Reading the Bible

At the Churchwide Consultation on blessing same-gender relationships, I got in a great conversation with a priest who firmly believes that any sexual relations outside of marriage (which can only be between a man and a woman) is expressly forbidden in scripture.  Consequently he does not support the church blessing any same-gender relationships.   I do not have a need, or even a desire, to change his mind so he believes as I believe.  I think it is vial that we make room for a diversity of viewpoints and theological perspectives, which includes those with which I disagree.   I was thrilled that he came to the conference in which his view was a minority and I was pleased that the people in our small group welcomed him.

At dinner, and through the following break, he and I had an in-depth conversation.  It became clear to me  that his perspective on what the Bible is, and how to read it, is very different from mine.  It isn’t that he takes the Bible seriously, and I don’t.  I take the Bible very seriously.   I just understand it very differently that he does.   Here are some things I believe to be true about the Bible:

The Bible is not a book but a library of books written by a variety of people with different understandings of God.  When reading a book, we might have the expectation that it would have a single perspective or viewpoint.  When going to a library, we would expect the books to have a variety of viewpoints.   The Bible is a collection of books written by different people who had different perspectives on God.  It is a conversation with authors that emphasize different perspectives.    For example, you can see this conversation between Paul and James.  Paul says we are saved by our faith and not our works.  James says faith without works is dead.  Both are true.   Much of theology is paradox that can’t be resolved.  The Bible reflects this by showing different views that are opposed and true at the same time.

In the gospels, each author paints a very different picture of Jesus.  In Mark, Jesus is very human and suffers a great deal when crucified.  (Think of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.)  In the garden, before his arrest, he prays that God would remove the cup of suffering from him.  John has a very spiritual Jesus who abides so closely in God that suffering can’t knock him off his center.  John, written much later than Mark, has Jesus say in the garden, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—’Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”  John provides a counterpoint to the agonizing Jesus of Mark.  Both are important, and true.

You can see all kinds of spiritual arguments in Scripture.  In the Old Testament, some authors claim the Israelites desire for a king was in line with God’s wishes, others disagree.  The book of Job can be seen as a criticism of the dominant view that all suffering was punishment meted out by God for wrongdoing.  In the Jewish Talmud, we see this biblical conversation clearly.  A passage of scripture is cited, then rabbis, from different centuries, provide different interpretations.  The conversation continues.

For me, reading the Bible is not an exercise in finding the ONE TRUE PERSPECTIVE, but rather an invitation to enter the conversation with my entire heart, soul and mind.  It is in that conversation where I am transformed.

The Bible is written by people who are smarter, or more spiritually advanced, than I am. I believe the writings in the Bible are true and have something to teach me.   I always give the authors the benifit of the doubt.  I don’t dismiss texts just because I find them difficult to understand or offensive.  I may pray with a text for years or decades before the light bulb goes on.  This happened to me with the story of Adam and Eve.  Because of the way that text was misused, it bugged me for a long time.   One day I saw something new in it and now I think it is absolutely brilliant.  I’ll write about what I discovered another time.

The Bible, in its writing, and in its reading (hopefully) is inspired.  Not only was the Spirit of God active in the authors as they wrote the texts, it is also active in the reading.  The teachings in the Bible are not easy to grasp.  When reading the variety of perspectives in the Bible, we have to labor to discern the truth.  I believe our laboring to understand creates room for God’s Spirit to move us to deeper insights.

The books in the Bible were written by people living in a particular cultural context.Their cultural context are reflected in their writings.  Customs of dress, eating, and behavior (including sexual) are displayed in the writing.  Interpreters of the Bible have to filter out what is “cultural context” and what is gospel.  For me, slavery, which is normative (and supported) in much of the Bible is a reflection of the culture in which the Bible was written.  Slavery is not part of the gospel, or spiritual truth, the text is intending to convey.  The same can be said about poligimy, dietary rules, dress, and the subjugation of women.  Part of the difficult interpretative task is filtering out the cultural context that is not part of, and can the antithetical to, the gospel.

The Bible is best read in the context of a community of prayer. I’m not smart enough, nor holy enough, to fruitfully delve into the mysteries of the Bible by myself.  I need a community of faithful Christians who wrestle together.  That’s one reason I appreciate the Episcopal Church with its egalitarian governance that respects the wisdom of laypeople and clergy and prayers that are drenched in scripture.  We don’t have an overarching dogma or confession of faith that we have to filter our understanding of scripture through.  Rather, we read and pray, we consider the wisdom of Christians from times past, and then in a messy, democratic process, strive to discern God’s will for us.  The inspired conversation continues.

The Bible needs to be read a lot, and in big chunks. Because the Bible contains a variety of viewpoints, and is colored by cultural context, it is important to read and understand substantial portions.  You can support just about any crazy idea by taking select short texts, rather than delving into the deep conversation in the text.  ”Slaves obey your masters.” is a good, short example.   I try to figure out what each author is trying to tell me, and I use that to shape my understanding of the central message of Jesus.

The Bible supports radically different understandings of the Gospel, which some people see as a problem.  Some people read the Bible and see in it a path to Heaven after we die.  Others see in it a declaration of God’s realm here on earth – with little mention of what happens after death.  These are just two of many, many ways of understanding the story of Jesus in the Bible.   If we believe that there is only one way of understanding the gospel, then we will be in conflict with those who have a different understanding.  I think we have to make room for people with different understandings and perspectives.  That way, we become more like the Bible itself.  And the holy conversation continues.



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