More Random Thoughts on Bible Reading

These are rambling, thinking out loud sort of thoughts. They are far from fully developed thoughts. I’m thinking of putting together something longer and better organized some day.

Do you know how to watch a TV show? Can you make sense of most of the movies you see? Do you know how to read a murder mystery? Can you pick up a newspaper and puzzle out its meaning? Then you already know how to read the Bible.

You’ll only mess it up if you forget everything you know about reading and movie watching and think to yourself, “this is spiritual, this is deep, this requires special skills I don’t have.”

Don’t be afraid of the Bible. And never let yourself say, when you see something in it you don’t expect (like sex, violence, parties, general debauchery, and any other things you don’t think are righteous), “that can’t possibly be what it means.” If you accept what’s actually there and don’t resist it, then you can understand it.

S.M. Stirling, the science fiction author best known for Island in the Sea of Time and its sequels, is quoted as commenting, “There is a technical term for someone who confuses the opinions of a character in a book with those of the author. That term is idiot.” Larry Niven, another science fiction author, has been known to say the same thing. It is triggered by letters that the authors have received excoriating them for their attitudes, beliefs, or behavior based on things that the characters in their books have done, thought or said. As if the author is going to believe the same thing that all his characters say, or that all the characters are equally good, righteous and not reprehensible.

Most readers of novels, or the viewers of television shows and movies, do not believe that the actions of the characters in any way reflect the actual beliefs of either the actors or the author or producers of the film. But some small percentage of the public is inevitably going to think that way.

As a long time teacher of the Bible and theology, I’ve noticed that the percentage of those who should be given the technical term Stirling and Niven mention is remarkably high among those who read the Bible. Oddly, many readers of the Bible seem to have jettisoned everything they know about how to enjoy literature or watch a movie or television show. They do things with the text of the Bible that they would never imagine doing with a newspaper article or an episode of CSI.

For instance, critics of the Bible will point to the horrific violence, or perceived misogyny, or irrational and contradictory statements and then wonder how the Bible could ever be considered the “good” book. Christians will read the story of Ezra ordering men to divorce their wives and disown their children and piously speak of Ezra’s actions all being good and righteous.

There is a company called Demotivators, which makes Demotivational posters; they are intended to be funny and to satirize the sappy, syrupy and empty motivational postors that one finds on the walls of business offices. One stands out in this context. It shows a picture of an ocean liner sinking beneath the waves with the words beneath it: “Perhaps your life is meant to serve as a warning to others.”

Paul wrote that the stories of the Old Testament were designed to serve as examples for us; that doesn’t meant that everything is to be twisted to be good, or that everything is intended for our emulation. Obviously, the unnamed Levite who left his concubine to be raped and murdered, and who then chopped her into twelve pieces is not a person whose life is one to be emulated or held up for commendation.

If you get the willies reading a portion of the Bible, you know what? That may be exactly how you’re supposed to feel when you read it. The Bible isn’t designed to always be a warm fuzzy feel good book. Sometimes it’s supposed to creep you out. Sometimes its supposed to scare the hell out of you. And sometimes it really doesn’t have anything to say to you where you are right now. All those rules and regulations that, while vital for the Levites and priests conducting sacrifices and performing religious duties in the ancient tabernacle, are not likely to have the least relevance for how you conduct a Sunday morning worship service in Cleveland.

Some general things to consider that I may expand upon later; as the title says, these are just random thoughts, perhaps an introduction to something longer yet to come. These statements form a sort of outline for a longer project, perhaps:

1. Why the Bible Looks the Way it Does

The mechanics of a thing can be boring and dry. But sometimes you just have to know that tab A goes into Slot B.

2. Not everyone in the Bible is a good guy. Not even the good guys.

The people in the Bible are people; usually pretty reprehensible people. But that’s okay. Reprehensible people are the only kind of people that there are. Even you.

3. He’s a poet and he doesn’t even know it.

Poetry wasn’t meant to be analyzed. It was meant to be felt.

4. Don’t know much about history.

5. Context, context, context

6. It’s okay not to understand it.

Sometimes we don’t have all the answers; some things don’t make sense. And that’s okay. Be patient; maybe someday someone will figure it out. Maybe it’ll be you. But maybe not. Accept the possibility of not getting it.

7. So what if you didn’t think about it like that before?

You’re not inerrant. Neither is your pastor, favorite celebrity, or favorite teacher. Be open to the possibility that you misunderstood something; allow the possibility of new data, new ideas to grow. The Bible is the authority, not some person, not some organization. If the Bible challenges your theology, your beliefs, your goals, then good!

