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Luke A. Powery on Living the Questions of the Bible

Luke Powery encourages preachers and worshipers to embrace the space and place the church provides to ask questions as a faithful way of Christian discipleship and engaging with God.

See all episodes in Season 5

Episode Transcript:

Luke Powery 00:00:04

So I wanted to . . . sort of give the thumbs up for people who have their questions and to say this is also a faithful way of discipleship. It's a faithful way of engaging God. Look at all these questions all throughout scripture. And once you see a question, you can't unsee it. You can't unsee it. I can't unsee the questions anymore. They're there, and they're all over the place. 

Host 00:00:43

Welcome to season five of Public Worship and the Christian Life, A podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. This season highlights the new Worship and Witness book series by CICW and published through Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf & Stock. The Worship and Witness series seeks to foster a rich interdisciplinary conversation on the theology and practice of public worship, a conversation that will be integrative and expansive. CICW staff member Noel Snyder, also one of the series editors, and Kristen Verhulst talk with the authors of the first seven books in this series. We are pleased to join us in this conversation, and we look forward to sharing this learning with you. 

Noel Snyder 00:01:38

Well, I'd like to give a warm welcome to our listeners. My name is Noel Snyder, and I'm a program manager at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. And it's my privilege to welcome our guest on the podcast today, the Rev. Dr. Luke Powery. Dr. Powers serves as dean of Duke University Chapel and professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He also teaches in the department of African and African-American Studies in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at the university. Dr. Powery is the author of many books, including a recent book of his titled Becoming Human: The Holy Spirit and the Rhetoric of Race, which has been awarded the 2023 Book of the Year award from the Academy of Parish Clergy and also the 2023 Book of the Year Award from the Religious Communication Association. One of my favorite of Dr. Powery’s books is titled Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope. It's a book in which he draws upon the resources of the spirituals for preaching. The reason for our conversation today is to talk about another one of his recent books, Living the Questions of the Bible, which was published in 2023 by Cascade Books, and it's part of the Worship and Witness series for which I serve as one of the editors. Luke, it's so good to have you on the podcast today. Thanks for being here. 

Luke Powery 00:03:12

Thanks for having me, Noel, and thanks for also including me in the series. 

Noel Snyder 00:03:17

It's a joy, and it's an absolutely beautiful book, and I hope that it gains a wide readership. So I wonder if we could just start with you telling the story of this book. Where did the idea come from? What were some of your major goals in writing it? 

Luke Powery 00:03:33

Yeah, thanks for that question. Really I think that . . . Where did the idea come from? I don't know—my life, but my whole life in many ways, the journey of preaching. So before I came to Duke, I was serving at Princeton Seminary and been ordained I guess it's maybe 23 years now, and I don't remember the first time that I came upon it, but it's included in the book, from Isaiah: “When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” That question. And once I started paying attention to questions, I recognize not in a strategic way, that I started preaching sermons around questions. That wasn't a game plan. It was just happening. And then, probably closer to the time that I arrived here at Duke, in my mind, I was like, wow, wouldn't it be cool one day to write something, a book of reflections, around questions. And so whenever the lectionary cycle came around, . . . if it made sense I’d try to discern like, oh, maybe this sermon can be around a question. And so then, it's like, Wait a minute, there's something here. Then I started talking to friends and just mentioning it, and it was grabbing their attention. They found it interesting. So for me, I think it just sort of evolved into something. But then what I realized after talking to people, preaching on it, is: Where are the spaces in our churches and congregations where questions are OK? You know, I grew up in the church. I'm a PK [pastor’s kid] and all of that. And my livelihood is wrapped up in the church and the academy. And I find the church often to be a place where it's about answers. Give me the answer. Find the answer. Jesus is the answer, as the song says. But I haven't found a lot of places that make space for the questions. But that's also why I love the theological academy, because I do find often it's a place where you can raise questions without being judged. You can be honest. And I think my work . . . So one of the goals is to open up a space to sort of implicitly say it's OK to ask questions. Also, the backdrop of my work on lament in preaching and thinking about the lament psalms, that's also been a place where it's like, Wow, look at all these questions and wrestling and grappling with God. And so I wanted to sort of give the thumbs up for people who have their questions and to say this is also a faithful way of discipleship. It's a faithful way of engaging God. Look at all these questions all throughout scripture. And once you see a question, you can't unsee it. You can't unsee it. I can't unsee the questions anymore. They're there, and they're all over the place. I could do more than a trilogy with questions, right? This is the first iteration. It's a question book, in many ways, and what I want people, what I hope people will discover is that they can find God in the questions. That's my hope. 

