The Bible is not an easy read. In fact, it’s downright daunting when you think about it. I say that as both a Christian and a reader.
Where do you start? And does it matter what the church(es) teach about it?
The Christian Bible is a collection of books (history books, letters, and apocalyptic literature; poetry and prophecy; creation stories, parables, and proverbs), and when you consider that the Catholic Church was its first editor and compiler, I do think it helps to know what they have to say about it. The Reformers—both past and present— have some useful things to say about it too. I’m also interested in a Jewish perspective on the Hebrew Bible as well as scholarly interpretations. Multiple perspectives can enhance meaning and understanding of the texts.
There are a few questions I’ve been asking myself lately, as I consider how to write about the Bible— as literature and as inspiration— on this blog. I feel equipped to answer them not because I am a Biblical scholar or theologian, but because I have had a lot of time to experience and interact with the Bible over the course of my life. I’m familiar with both Catholic and Protestant theology and have spent time with both types of churches. The answers I’ve come up with are not meant to be definitive, but thought provoking.
Shouldn’t I be able to pick up the Bible and start reading it anywhere I want, in any way that I want, without any specific interpretation or guidance? Sure. Just like I could pick up any ancient (translated) text and get something of value. But I would also add that an interpretive guide would be an advantage as long as you remember that they are biased and imperfect.
Should I ignore guidance on Biblical interpretation from the church(es) if I’m an atheist or I’m distrustful of religious institutions? I would say no, because understanding what the church(es) teach about the Bible does not mean you have to agree with it (either in whole or in part). Your opinion of that teaching does not negate the value of learning it. Knowing what the church(es) teach (broadly speaking) can illuminate obscure symbolism and aid in understanding what the authors were trying to communicate.
What about Jesus? How do my thoughts and opinions about Jesus fit into a Bible reading plan? No matter what your personal beliefs are about Jesus, an understanding of how the (traditional and orthodox churches) see him is fundamental to understanding much of the symbolism and thematic content of the Bible. It is the key to unlocking many otherwise obscure and problematic passages.
What about all that socially conservative cringe I keep hearing about? If that stuff is in the Bible, then why should I bother reading it? This is a difficult question, and one that I am currently struggling with. The Bible has unfortunately become a tool in the hands of “culture warriors” in recent times. Here are just a few of my thoughts on the topic.
Bias affects everything we read. We search for, and most often find, evidence to confirm what we already believe.
The belief that it is inherently good to accumulate and protect one’s personal wealth at all costs with no consideration for the common good, the belief that women must be submissive and restricted in their roles within the church and society, and the belief that issues such as sexual preference and gender identity are of the utmost moral importance, will lead people to find passages to support those agendas. They may be taken out of context (ie. misinterpreted), but they will find a few. And that will be sufficient for them to construct a theological interpretation that is based on them.
The authors of the Bible were writing in ancient times with limited knowledge of science, sociology or psychology. We take this into consideration when it comes to a talking snake or the creation of the earth in a few days’s time. But the same should also apply to those problematic Biblical passages that today’s legalistic literalists are trying to apply to our current society. A passage about women being “silent in church”, for example, is often elevated by these groups over and above the higher and more prominent themes of love and inclusion and mercy running throughout the texts.
It’s not a coincedence that these types of biased interpretations also support and maintain existing power structures and benefit the most privileged among us, while excluding the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged among us. That does not make them the correct interpretation or application of the Biblical texts. If anything, it makes them suspect.
Like every other text, the Bible speaks for itself. It speaks about matters of the human heart and social justice. And if you contend that Jesus is the key to understanding it, as the church(es) teach, what he told his followers makes for the best guide of all, if you wish to get the most out of reading the Bible.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”Matthew 22:36-40 NIV (my emphasis)
The motive for reading the Bible should ideally include a desire to know God better so that we may love him (and learn of his love for us) and a desire to learn how we may better love our fellow humans.
Jesus leaves very little room here for self-serving, biased interpretations of the “law and the prophets”, if we’re being honest with ourselves. No one is perfect. And I’m not attacking social conservatives out of a desire to insult them. They deserve love and forgiveness, as we all do. However, the spirit of the Biblical text more often than not is in strong opposition to oppression in all its forms, and it exhorts us to actively choose the side of the marginalized. It advocates for social justice over preservation of the status quo.
It’s also important to read Jesus’ words in context. He was being tested by none other than the infamous Pharisees. We have our own version of the Pharisees today. Why would we allow their interpretations of the Bible to taint our engagement with this fascinating and valuable text?