8. Questions are better than answers. Don’t be afraid of questions. Never, ever say “you shouldn’t have asked that.”

9. Doubts are okay. Remember, you can always doubt your doubts.

10. You’re allowed to think.

Sometimes interpretations, even those of long standing, are just wrong. You might be certain that the Bible says something in a certain way. You may be convinced you know the truth. But be careful. You can misinterpret the Bible just as easily as you can misinterpret reality (general revelation vs. special revelation).

* * *

The Bible, like any book, can be misunderstood. There are the obvious misunderstandings, sometimes done for humorous effect, as when a Sunday School teacher asks her class to name the shortest man in the Bible. When no one says anything, she tells them, “Well, there’s ‘Knee-high Miah” and Bildad, the Shoe-hight. But really, the shortest man in the Bible is Peter.”

“How come?” asks one of the students. “Because he ‘slept on his watch.’”

There’s also the story about the young wife wondering what she should do about her finances. She decided to flip through the pages of scripture. When she found the book of Job, she decided that was God’s sign to her that she should find gainful employment. Then there’s the man who sought God’s will for him each day by letting the Bible flop open and then jabbing his finger randomly at the page. One day his finger alighted on the verse that said, “Judas hanged himself.” Deciding that didn’t warm his heart or give him any encouragement, he tried again, only to find his digit pointing at “Go and do thou likewise.” Disturbed, he tried one more time and found the verse “Go and do thou likewise.”

Most people would recognize that such things are not to be taken seriously, and that anyone who did would be seriously misusing the text. But while such obvious misuse is rare, more subtle varieties have come to dominate large swaths of the Bible reading public. Both devout Christians and atheists who believe religion is the root of all evil have been guilty of misunderstanding what the Bible is talking about. The consequence of such misunderstandings has result in much confusion.

And the source of the confusion? Forgetting that the Bible is a book, a book filled with stories and poetry, legal texts, wisdom writing, parables and fables, essays, and letters, written by many people over many years. Frankly, a lot of people, when they open the Bible, approach it in ways that they would never approach any other work of literature. Everything they know about watching movies or television, watching plays, or reading novels and newspapers vanishes. Part of that can be blamed on some unique characteristics of the Bible.

1. It is considered the Word of God by the devout.

2. It is divided somewhat arbitrarily into verses. In some older translations, each verse is separated from those that come before and after, so that the book is read as if it were a set of bullet points in a power point presentation.

3. The most widely used translation was published in 1611, using a form of English not much different from that used by Shakespeare and imperfectly understood by nearly all modern readers.

Some additional problems facing the average reader beyond all of that, which alone are enormous hurdles to overcome—and we’ll see why in a little bit. There’s also the issue of context, specifically the cultural and historical context of the writing which tends to be overlooked by most readers, who imagine that it doesn’t matter, if they even ever thought about it at all. That the contents of the Bible come from a pre-industrial, agricultural world without any of the modern conveniences, like microwaves, cars, electricity, instantaneous communication, police departments, fire departments, elections, human rights, modern medicine and dental care, or representative liberal western democratic institutions. There are so many things we take for granted—like the importance of detailed measurements, modern engineering tolerances, or even a modern globe—that a certain amount of problem making sense of what is going on in the Bible is inevitable.

Theology is a construct derived from the raw data of scripture; an example is the doctrine of the Trinity. The term Trinity is not one that appears anywhere in Scripture; nor is there even a single passage that expresses the concept clearly in the text. That is, nowhere in the Bible does it say, “God is three in one.” Or “God is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Nevertheless, Christians since the earliest times have felt comfortable affirming that God is one and that Jesus is God, the Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God. The Trinity makes sense of the baptismal formula: “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The data of scripture is incomplete. Carl Sagan, the astronomer, commented, “With insufficient data it is easy to go wrong.” Thus, we must be very careful in the interpretation of the Bible and be careful not to become dogmatic on things that there is inadequate data to be as certain of as we might wish.

Theologians speak of God “revealing” himself to the human race. By this, is meant that God reached out to human beings and told them about himself. How he has done that is through two routes: he reveals himself to humanity by means of special revelation: that is, through the Bible, through visions, through prophets, through Jesus when he lived on Earth. He also reveals himself through general revelation: that is, as creator, we can learn about him through the universe he has created. General revelation includes all of nature and history. As the psalmist wrote, “the heavens declare the glory of God.” (Psalm 19:1)

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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