporary ways that connect the ancient Word to the present-day listener.
There’s nothing outdated about the theology of Incarnation (God entering the human drama). There’s nothing outdated about the doctrine of Grace (forgiveness offered not by merit but by love). There’s nothing outdated about the idea of discipleship (being transformed by faith, then using that experience to help transform the world). There’s nothing outdated about the Story of the Resurrection (and how life has been made endless). Sadly, sometimes those stories are told in tired fashions that lack creativity.
The late Dr. George Buttrick (for years one of America’s leading preachers while Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian here in NYC) once visited in a church in another state while on vacation. The minister there had no idea Dr. Buttrick was in the congregation. So, that minister proceeded to preach one of Dr. Buttrick’s printed sermons word-for-word without giving credit. As he exited through the narthex, Buttrick shook the young man’s hand and asked, “How long did it take you to write that sermon?” The preacher answered, “Oh, five or six hours,” to which Buttrick replied, “It took me forty years to write it.” The young minister was caught. He realized whose hand he was shaking. But, you have to give him credit for being quick on his feet. He looked the aging scholar in the eye and said, “Well, Dr. Buttrick, let’s make a deal. You keep writing them, and I’ll keep preaching them!” Funny story … but it points out something serious. In addition to plagiarism (which is serious enough in and of itself), the young man also made the mistake of not “covering an old song” in a new way. Put another way, he didn’t take the text and make it pertinent to his own congregation in their own unique situation and moment in time.
So, here’s a bottom line take-away for those of you who are interested in The Bible. (1) Read it for what it said then. Ask the questions: Who wrote it? To whom? Why? What were the cultural and religious contexts of that day and that age? Without those questions, there is simply no way to interpret what a biblical text or passage actually means. (2) But then, add these other questions: What does this passage say to me? To my life? To my world? Those questions bridge the gap between the age of the Bible and the age of the reader. It’s like singing an oldie-and-undeniable-goodie in a new and relevant way. It’s both then-and-now, which is what the Bible has always been when properly interpreted.
Make this sort of exploration of scripture a summer discipline. Start with the gospels, if you wish. Read them chronologically: Mark first, then Luke, then Matthew, then John. Again, to quote the Drifters, you will find the results of your summer reading will be “Some Kind Of Wonderful!”