A house of cards
I have a lot of admiration for people who love the Bible. I love the Bible too! It is worth a lifetime of study, even several lifetimes. Lining my bookshelves are tomes written to explore the subject of the Bible and I’m thrilled that people, like Robert Alter and David Bentley Hart, are offering new translations of the Bible to keep our imaginations and our conversations going.
When we say that it takes a lifetime to study it, when we say it’s a group project, we already throw out any simplistic dictums or absolute statements about the Bible. It’s not meant to be simple, but don’t let that intimidate you. Read it through your life and in community. I think that’s exactly the way the Bible itself models how to read and study it.
I think the fact that the Bible can be intimidating results in weird “literalist” understandings of the text. We read it like it’s formulaic, or like it’s an instruction manual, or a textbook. Honestly, the Bible is so diverse and wide-ranging, and contradictory (contradictory on purpose, I might add) that it just doesn’t fit any of those formulas. It’s not meant to compete with post-Enlightenment historiography or science. Christians that force it to do that deteriorate its wisdom, and furthermore, those that use that fragile biblical framework as the bedrock of their faith, assemble their faith on a sandy foundation.
The History of Israel, told twice
Literalists, who read the Bible word-for-word, are often caught doing intellectual jumping jacks to make the Bible act in a way that it, literally (ironically), doesn’t. The Bible is full of memories of stories that mean something for people. Often times they are remembered for specific reasons and brought to their own completion for the occasion in which they were written. If you want to read the Bible from a certain perspective, start with the original audience’s. The reason I say that is because reading the Bible like history or like science is certainly not what the original audience needed. In many instances, in most instances even, the Bible was written for a political occasion, or to comfort an audience, to convict them toward following God, or to encourage them to pursue the mission of God in the world. The Bible has a variety of utilitarian functions, none of which can be summarized quickly. We need to study it together over our lifetime.
I’ll give you an example of why a straight-forward reading can be complicated. And it all happens on the opening pages of the Bible. Genesis 1 and 2 both tell an account of Creation. Scholars suggests that the first chapter of Genesis is told by one author (or series of authors). In the predominant theory of the Pentateuch’s composition, the author of chapter 1 is known as the “Elohist.” Chapter two tells a different account of creation, but in this occasion it’s a different author telling a different story. We call that author the “Yahwist.” Now some of these details are extraneous, but what I want to point out is that the stories do contradict themselves, and so we know, from the first pages of the Bible, that the final composers of the Bible were not interested in covering up the seams of the story. They didn’t want the story to “make sense” to an Enlightened European reader. They were doing something else with it.
We do ourselves a favor when we understand that. And we don’t do it to limit how we read the Bible, but rather to make sure that we don’t use the Bible in a way it wasn’t meant to be used.
Some people eschew the literalist/fundamentalist reading of the Bible in order to focus on a literary or historical critical reading. In other words, they don’t try to make the text a rulebook, but they limit their understanding of it to its historical context or the very literary nature of it. I think that juridical approach is also extrabiblical and not really what the writers had in mind either.
In the Old Testament, there are two tellings of the history of Israel. On one hand, you have the Deuteronomistic History which tells the story of Israel, written to Jews in Babylonian Captivity. It is violent, full of retribution, and decidedly negative. Chronicles, on the other hand, tells another story; this time to Jews living after Babylonian Captivity (we say “post-exilic), where Judaism is getting a whole start, and being spread around the world. Thus, the text here is more hopeful and gentle with the narrative.
I think rather than thinking of these differences as editorialized storytelling, you might find yourself being more generous with the Bible if you read them as memories. The memories serve different purposes and the story is told differently for a reason. Hold that space and try to be OK with that contradiction. It will help you when you see similarly different tellings and memories of Jesus’ life in the New Testament too.
There is no “right” way to read the Bible
I offered some historical contextualization so that you would know that from the earliest times the Bible wasn’t read in a straightforward way that many believers try to read it in now. It’s always served a greater purpose than just relaying the facts. The Bible isn’t fake news, because it’s not “news” as we understand “news” at all. There is a greater message in the Bible, about God’s cosmic world redemption plan and how we live in it. If you take anything away from reading the Bible, may it move you toward participation in that project.
Nevertheless, there is not a “right” way to read the Bible. There isn’t a right education level. In my view, all you need is an open heart and mind, an earnestness, and the Spirit of God living in you and in community to give it a shot.
Even the historical analysis I offered above is an example of the fact that there is no right way to read the Bible. It isn’t a prescriptive way to do it. In fact, Jesus and Paul, in quoting the Old Testament, often radically take it out of context for their own purposes. I don’t often engage in such bold claims, but the benefit of seeing Jesus and Paul do it is that we should be reassured that we can read the Bible and pull an understanding from it that may not be rooted in tradition or history and that’s OK.
What’s the key? To hold to the light and take it to the community. We’re all listening to God together and that’s the group project. Some of us are more excited and available to study certain parts of the Bible extensively, and they are part of our community, but not necessarily the ones to be submitted to. We’re working this out in common. Our own experiences and needs will necessarily color how we read the Bible.
And that means there is room for everyone at the table. Literalist fundamentalist readings may be, in some sense, the plainest way to read the Bible. I don’t think that should be the only way, or the way that we impose upon everyone, but they are a valid voice in community. Their weaknesses and growth edges are curbed by other voices. We are not complete on our own, but the life of the Body helps us to be known and made whole.
If you’re nervous about getting started with the Bible, don’t be afraid of getting it wrong, don’t be afraid of not being educated enough, don’t be afraid of giving it a shot. The community will protect you. So will the assurance that we aren’t supposed to get it all at once. Have an open mind and heart. Pray God guides you and the Spirit fills you. I’ll be honest, with that framework, it’s fun as hell to read the Bible.