Bringing Scripture to life

Two “members” of Chloe’s house church preside over the bread and juice served at the agape meal held at the end of a chapel service at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, Va.

by Reta Halteman Finger, Harrisonburg, Va.

As a little girl growing up at Salford Mennonite Church, I remember my father telling stories directly from the Bible to me and my younger brother Jimmy. After a particularly dramatic or gruesome account, Jimmy would gasp, “Did that really happen?”

“Oh, yes!” the literal-minded Wilmer Halteman would affirm.

In my teens I would help teach the pre-schoolers during Summer Bible School at Salford. One story stands out: the calling of the boy Samuel. “Be very quiet! Samuel is sleeping. Can you hear someone calling his name?”

Though I inherited a love of scripture from my dad, I never imagined for many years that one could make a career out of teaching it. In those growing-up decades, I suppose being born female didn’t help either.

Through my adult years of working with children (including my own) and high school students and editing a small magazine, I pursued my interests in Bible and theology on the side, usually one or two courses at a time. Finally, pondering what to do with the second half of life, I entered a doctoral program in New Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, not far from my home in Chicago.

I wanted to study with Dr. Robert Jewett, a Pauline scholar at Garrett. But Romans was the only course he offered that fall of 1991. I was not pleased! I was more interested in the archeology and social backgrounds of Paul’s letters than what I assumed was the more tedious systematic theology of Romans.

Imagine my shock at our first class when Jewett read and discussed his paper on “Paul, Phoebe, and the Mission to Spain”! I didn’t know Spain was mentioned in the New Testament, and I didn’t have a clue about Phoebe’s immense importance in Paul’s missionary plans.

In class after class, I was stunned by this new perspective on Romans. The previously boring list of 29 names in Romans 16 now became living characters from five different house churches, including 9 women leaders.

“How come I never learned this in Sunday school?” I would lament. Finally I realized that this material had been so recently researched that no layperson was learning it anywhere. But could it be taught in Sunday school? Is there a way to re-create these little house churches so Christians can imagine their way back into the earliest Jesus Movement and thus better understand what Paul said and how to apply it today?

Thus was born the idea that eventually became Paul and the Roman House Churches: A Simulation (Herald Press, 1993). It was set up to be used in Sunday school, as well as in other settings. I taught New Testament 14 years at Messiah College until retiring in 2009. Each fall, my Encountering the Bible class of incoming first-year students role-played the five house churches in Romans 16 for a month. Each student played a different character—Jew or Gentile, liberal or conservative, poor or not-so-poor. We’d end with a Roman meal complete with costumes, candles, communion, and a lentil-ham option to tempt the observant Jews!

I always wanted to write another simulation for 1 Corinthians—a far more juicy, earthy letter. Several years ago, a long-time friend, George McClain, and I decided to work on this together. As we wrote and rewrote, I was teaching 1 Corinthians at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and also in Sunday school at my present congregation, Community Mennonite in Harrisonburg, VA. We simulated just one larger house church, divided into four argumentative factions. Each of us heard Paul very differently depending on what social class and religious background we came from. As we lived into our characters, the time gap between then and now would narrow, and often I would hear participants say at the end of a role-play, “Wow! This sounds just like my church!”

Today we are so pleased that MennoMedia is helping us reach a wider audience through Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (Herald Press, 2013) and I am returning to my old stomping grounds to teach a class based on our book for Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Pennsylvania campus.  My father’s love of scripture has borne fruit in me as I seek to help the letters of Paul come alive for my students, stepping back into the world of the first century, a world that is still relevant today.


Join Reta’s Corinthians class, which will run bi-weekly on Fridays, September 13 to December 20 at the Mennonite Conference Center in Harleysville, Pa.  For more information, visit Eastern Mennonite Seminary, PA’s website.