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How do we read the Bible? Together.
Nerds make it hard to read the Bible
The more I read the Bible, the more I love it. The first part of my summer I spent stuck in an old Presbyterian Church in Narbeth every morning learning New Testament Greek. Dr. Watson was a great teacher and I enjoyed almost every minute of the intensive. My classmates and I were there every weekday from 8:30am to noon for four weeks learning an ancient language. It was technical, frustrating, and illuminating. And, amazingly, I never once wondered, “Why am I learning this?” “What is the point to learning New Testament Greek?” I even had a friend ask me, “Isn’t this what commentaries are for?” But those kinds of questions didn’t pop into my mind because I love the Bible. I’m passionate about it, and I want to deepen my understanding of it. And my love for the Bible has to do with how I’ve related to it over the years, even since my youth. It’s hard to relate to a book, or anything, without falling in love with it. And like any relationship, I’ve been mad at the Bible and its writers before, I might have even hated it, but we’ve generally made up and I’ve fallen in love with it again.
But I do admit that sometimes my love for it, and the intense relationship I have with the Bible, can be dangerous in a sense. Bible nerds are a dangerous group of people. They can be exclusive, mean to each other, and isolating. In fact, I’ve been accused more than once about not being a “biblical” enough dude, or not being “scriptural” enough. So yeah, nerd fights can sting.
We too often forget that people don’t love the Bible the same way as us and don’t want to sort through it in the same way. I don’t think that gives you a blank check to do whatever you want with the Bible, but I do think that Bible nerds sometimes lose sight of the fact that not everyone is as into the Bible as we are.
There seems to be a "way" to read it
I, honestly, don’t expect everyone to have the same relationship with the Bible as I do. I don’t think you need to be an expert to use the Bible (I’m certainly not). I don’t think you need to read about it all the time or obsess over it, as if that’s the key to your faith in Jesus. But too often that goes without saying.
But I do want to offer some thoughts on how to read the Bible. My answer? Together.
I just want to acknowledge that this subject warrants a lot of dialogue and thoughts. Volumes and volumes have been written about the Bible, in fact, more than on any other book. It’s the most read book of all time and without a doubt the most influential book of all time. And amazingly, we’re still asking the question how do we read the Bible.
We might ask the same questions of Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare or Homer, but for the people I talk to, those authors’ work don’t hold the same existential weight as the Bible writers do. I think primarily because most of those authors weren’t claiming to speak for God. But even in other sacred texts, let’s say the Hebrew Bible (which is the Old Testament) or the Koran (the Muslim’s sacred text), we don’t have the same problems that we do with the Bible. Why?
Well, for one, the Jewish people have generally had no problem with dialogue and debate around their book. Even the most orthodox Jews who trace some of the authors to the figures in the Bible (like Moses writing the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, which is sometimes called the Pentateuch or the Law of Moses), even they think a debate about the Bible is OK. They even had other texts and commentaries that they hold in high regard that discuss the Hebrew Bible.
In broad strokes, some Muslims think the Koran was explicitly dictated by God, so even though there is commentary and discussion beyond God’s word, many Muslims think it was explicitly dictated by God.
Christians on the other hand, especially fundamentalists, combine those two ideas. The Bible was clearly written by people, and the writers themselves say so. We sometimes debate whether it was written by the people the text says it was written by, but we don’t debate that in fact it was written by human beings. But we sometimes debate how involved God was. Some people think that God gave the words explicitly to the Bible writers and others think of it differently. Some say the Bible is perfectly without error, others say it doesn’t lead us astray in spiritual matters, and others still use language like “God-breathed” or “inspired.” Even those words are up for debate. So Christians generally have given the Bible authority but we’ve disagreed about how to apply that authority.
And so it seems like there is “a way” to read the Bible, but I don’t think we’ve been exceedingly clear on the matter. And plus, the Bible is full of passages and ideas that are complicated in 21st Century Urban America, so it can be hard to do it.
We read it together, and we enact it together
Circle of Hope has a proverb that says we must be doers of the word, so when we read the Bible, we are interested in applying it. If you aren’t applying and doing the Bible, studying it is much less useful, teaching it and learning from it are also much less useful. The Bible should be enacted if it’s to have a primary use among us.
Doing the Bible is a group project and studying the Bible should take a lifetime. We’re working on something together, for the sake of the time and place we live in. The Bible is an inspired and authoritative text, and a piece of revelation that God gives us. I want you to think about that inspiration like you might a song. If I wrote a song for my wife or my child, I might say that it was inspired by them. I think that’s how the Bible is inspired by God. Passionate people in love with God wrote words about God; those words have a rich tradition of helping people follow God and Jesus throughout history. Like many powerful books they’ve been used for evil, but they have such admiration in the Christian tradition, that followers of Jesus should probably give the Bible a fair shake.
Because the Bible is inspired by God in the same way a song about my wife might be, some people have been asking the wrong questions about the Bible. No one would ask if my song is “true” about my wife. That’d be like asking what the color green smells like, or what wine sounds like, or Beethoven’s Fifth tastes like. It’s the wrong question.
But what we have is a rich text, written by dozens of people over hundreds of years, that is an expression of passion for God. I think we should work out our entire faith in the context of community, and reading the Bible is a part of that. The Bible itself is a communal text, as I just mentioned, written over time by dozens of people.
How we got to where we are
It was so instrumental in the formation of the early church. Before Scriptures were called Scriptures, they were used by the early community as Scriptures. So they had respect even before they were collected and called the New Testament. They had authority before they were officially given authority. And in the early church, so close to the formation and its differentiation from other competing philosophies, making basic guidelines about how to read the Bible was important. The early church fathers and mothers were given a kind of authority, largely due to what they were doing and less because of who they were, and that helped keep the church united, while also being inclusive. Every early council decision was made to keep people together and include others. The danger of division was a major threat in the beginning of the church.
Eventually, the church collected a lot of authority in order not to be divided and Bibles were so rare and hard to copy, that they were held in a lot of security. This eventually created too much power in a central location regarding the Bible (and the Bible itself, in the Old Testament, has a series of comments and debates about the pros and cons of such centralization). By the time of the Reformation, set during a time of increased education and individualism, many Christians had had enough with the Pope’s power and rebelled against it. I still respect the Reformers because they said that the interpretation of the Bible and the authority of the Church wasn’t rooted in centralized power but in all believers. What followed was many more schisms and Protestant denominations.
The Bible went from being centrally interpreted to being individually interpreted. This was an important and elemental shift that spoke to the needs of the time and place. That remains useful today, but it kind of undid the need for communal reading. Personally, I think we should read the Bible in a decentralized way but also a communal way. I want to read it together but without all of the power that has typically been required for keeping people together.
It's a fundamentally communal document, and we're a part of that community
I’ll stop there for now. I want you to see that the Bible has always been interpreted with the needs of the present people in mind, and to be sure, it was also written with the needs of the present people in mind. That’s why doing the Bible is a group project that begins with when it was written and moves through how it was interpreted throughout history, and finally ends where we are now. We read the Bible contextually, but that context doesn’t end. The Bible is an expression of love and passion for God and it remains useful today, but not always for the same reasons it was then.
So I want us to read the Bible with this in mind, that it’s always been a relational communal text and we should keep relating to it communally. That means that you don’t have to be an expert because we have experts among us. The experts themselves would do well to listen to others and stop living in the world of scholarship which is also very limiting and hardly the context of our time and place.