Bible Reading for the Biblically Illiterate - And We're All Illiterate! (Part 1, revised)
To open the Bible is to open ourselves to all manner of the strange, unexpected, and even bizarre. The tragedy is that we have misread it so ham-fistedly that we’ve driven all that out and domesticated the Bible’s message to the bourgeois and conventional nostrums of the religious, therapeutic, and political demands of being Americans. No wonder few want to read it or hear its message today.
-The right celebrates the Bible’s supposed valorization of what they consider virtuous and the left follows suit from their perspective.
-Others prize its inspiration and instructions for daily life.
-Yet others turn it into a rule book or ethics manual supposing the Bible is about defining and enforcing conduct.
-Some find in it a system of truth that gives them intellectual purchase on the issues of the day.
And on it goes. The Bible endlessly subjected to the indignities of our misuse and our seeming inability to read it outside of the use we can make of it or the good we believe it can do us.
This kind of Bible reading, our Bible reading, violates at least the first three commandments.
-The first because it stems from our idolatry of self. It starts (and ends) with us – our needs, our wants, our politics, our insecurities, etc.
-The second because it creates images of God and gospel in the image of its idolatries.
-And the third because it uses the Bible to invoke God’s blessings on its own projects and agendas.
In short, we are biblically illiterate people. All of us. I’m not talking about how much biblical knowledge we may have stored in our brains. I’m talking about the many barriers we encounter to hearing what the Bible truly says that surround and inveigle us, often unawares. They keep us illiterate. All of us. It’s a constant and ongoing struggle for all of us to be aware of and account for all that renders the Bible’s strangeness invisible to us.
I want to offer a primer for those interested in learning to read the Bible aright and those who scoff at or fear to read it because of what they’ve heard is in it or seen embodied by others claiming its backing. What I can promise you is that what you have thought you understood about what the Bible is and teaches is most likely wrong. Or at least wrongly integrated into a way of understanding how we are to live our lives. The other thing I can promise you is that if you take what I write here to heart and genuinely want to know the God who really is in the Bible, well, there’s simply no telling what will happen to you! It will be real, and genuine, and unsettling, and unexpected, and unpredictable that half the time you’ll want to throw it out the window and the other half cling to it as if its words were life itself! The only thing you won’t be able to do once the Bible gets under your skin and in your heart is to ignore it. It will keep on calling, cajoling, attacking, comforting, and drawing you deeper and deeper into understanding and relationship to the triune God, but the kind of understanding and relationship that only comes when you stand under them for your marching orders!
In this essay I invite, challenge, and encourage you to take this journey with me into reading the Bible aright. You owe it to God, yourself and even to world God is calling you to serve! Seven aspects of proper Bible reading need to be explored.
- The Strangeness of the Bible.
- What is the Bible?
- Reading from the End to Beginning
- The Big Picture of the Bible
- Bible Reading as an Act of Love
- Our Filter
- The Authority of the Bible
- The Strangeness of the Bible
The Bible is an ancient book. Nothing about it comes from our world or addresses our questions. The Bible is a stranger to us and we to it. Until we feel the force of this in our bones, our Bible reading will remain captive to our assumed familiarity with it.
A quick example: the story of Mary and Martha and Jesus in Luke 10. Jesus is holding court in the men’s part of their home. Mary goes in joins them. Martha gets her panties in a wad over being left alone with all the duties of hospitality. Jesus tells her Mary has chosen the “better part” (v.42) whereas Martha is distracted by many things. Sometimes we even end up trying to protect Martha and her dignity by saying “Well, somebody has to cook the meals and clean the dishes!”
We usually read this passage as Jesus saying that nurturing one’s relationship with him and not get distracted by “worldly” concerns. Some complain about patriarchal overtones and devaluing of women.However, a look at the significance of homes in Israel tells a different story. A man’s area in the home was clearly demarcated and protected from violation by women by strict taboos. For Mary to join Jesus was to break this taboo and claim a space there given that, apart from Jesus, the others probably considered did not belong to her. Mary has indeed chosen the “better part.” She has courageously taken Jesus’ invitation to become a part of his “leadership” group! That’s the “better part” she has chosen. Martha’s domestic distractions dsbled her from following Mary’s courageous and risky decision. She was invited to join Jesus too – but she didn’t. That’s what Jesus criticizes her for, failing to follow him faithfully.
A brief look at Jewish ethos, customs, and the ideology of their architecture gives us a read on this passage we would likely never arrive at on our own. Jesus’ call for female “leaders” here casts this story in a wholly different light than we get from reading it in light of our own interests, ethos, and questions. Far from supporting patriarchy or devaluing women this is strikes a powerful blow for equality and for women’s leadership in the church!
To put it as extremely as possible, then, we ought not assume we know what anything in the Bible means until we have treated it as something strange and foreign, requiring our investigation and pondering. Nothing. Not God, not love, not gospel, not Jesus. Nothing. Nor ought we assume that the interests and questions we bring to our reading of the Bible reduce its strangeness. More on this under #6.
