Bible Reading for the Biblically Illiterate - And We're All Illiterate (Part 2)

  1. What is the Bible?

Barth’s question of the nature of the Bible is critical and misunderstanding here leads to confusion all the way down the line. A symphony is my image for what the Bible is doing. Three further images help me to think through how the Bible works (or does not work) – a window, a mirror, and a stained glass art.[1] These images capture the three primary ways readers approach the Bible and picture the expectations they bring to their reading.

The Bible as Symphony

          The Bible is one long sprawling story.  It tells this story through many authors, most of them unknown. Further editors shaped the Bible into its final form. It contains many genres and styles of writing. Different views are found in its pages, due largely to the vast span of time the Bible covers. Ample diversity of form and thought must be factored into any viable view of the Bible.

On the other hand, the Bible is not a mere miscellany of religious literature. Some style the Bible as a library which fosters this sense of a miscellany. Yet the way the Bible in its final form is put together tells us it is one connected story running from beginning to end. The diversity we just noted is framed within the larger story the Bible tells (more on this #3 and #4).

So we have to read the Bible as if it were a symphony. A symphony “is an extended musical composition . . . usually consisting of multiple distinct sections or movements.”[2] Each section plays their individual pieces while the conductor weaves the various parts into a coherent whole. In theological language this means that we first take the works of individual authors in their own right seeking to understand them as best we can. Then we read them again assessing their place and contribution to the whole story as the Bible’s final and ultimate author, God, tells it. Diversity deepens the tone and broadens the texture of the story. The final form of the Bible guides us in weaving this diversity into a coherent tale. This is what the Bible is, in my judgment, a symphony of diverse individual pieces telling a single rich story. And so we must read it.

The Bible as Window

The way we read the Bible is largely determined by the expectations we bring to it. We will find what we are looking for (or condemn the Bible for not having what we are looking for). So we better be looking for the right thing!

One way many read the Bible today is as if it is primarily a window.  Now one looks through a window to see what lies behind it.  To read the Bible this way is to take a primarily historical approach to it. We read it to find out what actually happened and when and how it happened. There are many invaluable gains from this approach to the Bible.  It has, however, spawned a tendency to reconstruct how things really were and who people really were (esp. Jesus) in contrast or contradiction to how the Bible presents those things and characterizes those people.  Often this has been done based on assumptions about what could and could not happen in history.  But even with less restrictive assumptions at work, the Bible leaves us with many gaps in, and questions about its historical presentation. The Bibles history is not like our history writing today. Rather its history is in line with the practice of history writing of its time. This history writing aimed at purposes other than strict chronological narrative and those aims shaped the way they wrote history. If history (as we understand the term) is the primary or only way we read the Bible, we will be (and have been) frustrated because the Bible often does not answer our historical questions and thus leaves us to our own devices in theologizing about the meaning and significance of the biblical story.

The Bible is not primarily a window to look through to find out “what really happened” in the past. It is not well-suited to that task. There’s history in it to be sure but the telling of that history is not driven by chronological accuracy. There’s no good reason, in my judgment, for doubting that the biblical story is substantially accurate, just as there’s no good reason to tie its authenticity or reliability to our own canons of history writing.

The Bible as Mirror

 Nor, I think, should we read the Bible as many do as a mirror.   One looks at a mirror to see one’s own reflection, standing in front of the mirror.  It’s our issues and struggles, our lives, which are the chief concerns in this type of Bible reading. There are many and varied types of this approach, both sophisticated and simple.  Some versions of reader response theory in literature, in which the reader creates the meaning of the story, and much devotional reading of the Bible, which seeks to find a direct word of personal meaning for uplift, inspiration, or guidance for the day’s activities and challenges.  In each case, the reader’s interest lies in front of the text on themselves, their situations and questions, needs and desires, for which they seek insight and guidance.

The Bible as Stained Glass Art

          The Bible can also be read primarily as a piece of stained glass art.  Here, one looks into stained glass art to discover the story the variously sized and colored pieces of glass seek to tell. One finds the story in the text itself, artfully shaped and told with interests other than historical exactitude or even personal or existential meaning.  There is, of course, personal, existential meaning throughout all the scriptures, but we come it indirectly by focusing on something else.  Scripture as stained glass art uses the skill of the artist to draw us into its story as the true story of God with humanity (remember The Neverending Story above). Once engaged with the story at this level, we are able to find our identity and significance with it, and engage our lives and God’s mission in the world on that basis.  This pastiche of ancient historiography, myth, poetry, novella, apologetic, shaped and reshaped by use in Israel’s worship is what God has declared as his Word to us (see last post).  Only in this way, I suggest, can we both pay proper attention to historical matters and to existential meaning as we come to this set of literature as God’s love story written to his people (as was advocated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

We’ve tried to read the Bible in primarily historical and personal, existential ways and, by and large, have missed the point!  Perhaps we are ready to begin reading it as designed, as a piece of divine stained glass art in whose story we find our identity, our significance, and our security as God’s people in the world.

The strange new world of the Bible in its stained glass form offers, indeed presses, on us at least the following:

-a different perception of reality that question how we think, speak, and live.

-a different history than the common public history we all think we live in.

-a different view of what it means to be human.

-different gifts and tasks than we imagined we had or were called to do.

This is we need to know to live life as the persons God created us to be, that is, to experience life in a harmonious integrated way. It behooves us, then, to read the Bible as the kind of book it presents itself to be rather than the one we may think or hope it is.

J. R. R. Tolkien gives his own inimitable and memorable expression to this way of embracing this strange new world of the Bible through Samwise Gamgee in The Two Towers. Exhausted and dispirited by the journey to bear the One Ring of power to its destruction in Mt. Doom, Frodo is on the verge of giving up on his task and calling of bearing the burden of the Ring, Sam offers this reflection:

Sam: “It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end because how could that end by happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end it’s only a passing thing this shadow, even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it’ll shine out the clearer. Those were stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why. But I think Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going because they were holding on to something.”

Frodo: “What are we holding on to, Sam?”

Sam: “That there’s some good in the world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”[3]

          This is the kind of story we find in the strange new world of the Bible. That story is told in an artful literary 1st century way. If we can learn it that way we will learn to meet God where and in the ways he has made himself available to us. Because that’s the kind of book the Bible is!

[1] Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christin Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 124-133.
[2] “Symphony,”
[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 696.


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