No room for secularism among these 97 local residents who accept The Bible Challenge

By Harry Anderson

Throughout the Western World church attendance is declining. As secularism advances, the precepts of the Judaic-Christian tradition upon which Europe and all of the Americas have based their culture are withering. Yet evidence of a universal need for “something” beyond the cheerless landscape of a God-less existence mounts. Up on reports and statistics that give evidence to the weakening influence of religion, the Rev. Susan Carpenter, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Greenville, is determined to fight back against this trend.

“During my internship at St. Bart’s [St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church, Manhattan], I learned of ‘Radical Hospitality’”. Thus began her explanation of why she has brought to her congregation The Bible Challenge, a novel program conceived by Marek P. Zabriskie that has become a big hit for the 97 people who have accepted the challenge.

“The world has become hostile. Christianity is no longer the norm for lots of us, and talking religion is out. But a great need still exists to connect with God. So, ‘Radical Hospitality’ enters the scene, and the Bible Challenge is a part of that.”

Hearing of growing excitement fomenting at St. Thomas, a visitor recently sat with Reverend Susan in her office to get the scoop. Immediately into the conversation her infectious enthusiasm became obvious. When asked to define terms, she used examples to give the meaning of “Radical Hospitality”.

“We’ve got to get outreach going . . . to get out into the community. Get out beyond our red doors. You know, to be pro-active, to be welcoming to others. Look at some of the things that have been done here to make this church look welcoming, things like dressing up the front of the church, repairing the carillon, ringing the steeple bell before Sunday services, keeping the lights on at night, the blessing of animals, restoring the historic rectory, modernizing the kitchen in our vestry. On and on! Most importantly, at all times we try to be open, to always work on nurturing people’s spirituality.”

Last fall, she returned from a conference in North Carolina, brimming with enthusiasm fired up in her by the keynote speaker, the Rev. Scott Gunn, whom she had met when he participated in a seminar at Brown University. Gunn is an ex-director of the Forward Movement program (“Check out its web site,” Reverend Susan urged). It was from him that she learned of The Bible Challenge.

“I knew at once that this scheme would fit perfectly with our outreach efforts. So, last February we got it started, and so far it’s met my expectations.”

This scheme is conceived by Marek Zabriskie, rector of St.Thomas Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, PA, whose book, “The Bible Challenge”, delineates a way to get the Bible read in one year. The reading for each of the 365 days adheres to an unchanging format: three chapters from the Old Testament, one chapter from Psalms, and three chapters from the New Testament. Preceding these assignments are brief homilies, and following the assignments are two or three questions and a prayer.

“When I went about recruiting people to participate in this challenge, I met up with the mind-set that Bible reading was a thing only ‘holy people’ do. It took some doing to convince them that that is nonsense. I would ask, ‘Do you feel that you need help? Have you wondered what God’s doing today that may help you? This program may give you an answer.’ Then, some people wrongly think that they can’t understand without an interpretation from a priest. Hey, I know as a fact that lay people can and do see things. I had to laugh when one teenage boy said that he has heard of that dude Jesus and would like to learn more about him. All in all, I had to gain the confidence of people.”

Reverend Susan did, at least with 97, ranging in age from 20 to 91; and not all from her congregation or, for that matter, her denomination. Certain that forming small groups would be more efficacious, she has these 97 people meeting weekly in clusters of two to eight to talk about the chapters that they had read privately. A daughter and her shut-in elderly mother participate via Facebook.

“My hope from the start has been to create an atmosphere that encourages people to talk about God, to forge a habit of, let’s say, being spiritual for a while each and every day, and to muster the courage to go forth into a difficult world. If, from what I overheard the other evening at a meeting of our men’s group, is a measure of things, then my hope’s being realized. Rather than talking about sports or what have you, some of those guys were talking about the Bible!”

To witness first hand a taste of what happens at a small group meeting, Reverend Susan’s visitor sat in on one – five women and one man who have kept faithful to the program since its inception four months ago. They were sharing thoughts arising from their reading of 1 Kings: 1-9, Psalms: 93-98, and Acts: 9-14. Some had scribbled notes on a pad, some had underlined the text of their Bibles, and all were in high gear.

Tina frowned: “Why are people turned off to hear ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’?”

Barbara posited: “I get from these readings the realization that nothing really has changed in all these centuries. Have we learned much?”

Joyce whispered: “I have these feelings . . .”

Carol added: “No one’s alone. There’s a Spirit with us, isn’t there?”

John summed up: “This program gets us closer to the one we want to get close to.”

In 1896, the German author Thomas Mann, who eventually earned the Nobel Prize in literature, published “Disillusionment”, a grim tale told by a fellow who, non-plussed, uttered after every event – good or bad – “Is that all?” Seventy years later Leiber and Stoller composed “Is That All There Is?” that musically replicated the existential nihilism of Mann’s story and that Peggy Lee recorded, earning her a Grammy. In word and song, the emptiness of secularism resonates.

If asked the question, “Is that all there is?” people like Gunn and Zabriski and Reverend Susan and her 97 recruits in the Bible Challenge program would shout, “No!”

Reverend Susan says, “We have the best story ever told, and now we have to broadcast that.”