This is Part 5 in a series of posts about the Bible. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.) The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).
2013 Me: in the past four posts, you have resisted my attempts to treat the Bible as an unquestionable answer book, inerrant text, ground of truth, and clear historical document. Now I’m out of options – is there any other way of thinking about the Bible?
2016 Me: Yes, I think so. There is a way of thinking about the Bible that consistently works for me: The Bible is a medium of God’s Word to me and my community.
That can’t be right! That’s exactly what I believed before I encountered doubt!
But if the meaning of the Bible depends on the context it’s read in, and if you won’t specify which culture or field of scholarship is the right context, you end up with a meaningless Bible! Without a fixed Scripture, you’ll hear all kinds of words! How will you ever know which ones are from God? How could the Word of God be anything but fixed?
But how could God’s Word be fixed?! If God truly cares about our needs and truly knows each specific situation, then the Word of God to us will be ever-changing. A once-and-for-all set of abstract truths would be insufficient to meet the incredibly diverse life-settings of Bible readers.
Even individuals within relatively fixed cultures find that God has different things to say to them at different stages of life. By refusing to limit my reading of Scripture to a single meaning or context, I am opening my ears to hear more of what God might be speaking to me. I discern God’s Word among the words of Scripture in light of my history with God – to discern God’s Word outside of the history of relationship would be an act of infidelity!
Now I see what you’re doing here: you’re just rationalizing a kind of individualism that gives you permission to ignore the interpretations of everyone else!
Quite the opposite! To me, reading Scripture is like getting an eye exam: we sit down, look at the fuzzy symbols before us, and cycle through our bank of lenses until what we’re looking at jumps out at us with crisp precision. When reading Scripture, I cycle through different interpretations of the text in front of me until the Word of God to me leaps out of the page.
We pick up new lenses when learn to read the Bible like other people, so it helps to listen to other interpretations, whether they come from a contemporary historian, a narrative critic, an oppressed peasant in South America, a 4th Century Bishop in North Africa, the elderly woman in your small group, etc. The last thing I want to do is ignore alternative interpretations.
This is all so scary! The Evangelicals warned me that abandoning inerrancy is a slippery slope, and you’re proving them right. Isn’t your view of the Bible a radical break with Church tradition and the faith that you grew up with?!
Yes and no. On one hand I am probably in a tiny minority; most Christians (both past present) would probably insist that the Bible has some fixed and self-evident meaning. The church you grew up in would certainly affirm that traditional view. I am, in theory, quite idiosyncratic as far as Christians seem to go.
On the other hand, my theory of the Bible undergirds a surprisingly traditional and Baptist-friendly way of reading the Bible. Since I really do believe that God speaks through the Bible, I continually return to Scripture in search of a new Word from God. Insofar as the preoccupation with cold, hard, facts is a markedly modern condition, my own theory of the Bible is a kind of postmodern theory for a markedly premodern way of reading Scripture.
Okay, okay. Maybe your way of thinking about the Bible isn’t the worst one available. Maybe it’s even “Christian” enough to be count as faithful. But what about all of my doubt? Can your approach to the Bible really handle my tendency towards skepticism? Every time I try to read the Bible, I notice verses and stories that seem wrong – the Bible is so full of violence, apparent contradictions, sexism, etc. How do I read the Bible when my tough questions get in the way?
Actually, I think that your questions are more of an opportunity than an obstacle. Maybe reading the Bible is like that weird story of Jacob wrestling with God. Maybe if you really wrestle with the text and insist that God give you a blessing, you’ll end up like Jacob: a new identity, a blessing, and a limp.
I would really like to believe all of that, but how does it work in practice? What do I do when the passage rubs me the wrong way? How do I find God in something that seems so wrong?
For starters, when a passage bothers you, stop and really explore what seems so wrong to you. Let your questions bring your values to the surface of your consciousness, and continue prayerfully reflecting once they arrive. If you think of the Bible as a place for encountering God rather than a deposit of information, it makes sense to bring your otherwise-derailing questions with you into your Bible time.
If you can’t find God in the passage you’re looking at, try a different lens! If you’re reading Scripture in search of the Word of God to you, there’s no reason why you can’t consider verses and passages “out of context”! Be like Jacob – don’t leave until you get that blessing.
But sometimes the doubt is bigger than that. Sometimes it’s not just the passage – sometimes I’m not sure if God “speaks” at all. Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe in “God”! Sometimes I really want to read the Bible but my doubts get in the way.
If you want to read the Bible when you’re not sure about God, why not give it a shot? It’s hard for me to imagine how reading the Bible with your heart and brain engaged could turn out to be a particularly bad thing. At its core, my theology of the Bible is simply an open invitation to search for God in the pages of Scripture.
This conversation has wandered from doubt to inerrancy to interpretation to history and back again. In a way, I feel like this theory of the Bible is simply a return to the exciting and open-ended practice of Bible-reading that I grew up with. It has all come full circle.
Some postmodern philosophers talk about “deconstruction” as a way of clearing away the inevitable contradictions in thinking about something, and creatively constructing new ways of expressing that thing. You end up with what you started out with, yet everything has changed. Faithfulness to what you started out with is the very reason that you had to change it. My relationship to the Bible (and faith in general) has undergone a deconstruction. Like Jacob in the story, I have emerged from that struggle with a blessing and a limp.
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