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When you read the Bible, don’t let your brain protect you from your heart
I lamented to my carpool partner on the way home from Eastern University (where we attend Palmer Theological Seminary) that I did not have a Bible class this semester. I love studying the Bible and a little coerced Bible study is not the worst way to get my nose into the word. So I’ve missed it to some degree.
It can be tempting to stay stuck in your head
I’m an intellectual guy and tend to feel more comfortable in my head. I like thinking, I like reasoning, I like working out ideas together. I’m theologically-driven, but also have a scholarly side (and mainly a scholarly interest), so I acknowledge that a palpable weakness of mine is not moving from my head to my heart and really to my body. I can stay in my head all day and think about things. I sometimes even forget about the rest of my body (like even when I need to pee!). I can be prone to turning my feelings into thoughts before those feelings can hurt me. I am not saying this because I feel bad about myself or even feel particularly guilty, but I do know where I want to go and who I want to be.
I’m interested in the intellectual and scholarly exploration of the Bible because I think that Christians too often lack it. There is a mythology around the Bible that should be interrogated, for one thing. But there is also socio-cultural and historical context that can be illuminating, as well as literary and rhetorical criticism that can shine more light on the text. I think the time and place it was written, as well as who wrote it, matters. Sometimes how the text was assembled counts too.
That’s the benefit of seminary, in a sense. You learn ancient dead languages and you study about the Bible at a level that most people don’t commonly get to. I wrote more about the importance of a scholarly reading here. And if you’re a good leader, you can bless your disciples with some of that knowledge to augment their understanding of the Bible.
Endless speculation has its limits
But there is a major limit to this sort of scholarship. For one thing, much of it is endlessly speculative. There are so many unanswered and unanswerable questions, that can be fun to think about, but not helpful to think about for too long. Too much work on the socio-cultural criticism and literary and redaction criticism can create too much of a distance from the text. I think scholars fuel skepticism to remove us from the text. Bear in mind, I am not equating skepticism with doubt. Doubt is personal and emotional—it’s on your heart. Skepticism is intellectual and removed from your heart and your body. So I do not think doubt is dangerous and I think you should feel free to doubt your doubt, too.
This might be presumptuous, but I think too many times scholarship removes us from the text. I think it protects the reader from the way the Bible might challenge them. Too often, the fact that so many of our thoughts on the text are speculative, removes us from imagining the possibility of an existential encounter with the Bible.
Cynicism and skepticism is welcome, but I pray that the text itself and your encounter with it, actually moves and softens your heart and mind.
What you can learn from a fundamentalist
That’s one thing I can appreciate about fundamentalists. They actually believe the text can move them and can impact them. The text itself has spiritual value. They conclude that it does from an intellectual place—they come up with principled arguments about the meaning of the text. They might claim God penned every word like some Muslims do with the Koran. They might use words like “infallible” or “inerrant” to describe it. They often idealize and deify the text in order to give it the power to enchant the reader.
I appreciate the belief that the text can move us. I do not, however, trust what fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is founded on. That errant foundation, in fact, one that much of scholarship contradicts, is too weak of a ground for an argument. Because once that lofty ground is broken, I think the reader loses a chance to have that existential encounter with the text.
I think that one can still have a radical encounter with the text without the academic deconstruction that often accompanies the criticism of a fundamentalist hermeneutic. So you might want to use some scholarship to firm up the foundation of the Bible, but I think you need to move beyond the questions that scholarship posits when you are intimately encountering the text.
Try it with Psalm 51
Like the other day, I was reading Psalm 51. This is the Psalm that David wrote after he had sex with Bathsheba and killed Uriah. The quote I was working with:
“I’ve sinned against you—you alone. I’ve committed evil in your sight. That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict, completely correct when you issue your judgment.” -- Psalms 51:4
I was fascinated by the text and I thought that David’s confession, especially the common Hebrew phrase “you alone,” was interesting. It’s poetic, it’s hyperbolic. So there’s some genre analysis for you. But I also thought the repentance was inadequate because David also sinned, clearly, against his nation, Bathsheba, and Uriah.
That’s an intellectual criticism on its own right, but I felt free to ask my question and start relating to the text. I told some friends about it and some of them spoke about David not being the author of the text. That might be true. David may not have precisely existed as we think of him either. But I find that deconstruction unhelpful for how the text challenged me and how I read it.
I suppose I can read Psalm 51 as some ancient poem that is misattributed and then move on with my life. But that is probably the least useful way to do it. Scholarship can augment how we read the text, but we cannot be too afraid to have an existential encounter with the text
We need to prayerfully consider the Bible, and allow it to touch us. We need to ask God to move through the Bible and consider how it affects us and how it moves us to act, even. I think Christians have been doing this for ages and it has touched them. It’s the height of arrogance (or perhaps fear) to avoid it because it doesn’t match your intellectual criteria or your speculative deconstruction. If you are not ready to give the text a very high place in your life, I think this advice can still apply to you. It’s really how I read most works, especially artistic and ancient ones. Be humble enough to be moved by the text. Soften your heart, pray for openness, try to lose your anxiety when you read it (and still your intellectualizing of the text if that's really what’s blocking you from that fear and worry). Let it touch you and let it move you.
Maybe start with Psalm 51. Forget about even the context that the writer offers at the start of it. Pray (maybe even sing) the famous and familiar Psalm.
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. Then I will teach transgressors your ways.