Noel Snyder 00:07:14

I don't want to get us too off track. But one of the things that I've discovered is also my own teaching has been made much better to the extent that I'm able to elevate really crucial questions that our class periods, that even the whole course would be formed around. I had this experience one time where I was teaching a class at Calvin Seminary here, and … since it was an elective class, they had all this faculty sort of line up in this town hall sort of format and give a little preview of our courses to the students there. And students could come to know what all their electives were for that semester. And I gave mine, and it was fine, and whatever. But then the person who stood up after me was one of the more senior members of the faculty, and as she gave her presentation, I just thought I wouldn't want to take my course. I want to take her course now. One of the things that she did, what she framed, she said, “Here's the big questions we're going to be asking in this course.” And for me, that totally reframed even my own approach to how I do, let's say, a panel discussion at our Worship Symposium here, or definitely how I teach my courses, is during each class period and then even during the course as a whole, what are the big questions that we're trying to get our minds around here and let guide us? 

Luke Powery 00:08:47

I find that questions—it keeps it open. It's open ended in many ways, right? Rather than closing off the conversation, it opens it up. And I think that's the gift in many ways. And in this way, in the book, the frame of the book, this idea, it opens us up to God; it opens up to one another. It's just been refreshing for my own life. I dedicate the book to my two kids, to Mariah and Zachary. They're older now, but when they were smaller, some of the questions and things that they would come up with—wow. But also, I think, questions can signal curiosity. Keep asking the questions on the journey of faith. That’s what I'm hoping that you take away. 

Noel Snyder 00:10:00

Well, I wonder if you could then just give us a feel for some of the questions that you have in the book. You have these three main sections: Who is God? Who am I? and What should we do? And then within each of those three main sections, you've got some different questions that are some of the chapter headings and the topics of the chapter. All the questions are drawn from scripture, and you're drawing these questions out of the Gospels and out of the prophets, and you're putting them forward and meditating on them. So give us a sense of some of the questions that you just delighted in including and why you picked some of those. 

Luke Powery 00:10:45] In the “Who Is God?” section, which is the first one, it's “Why did it yield wild grapes?” Isaiah 5. That might have been my very first one. I would have to track that historically in my preaching journey. But that is a question that is about unmet expectations. When I expected it to do this, why did it do this? It's so much about the human condition. And God even asked the question. That's the thing. It was on God's mouth, actually. We're not the only ones asking questions. God is. 

Noel Snyder 00:11:30

Uh huh. 

Luke Powery 00:11:31

The Romans [passage], I would say, in that section is another one: “Who will separate from the love of Christ?” and the grand climax of Romans. Nothing. Neither life nor death. . . . It closes with a kind of rhetorical flourish, the sense of hope and the love of God will not let us go, even in the midst of, in Romans, the groanings, the sufferings that we go through. Nothing will separate us.

In the other section, “Who Am I?”, well, there are so many actually in this one, but I'll just highlight two here as well. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” from Jeremiah and the intersection of, in this particular reflection, the tears, the weeping, also being an expression of hope and that there will be a balm. There is a sense of hope even in the midst of our agony and despair that our tears could be a sign of our baptism. I think that's one of the things I say in that one. And then “Why are you afraid?” from Mark 4. That's what I share here at Duke. Why were you afraid when [you were] exploring coming here? . . . Why are you afraid? What's holding you back? Why won't you move forward? Jesus is chilling out in the boat asleep. We're freaking out. And then even when he calms the storm, they're still afraid. So it's the calm after . . . The same thing happens with the Gerasene demoniac after the next story. It's the calm comes, and then people are afraid. Well, what's going on there? But anyway, “Why are you afraid?” and “What should we do?” . .  . I would say from Luke 3, which pulls from the overarching section title “What should we do?”, is really a kind of call to action. I mean, the context there in Luke 3 is about baptism, repentance, and all of that, but you're thrust into living out one's baptism and this idea that there is a social thrust to our lives of faith. And that “What should we do?” is repeated three times. So rhetorically it's emphasized, so obviously it grabbed my attention.

And then the last one there, “Where have they come from?” in Revelation 7. I mean, I think in this reflection I'm really doing more about being surprised who's there in the future of God from every nation and all tribes and peoples and languages, and what I call the conjunctive imagination of God and being surprised. So this “Where have they come from?” is like “What?! They’re here?” . . . I think sometimes we are surprised by the people whom God loves and brings into the circle, and I think it's a reminder for us who's in the home of God. Those are some of the ones that I think stand out. 