No, the Bible is irreducibly strange to us. And for another, wholly different reason. The God whose word the Bible claims to be is strange to us. Not a deity we would have imagined or predicted. And sin, that much maligned word, comes into play here as well. We are blind bats trying to figure out the Bible apart from God graciously opening our hearts and minds. But the first mark of God’s opening our minds is recognizing just this strangeness!
Novelist Franz Kafka writes about the kind of the book we humans need, books that make a real difference to us and in us. In a letter by Franz Kafka to his schoolmate Oskar Pollak, on January 27, 1904, he says:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
Well, though Kafka was not a Christian believer, his conviction here echoes what the Bible says about itself. The author of Hebrews claims: “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account” (4:12,13).
We have not, by and large, read the Bible as such a book or word from God. We’ve kept our distance from it as this sort of book. Eugene Peterson tells us why: “The kingdom of self is a heavily defended territory. Post-Eden Adams and Eves are willing to pay their respects to God, but they don’t want him invading their turf. Most sin, far from being a mere lapse of morals or a weak will, is an energetically and expensively erected defense against God.” That’s why the Bible rightly read will be about the business of subverting these defenses and toppling the imperial “I” that plays us so false.
So the Bible is an ancient book that begs us respect its cultural strangeness and do our due diligence with it before pronouncing on what it means. And, in a different way, it’s also a Word from God asserting both his claim and care for us which we wall ourselves off from in our sin. This estrangement from the Bible renders its meaning and call to us opaque, strange, offensive. The God who speaks through it has to dismantle our resistance in order for us to hear it.
We’ve noted the contextual strangeness of the Bible’s original background, setting, and language and its theological strangeness due to our relational and moral estrangement from God. But there is one other kind of strangeness to the biblical story. Michael Ende’s wonderful novel The Neverending Story illustrates it.
A young boy, Bastian, is suffering the loss of his mother, his father’s emotional distance, and his feeling of not fitting in anywhere, especially at school. He loved to read, though. One day he skipped out on school and went to bookstore and nicked The Neverending Story returning to the school’s attic to read it. As he read about the travails of the book’s magical country Fantastica and its losing battle against an encroaching Nothing. Reading further Bastian discovered that he himself is in the story and characters in it summon him to come to the troubled country’s aid. Finally he heeds this summons and joins Fantastica’s struggle. Through the adventures and misadventures he undergoes there Bastian discovers his true identity and the capacity to love. He returns to our world a changed, more mature boy and reconciles with his father.
It’s this self-involving character that marks the Bible’s story. Through it God calls everyone who reads to enter his reality and, like Bastian, discover their true identity and equipping for living out their vocation in our world.
Karl Barth, the great 20th century theologian, was schooled in the thought of 19th century liberalism. This liberalism eschewed this self-involving character of the Bible in favor of treating it as primarily a historical source for the development of Jewish and Christian religion. Its input then needed to be reinterpreted in the light of the best thought of the day. Christianity devolved into a struggle for moral and social improvement. Barth rudely discovered this when he learned that most of his revered teachers had signed on to support the Kaiser’s war policy that lead to World War I. He realized at that moment that his theological education in liberalism was bankrupt. He had to start anew. He returned to the Bible and asked: What do we really find in the Bible anyway?
Barth discovered it contained none of these things. Rather a “strange new world” opened up to him as he read. A new world that opened itself up to him calling him to participate in it himself. This new world testifies to a history with its own distinct grounds and possibilities, a wholly different kingdom with its own moral logic and politics. Faith cannot be traced to any historical foundations. The Bible is fundamentally concerned with God not with our morality, our knowledge, or our religion. It’s God’s history and God’s reign that matters. Far from leading us away from this world, Barth claims deriving our identity and vocation from the Biblical stories and teachings leads us deeper into the truth of this world. The Bible witnesses to the divine perspective on humanity, the world, and our life in it. God in Christ has inaugurated a new reality, a new world amidst the old world of sin and death and that the Holy Spirit “will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being.”
You can, of course, read the Bible for many reasons: its history, its information about the culture of the ancient world, its religious ideas, its languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic), and so on. And there’s nothing wrong with that kind of reading. It’s often very informative and useful. But it’s not the “thing” that the Bible is really about. It’s not what it is focused on. Barth is right. Unless we read it to discover that “strange new world” and find there our true identity and vocation as God’s people, our life as God’s people. After all the background, history, culture, language, and ideas in the Bible we can learn about, it’s the voice of God calling our name and inviting us to participate in his work in the world which alone we need to hear. Yet is it just that kind of listening we have never learned to do very well in the church. So the Bible remains in many cases a closed book, a strange artifact, which we no longer know what to do with or have much reason to retain.
This threefold strangeness of the Bible – cultural, theological, and existential focus – is something each of us needs to recognize and internalize. Until we face the Bible as the strange, largely unknown reality it is to us we can make no progress in Bible in healing and fruitful ways.
Here is our essential starting point. But only that. Let’s turn to considering what the Bible is.
 Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor (Waco, TX: Word, 1989), 31-32.
 Michael Ende, The Neverending Story (Penguin Books; New Ed edition, 1984).
 Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1956), 50.