By JOE MILLER
It's one of those Bible stories that everyone either forgets or avoids altogether. Judah, one of the ancestors of Jesus, gets himself into a spot of trouble by visiting a prostitute. The plot thickens when it is discovered that the "prostitute" is his daughter-in-law, Tamar.
"You won't hear too many sermons preached on this one," chuckles Hesston College professor Marion Bontrager, who was in town to teach the first part of a three-weekend course at Conestoga Mennonite Church, in Morgantown. The course had the unwieldy title of "Bible Survey and Anabaptist Hermeneutics: The Story of Salvation History." Boil it all down, though, and the course could more easily be called "Making Sense of the Bible."
Even seemingly strange stories such as that of Judah and Tamar have a message for us and are part of the larger Bible story, says Bontrager. "It's important that we are able to know that story and how the parts fit together."
Bontrager's approach to the Bible comes from his childhood in an Old Order Amish church and home. "At home, Egermier's Bible Story book was read to me on Sunday afternoons, hours at a time. So early on I learned the 'bigger story' of the Bible rather than many disconnected individual stories," he says.
In fact, says Bontrager, Old Order Amish preaching is largely Biblical story telling. Four times each year at the fall and spring Counsel service and again two weeks later at the Communion service, the Heilsgeschichte (Holy History) is preached from Genesis to Revelation. In these extended services, says Bontrager, one preacher stands up and begins in Genesis. Another minister then picks up the story where the first left off and so on. The services may last for five hours each. The Amish, he says, have been telling the Bible story in this way for several centuries.
In some modern churches, the Bible narrative is being forgotten. "Biblical illiteracy is taking a serious toll on individuals and the church itself," he says. "When the biblical story is not told, the secular national, sports and media stories fill the vacuum."
"For many today, the Bible is considered largely irrelevant, even by many professing Christians," he says. "The challenge facing the church is huge."
Bible Survey and Anabaptist Herme-neutics is one of a series of four Gateway courses designed for Mennonite pastors who do not have Anabaptist background or training. The courses are offered by Eastern Mennonite University in collaboration with Mennonite conferences in southeastern Pennsylvania.
For more information on these and other courses, go to www.emu.edu/lancaster/seminary/ or call Mark Wenger at Eastern Mennonite Seminary's Lancaster campus. The phone number is 717-397-5190.