Noel Snyder 00:15:25

And as you even pull out some of those, I'm just hearing you speak about it, and it reminds me also there's such a congruence between your speaking voice, your preaching voice, and this writing voice. It feels very homiletical; it feels very much like it's meditative on these passages. As you were writing it, I'm just wondering, this is kind of a personal question, but were there any that were really poignant for you? You already mentioned the “Why did it yield wild grapes?” And then “Why were you afraid?” I mean, any of them that really stand out to you as resonating with your own faith journey and resonating even with your own present-tense faith as you're writing this? 

Luke Powery 00:16:17

Oh, yeah. I mean, the “Why are you afraid?”, that just travels, because it takes courage to lead. It takes courage to preach. It takes courage to teach, like Parker Palmer would say in his book. And that's one of my prayers, often. I have a four-fold prayer for joy, patience, wisdom, and courage. Courage is one of them. And “Why are you afraid?” is like, “What's holding you back?” Jesus is in the boat; he’s going to calm the storms around you. And so that's been one that has just traveled. The other one, … the unmet expectations. Are you kidding me? That's life. The things that you expect to happen that don't happen—and that could be all kinds of things: people, programs on a university campus. It could be you expect Duke men's basketball to win at all and they don't. Unmet expectations: that is the blues question. “When I expected it to yield grapes”—why? Even God asked the blues question. So for me that hits the lament, the lamentation, and my scholarship and all of that too. So often the blues question is not a question that is embraced in the church. No, ask that question! Lament what's happening in Israel, Palestine; lament another mass shooting. Why did it yield wild grapes? My child goes to school to have a great day and then there happens to be a mass shooting at their school. Why did it yield wild grapes? This is the existential question on so many levels. I'm reminded—you can't see it, but I'm here sitting in my office; on the corner of my desk I have a plate and chalice from . . . the Holy Land around the Sea of Galilee. But next to it, I have an AriZona Iced Tea can and some Skittles in its container as a symbol for Trayvon Martin. One is Jesus, and one represents Trayvon Martin, who was killed in 2012. And for me, the question, which is not in [the book, is] “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” . . . So every day, whenever I'm in here, it's my memorial, but I am reminded of that question of the crucified God. Why? Just why? I don't even need—you can fill in the blanks, the why. So even in this Harry Potter office, as some call it, there's a question, an embodied question on my desk. And it's liberating, actually. It’s liberating.

Noel Snyder 00:19:59

I can see that, and I can feel that in the way that you talk and the way that you embody that in your ministry, in your preaching. Do you find that there are sometimes even unmet expectations, let's say, if you come with this question-asking approach, and if that's maybe out of the norm for what people have experienced in the church? What are some of the ways that people either respond or resist that approach? 

Luke Powery 00:20:29

 I have found a lot of acceptance. I've given some lectures in congregations off of these reflections at times—earlier, before it became a book. Really, an openness, a freedom that people have to express that, the emphasis, because I'm emphasizing it, and again, if you see it, you can't unsee it. So it shifts; it's an interrogative spirituality,  to say, you know what? It's OK to engage my faith, to engage with God in this way. So without a doubt, a lot of openness. Resistance? I don't know, that might be too strong. But, obviously this is one slice of faith with God. It's not to say everything's a question. But it is one approach. And I think for people that can't live with uncertainty, or they need to build their citadel of certitude, if you start messing with that, it shifts everything for them and their faith. And, you know, we're all in a different stage on our journey in life. I'm OK with questions. I'm OK with uncertainty. I'm OK with ambiguity. I don't have to have all the answers. I don't have to know everything about God. I'm like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones that says to God, “O Lord God, you know.” I'm cool with that. But not everybody is, and I understand that. So we're walking this faith journey in different ways. And some people want to be very certain, and they want answers for their struggles or even their joys. They want to have a neat equation for their life of faith so they can do X plus Y equals Z. I just haven't found it to be like that. I don't think it's an equation, and I don't think it's that simple. So to me, this has been an honest approach. If we want to be honest before God about the human condition and about  the life of faith, I think this is a good approach, obviously. But it's not the only path to engaging God. Of course not. 

Noel Snyder 00:23:13

I wonder then also if as you think about this book in the context of, let's say, potential pastors or worship leaders who are reading it. . . You have this great postlude at the end where you reflect just a little bit about this question-asking approach as a great way to approach corporate worship. What sorts of things would you counsel for worship leaders, for preachers, for pastors about how they could learn from this approach and incorporate this into their own practice? 

