Friday, October 26, 2012

Ramblings and reflections on what I (don't) know about the Bible

from here

There’s a song on one of our Christian CDs for kids that says of the Bible (paraphrasing 2 Timothy 3:16):
[God] spoke it

they wrote it

and now we can read it.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, thanks to my Awful Jeremiah Essay Experience (as it shall henceforth be known). I know that there’s only so much theology one can (and should) fit into a ditty for young’uns, but this is such a painful oversimplification that I now skip the song each time it begins so that Moses won’t start to believe it. Here’s what Jeremiah taught me about how some of the books of the Bible actually came to be:
He wrote some,

his scribe wrote some too,

an editor came along later and reshaped their words, weaving a message of hope and encouragement where before there was only judgment,

a group of people way later decided that the work should be included in the canon,

another group of people translated this from Hebrew into English,

and now we can read it.

And God oversaw the entire process, of course, even using human mistakes to make the Bible what it is today (it’s likely, for example, that the book of Hebrews was only included because back when they were deciding what was in and what was out, everyone thought that it was written by Paul).
If studying the Bible at college has taught me anything, it’s that I know very little about the Bible. I’m wondering if that’s the main goal of Bible college, or if at least it should be, so that rather than spitting out bunches of people who have all the answers, it instead spits out people who are more ready to listen, more ready to acknowledge they might be wrong, more ready to admit they’re not entirely sure about lots of things, more ready to see greys where before they saw only blacks and whites. I liked having front-row seats to a display of this kind of humility while researching for my essay; one scholar may passionately disagree with another’s approach to a text or a book, but they seem so respectful of the godliness of the one proposing it, the study that’s gone into it, the opportunity for further theories to spring from new ideas. It made a sweet difference to those Christian blog posts and books and internet articles and reviews that proclaim that their view is what the Bible really says, as if they have special access to God’s true thoughts that’s somehow denied to those who disagree with them.

I remember my first huge epiphany at college happened during a theology class – I have absolutely no idea what we were talking about, but quite suddenly it was like a part of my brain was split open and light shone in for the first time, while angelic music played. I wrote on my notes, “The Bible does not contain everything God has to say about everything!!!” I’m still moved by its profundity; too often I assume that the Holy Spirit’s there for working out a Christ-like perspective on things like climate change or hobbies (along with other things not talked of in the Bible), but if there’s a mention of anything (women, church, whatever), I think “I guess that’s all of it, then.

But it’s not all of it; the New Testament is made up mostly of letters, written to specific people in specific circumstances. They didn’t have televisions or internet, so Paul never has a need to figure out and share his thoughts on whether or how or how much to use these things. They hadn’t yet noticed that the world was getting hotter, and so Peter has no concept of global warming, let alone a desire to speak to his churches about carbon footprints. It was a very different culture to ours, as recorded and reflected in these letters. As Fee and Stuart put it in How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, reading the Bible today is “much like listening to one end of a telephone conversation and trying to figure out who is on the other end and what that unseen party is saying. Yet in many cases it is especially important for us to hear ‘the other end,’ so that we know what our passage is an answer to” (pages 45-46).

I had another, slightly less striking, moment realising for the first time that the early church didn’t have the Bible as we read it today. I knew that, but I didn’t really know it. You know? The Philippians may never have read the letters to the Corinthians or the Ephesians! There might have been many different ways of “doing” church back then as they all worked out how to live their new faith in their particular contexts, guided by the Spirit and encouraged by the leaders who dropped in and wrote when they could.

I know this has been a long post, but I want to stick this in while I’m on the subject. Since finishing A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans last weekend, I’ve been mulling over a quote she includes in the final pages (by Peter Rollins):
By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naïve attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.
Evans goes on to write that we find whatever we’re looking for in the Bible (“If you are looking for reasons to wage war, you will find them. If you are looking for reasons to promote peace, you will find them. If you are looking for an outdated and irrelevant ancient text, you will find it. If you are looking for truth, believe me, you will find it”), and there will therefore be times when “the most instructive question to bring to the text is not, what does it say? but what am I looking for?... If you want to do violence in this world, you will always find the weapons. If you want to heal, you will always find the balm.”** Did I mention that I loved this book?

And have I mentioned that I love the Bible? I love that I love it more now that it is alive and active in a way I never fully understood until my assumptions about this book (these books! These poems and genealogies and letters and stories and records and glimpses into my Christian heritage and gospels!) were chipped away and I was forced to realise that it was much, much bigger and harder and less solvable than I’d wanted it to be before. May I never think I’ve understood it once and for all. May I always strive to know it better, so that I may be continually reminded of how very little I know. And may all future essay questions be far easier now that Im actually paying attention to the importance of this lesson.


* found on pages 295-296 of Evans’ book

** all of these quotes are on page 296


  1. The other important thing to remember I think is not just the cultural context it was written in/for, but also our own cultural context that we're reading it from. Biblical interpretation, like secular literary criticism, has gone and continues to go through fads over the years - whether you take a narrative view, or a literal one (which came to the fore in the wake of the Enlightenment as a response to the theory of the infallibility of science). We need to be aware of our own predjudices - not just what we're looking for, but how we're looking for it.

    Your enthusiasm for A Year of Biblical Womanhood is infectious - I've just ordered it :)

    1. Yes yes yes. Thanks for pointing that out (and so eloquently - when will YOU start a blog? :); The RHE/Peter Rollins quotes pick up on this, but I should have made more of it (I realised after posting this that I often throw in quotes and expect that you understand why they're there, and will try to do a much better job of explaining them in future!).

      As for the YBW news, YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!! I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!!

  2. I just finished it - will email you about it soon :)