Monday, September 17, 2012

On How to Read the Bible

Note 1: This is not a post on how you should read the Bible. Rather, it is a post about the myriad of ways I’ve read the Bible in my 45 years. You may or may not get anything useful out of it, but it may be entertaining nonetheless.

Note 2: I’m coming off a 36 hour migraine. See Note 1 about this post possible being entertaining.

I grew up in a Christian home, going to a Baptist church, and (for my elementary years) going to a Christian school. I have been exposed to the Bible. In many ways. And many were good and useful. Although some not so much. But I see a counselor about those. (I kid, I kid. I see a counselor about lots of other things, too.)

As a very young child, I was read Bible stories at home, church, and school. Generally, these were the basic Adam and Eve, Esther, David, etc. stories. Much of the book of Genesis was left for later.  (PWM and I learned to edit on the fly when we decided to read the Bible all the way through to our kids one year when they were entirely too young to hear about Lot’s daughters, Tamar, and plenty of other stuff that makes me blush.) One rather disturbing thing that I do remember during my elementary years about Bible stories is that the third grade class one year acted out the story of Aachen. You know, Israel is told by God to completely destroy the city of Ai and collect all the treasure. Well, Aachen hides some treasure in his tent, which God knows about because he’s God. Joshua calls Aachen on it. Aachen and his entire family are stoned. What disturbed me as a first grader was that they acted out the stoning part, too, although they had the decency to use tissue paper “stones”. That’s a tough story to understand, but then to act out as 8 year olds? Hmmmm.

A big part of what I learned about reading the Bible in my Evangelical and vaguely Fundamentalist Christian school was that it is full of rules. And, man, this school did rules like no body’s business. We had rules for how short our skirts could be at school, for how close boys and girls could sit on the bus, and even that we couldn’t wear blue jeans at school events. In fact, every classroom I was every in had a board with the kids’ names and little paper pockets for “tallies” which were the slips we got when we broke rules. We learned lots of Bible verses, particularly the ones with rules. But, I was good at following rules, so I did well at that school.

We also only used the King James Version of the Bible. I think the NIV was still pretty new, but the school was also pretty conservative. There are lots of verses that I memorized as a kid that I still have in my head in the KJV and probably always will! As a child, I got a gorgeous Bible with a blue leather cover with my name in silver script and silver edging on the paper. I still have that Bible but I hardly ever use it because the cover is coming off and we have about a zillion Bibles at home. When I was a teenager, my parents gave me a leather bound Thompson Chain Reference NIV Bible which I still use as my primary study Bible when I’m not at the computer. But, being a child of the modern age, I have to admit that I usually use Bible Gateway at home and my ipod at church.

As I got older, I learned some more important things about reading the Bible. In the 80s, people were getting worked up over the Bible being “inerrant”. In the two youth groups I attended when I was in junior high school and high school, this translated to “literal”. Particularly when we were talking about the first two chapters of Genesis. Not only were we supposed to read them literally – as in, God spoke the universe into existence 6000 years ago in 6-24 hour days – but, we were supposed to make sure that our Biology teachers knew that we believed this. The good news for me was that my Biology teacher didn’t seem to think that evolution was all that necessary for a good Biology education (or I fell asleep that day – but, really, the man could only handle so much controversy; he also had to teach us about sex that year and I think that almost did him in). Somewhere along the way, we were also told that Psalms and Proverbs didn’t have to be read literally, but that if we didn’t read Genesis literally, then we were probably denying the Gospel. Life got really confusing around high school. (That was also when the hormones showed up, though, so I don’t think it’s fair to blame it all on the Bible or biblical interpretation.)

Somewhere along the way, I also learned to “proof-text”. If someone had a problem, someone else would find a verse for them. (As you’ll see later, I’m not so much a fan of this nowadays.) I was pretty good at this since I’d learned tons of Bible verses in school and at church. Need prayer answered? “Pray without ceasing” Need help in making a decision? “Seek ye first the kingdom of God . . . “ Things not going your way? “But I know the plans for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you . . .”
Feeling stressed? “The Lord is my shepherd . . . “ Heck, with a little work, I could come up with some serious enemy-smiting verses, too!!

When we hit the 90s, people got more enlightened and started reading the Bible for answers to life’s tough questions: how to lose weight, how to find a spouse, how to become emotionally healthy. And guess what? They found answers! It wasn’t much different than the way the Bible was used in my elementary school – it was a whole bunch of rules. This time, though, they had come across some really cool verses with promises about what would happen when you followed the rules. People are still doing this today, by the way. Check out your local Christian bookstore. The Christian Living section looks pretty similar to the Personal Growth section of Barnes and Noble – and about as large.

I bought into it, too! Some author would take some section of scripture and decide that we could also apply to some problem that’s common to our current society. Wow! What an idea. We’d be off and running. But, when we quit following the rules, we weren’t any better off. Turns out that following rules doesn’t actually effect much inner change. But, eating your fruits and veggies still is good for your cholesterol.

But, then, post-modernism came along and told us that we needed to quit reading the Bible as a puzzle to be solved and instead get into the narrative and understand the story. We’re all part of the grand meta-narrative and we just need to understand our place within it! Huh? That didn’t resonate too much with me. I’m a decidedly modern thinker.

A few years ago, our pastor was taking some online seminary classes and he asked me to read and outline his hermeneutics book to help him study. That was one of the best things I’ve done for my Bible study! I started to get a picture of how a text is situated in time and place and situation. For us to understand it, we need to first understand what it was saying to it’s original audience and then try to figure out how God wants us to understand it today. (BTW, this wasn’t my first introduction to this concept. My dad had already given me and PWM a set of Barclay New Testament commentaries and Broadman entire Bible commentaries. This book was the best explanation of how to use commentaries, other resources, the rest of the Bible, prayer, and common sense.) One of the biggest practical effects of this “little education” was that I almost never take proof-texting at face value any more. I always want to know the original source and context of the text.

Most recently, in the last few years, I’ve been reading some blogs and books that have helped to sharpen my focus on reading and studying the Bible. They are a reminder that the Bible is about Jesus. It’s not a science textbook. While it gives a lot of history about Israel, it does it in order to point to Jesus. It may give us lots of good guidelines for living, but it’s not a book on how to live – it’s a book on how to know Jesus, and he’ll walk with us through life. it’s still quite important to look for the best scholarship out there to find out what the text says. How is it pointing us  to Jesus? In some parts of the Old Testament, it may just be giving us some background or history of Israel. But, God gave it all to us.

So, what does this mean for me now? I usually try to study what the pastor is preaching at church since he likes to preach through books of the Bible. Right now he’s doing “King Jesus Rules the World” about the book of Ruth. I also read daily (well, I don’t actually get around to them daily, but it’s a goal . . . ) readings on Bible Gateway. I have an audio Bible on my ipod and I’ve started listening to the Gospels recently. The advantage of audio is that I can listen to a large section and get a real “feel” for it while I’m knitting or cleaning and don’t need to feel like I’m “studying”. These are all valid ways of interacting with the Bible as long as I understand their strengths and weaknesses. (A blog I enjoy is studying Esther over the next couple of months, so I might do some of that as well. It will be a nice contrast to look at women of the ancient East while studying Ruth.)

I hope this has been helpful, enlightening, or entertaining. If nothing else, it got some stuff out of my head and written down. How has your interaction with the Bible changed, if at all?


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