Luke Powery 00:23:54

I think one of the things that I actually do in here is, for instance, the prayers, whether it's the prayers of the people or in the prayer of confession, depending on your traditions, is how do you take actual questions from the Bible straight out of the Bible and weave them into your call to worship. [For example,] the leader [might say,] “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements? Who stretched the line upon it.” So you take that as a call to worship or begin using these questions, rhetorical questions from God, and create a call to worship around that. That’s one area. But also, just think about it: The questions in our liturgical planning, . . . in our worship planning, this whole idea of questioning, isn't that what we're doing in many ways behind the scenes? What are the lectionary texts? What will they focus on? Will we use the lectionary? What will be the sermonic focus of the preacher? What hymns or songs? These are questions. So we don't come to the table with the answers, but we sit in community and we raise questions together as we're planning our worship services. So even from that fundamental standpoint, we're already in that approach of raising the questions. Should we use wine or juice for communion? Is gluten-free bread available? It's all questions. So for me, not just practically, like a call to worship or confession, but in the planning process behind the scenes, that's how we're planning. We're raising questions about as we discern, what does the congregation need? There's another question. So I think that's a part of it. I know theologically, I love what Dale Andrews, who taught in several places—Louisville Presbyterian, Boston University, and Vanderbilt—and he died at the age of 60. But Dale was one of my mentors coming through the guild, just a wonderful man. And he was known to say this: “I have more questions than answers, more problems than solutions. For this I give God praise.” Both questions and answers. More problems. For this, I give God praise. Just how we approach God is often with questions and not just with our answers. “Who is worthy? Open the scroll.” . . . It's the pathway to discovery. And maybe learning something new, finding something new about God or what God has for us. 

Noel Snyder 00:27:23

And I love the way that the book prompts readers, and I would say especially maybe pastors or worship leaders who are reading it, to incorporate these big questions about who is God, and who am I, who are we as a church, into their own . . . more practical questions as you think through how best to serve and what people need. What's the spirit saying in the moment? Those sorts of things. 

The book's been out six months, maybe a little less. Have you heard feedback from any readers yet? And do you have a sense of how any people are engaging it so far? 

Luke Powery 00:28:11

Yeah, a little bit. Not much right now. [I’m] kind of pushing the previous book. But I can say, though, some people have gotten it. And probably in the new year on my side here I think I’ll do something, a push of it. But those that have gotten it have appreciated the idea. It’s been a new angle for them to consider about questions in the life of faith. I think that's been really intriguing for them. One of the things we are doing here is the Chapel Scholars program for undergrads and graduate students. And so some of them are opting in, I believe, to read the book. So they'll be in a reading group together in the spring. But they'll engage one another. They'll have other books that they can do, but this is one of the options. So small reading groups. And I'm hoping people can do Bible studies; there are questions at the end of each chapter—questions about the questions—to keep the questioning going, the conversation. I haven't heard that much as of yet. . . . But I think over time. 

Noel Snyder 00:29:50

Well, I have no doubt that it'll catch on. I do think that it would be a great book for small group study. Even just the question-asking approach, this way of approaching God, can be such a great way to open up communion, fellowship, whatever word you want to use, just depth of relationship as far as helping people within Christian communities really engage with each other.

Luke Powery 00:30:23

Oh, yeah. I have a close friend who many times, we could be at a table with friends and out of the blue, he'll just stop and say, “I have a question for everybody.” It could be about life, or something [else]. But it's a question. It's not necessarily a question out of the Bible, but he often uses a question to open up that sharing of the heart. I just thought about that right now, actually. That's exactly what he does. 

Noel Snyder 00:30:59

And even to think also of how in this case, all the questions are from the Bible, and it's a way to think about how really it can be a cliche sometimes if you hear people say, “We read the Bible, but really the Bible reads us.” But really we bring our questions to the Bible, but the Bible has its own questions for us. And to think about that way of being spiritually formed by our reading of scripture. 

Luke Powery 00:31:32

Most definitely. I think it opens up . . . the Bible, scripture, gives us a language to communicate with God, to be in relationship. And one part of our tongue, part of that repertoire, should be questions, just like there's poetry and history and narratives and proverbs. There are questions. 

Noel Snyder 00:32:04

Any final thoughts on what it means to live the questions of the Bible? What do you hope our listeners will take away from our conversation? 

Luke Powery 00:32:13

I hope that folks will search the scriptures for the questions that resonate with them, but by doing so, they discover God in other ways. 

Noel Snyder 00:32:27

Well, that's a good word to end on. Thank you so much for talking, Luke; it's been great to talk. 

Luke Powery 00:32:33

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.