Jumble sales of the apocalypse: A parable and raging hormones
I was in synagogue the other day, marvelling at a reading from the Book of Genesis. It’s not that I’m Jewish, it’s just that my dad has been the Gentile organist at a Reform synagogue, sabbath by sabbath, for the past 60 years, and I like to go along with him, kippah clamped on head, whenever I visit my home town. What caught my attention this particular Saturday was the determination that went into the reading.
No less than three people were welcomed to the lectern, with handshakes all round, while just the man in the middle read the lesson in painstakingly careful Hebrew, the other two supporting him. It made the average church reading look a bit thrown together and hope for the best.
The most memorable Bible reading of my life happened when I was still at high school in Wales. It was assembly, and we’d just recited the ringing Welsh language version of the Lord’s Prayer, when Ceri Price stepped up onto the stage for the scripture reading. The hall went completely still, and not out of any reverence for the Word of the Lord.
Ceri Price lived just round the corner from me but was a year older, and with her long brown legs, short skirts, peach-like complexion, smirking smile, smart putdowns and eyes which flashed blue fire, she could turn boys’ brain to porridge. Two hundred pairs of schoolboy eyes followed her anxiously onto that stage, where she started into Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.
Ceri quickly reached the moment when Jesus addressed the sheep: “I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me…” This produced some audible gasps for air from the back row. After all, even mildly suggestive words such as “rude” or “bare” caused sniggering in assembly. But Ceri wasn’t finished. Now it was the turn of the sheep to ask Jesus: “When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee?” Large numbers of boys around the hall now seemed to be having problems with their breathing.
Then Jesus turned to the goats to accuse them of not being there when he was hungry, thirsty, sick… and not forgetting naked. And then of course, the wretched goats had to have their say about it all and quiz our Lord on each of these particulars. By the time Ceri Price concluded that the wicked were going away into everlasting punishment and the righteous into the life of the blessed, all 200 boys were either weeping with laughter or in the throes of a hormonal breakdown. Ever since that emotional high point, church readings have for me been downhill all the way.
The incident raises the interesting question: What Bible readings are appropriate for reading out loud in church? That might seem a ridiculous sort of question, until you realise that different churches at different times have banished whole Bible books from the reading lectern.
Famously, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury for Henry VIII, left out the book of Revelation, as well as the Song of Songs, when he first drew up his readings for the Church year. In a way, you can see his point: The Apocalypse has visions of creatures with multiple heads (not to mention people swimming in lakes of fire) which, if they had been jotted down in the 1960s rather than biblical times, might have been put down to too much LSD in the Kool-Aid. Eastern Orthodox Churches still exclude Revelation from reading in church.
Meanwhile, the Song of Songs was banished for being too hot. Even though Christians had been told for centuries that all that flirting and humping was actually between Christ and his Church, Cranmer must simply have looked at the opening verse in the English translation he had – “That thy mouth wold geve me a kisse” – and thought: “No. Way.” Apparently, the Song of Songs was a very popular reading choice in the lonely monasteries of the Middle Ages, but that’s monks for you.
I’ve often thought Bible readings in church are not appreciated enough as an entertainment and a sport. There are so many details to trip up the reader who forgot to do their homework the night before: Towns called Shittim; commands not to covet your neighbour’s ass; verses that sound like football scores: “The king of Aphek, one; the king of Lasharon, one” (Joshua 12:18, if you’re wondering); the story of the Ethiopian eunuch read by someone with a high-pitched falsetto. Taking a couple of people up with you to help out, just in case, sounds like a very sensible thing to do.
Simon Jenkins is the editor of shipoffools.com. Follow Simon on Twitter: @simonjenks