On Reading the Bible


We have begun a study of the Gospel of Mark in the Rector’s Forum, and that has caused me to think again about how we read the Bible. What are our expectations? What is its authority? Is it so laden with ancient superstition and ignorance that as modern people we now know better? We Episcopalians throughout our tradition have never been literalists; so do we pick and choose what parts of scripture seem relevant to us in our day and age? In our tradition we have never held that scripture is the ‘inerrant’ word of God, as if God dictated to an unlikely scribe the books of the Bible beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation. And yet we call this book Holy. We read it faithfully every Sunday. What then?

The Bible is not a book per se. It is a library, a library of diverse genres of literature: poetry, legend,  mythology, history, moral guidance, geneology, prophetic proclamation… and of course theology. It is also diverse in opinion and point of view, often contradictory. For example, the Deuteronomistic historian, the scholarly coinage for the writer(s) of much of Hebrew Scripture, holds to a theology that dominates the ethos of the so-called Old Testament… That theology argues that as long as the people of Israel worship God (Yahweh) alone then they and their progeny will be blessed; if they stray from the one true God, then they will be cursed. This is the dynamic that describes the travails of Israel, their on again off again relationship with God. But the protagonist of the Book of Job begs to differ. Job is the model of the faithful, “no one more righteous in Israel,” and yet he is tormented by all manner of sickness and evil. We will be utterly frustrated if we think we can find one common and consistent over-arching theme in scripture. But to find singular meaning and truth in our sacred lore was never the intent of the writers. Their enterprise is imaginative and inspired speculation through the art of language to participate in the process of knowing… though not about facts and data, but about the truth and beauty of what it means to be human in the presence of God in all of its random complexity.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the great poet of the Romantic era, argued in his defense against the puritans, the fundamentalists of his day, that it is not scripture that inspires the human imagination… but quite the reverse. It is the human imagination that inspires scripture, that breathes into it life and gives it meaning. As the process of writing scripture is an act of the imagination, so too is the reading of it. We read scripture taking into account context, cultural bias, the way the writer’s world was, as best as we can discern. We note the writers agenda, his peculiar theology, and then we bring our world to the text, with all that we have learned and experienced over the centuries, and we expect that God may still be revealing Godself in our own day and age.

I would suggest that in our reading of scripture it is more helpful not so much to look for a particular theological agenda, but to recognize patterns…. the details don’t matter as much as the patterns… patterns like freedom and transformation; justice and dignity, the drama of how we live together with integrity; what sustains us. The human story in the presence of God is one worth exploring in all of its nuance and contradictions and complexity; it is the one story to which all stories attest; and I believe the engagement of it is worth the work; that to apply our imaginations to it will surely feed us with the knowledge that we are born to seek… and I do believe that we are the better for it.



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