Reading the Bible On Its Own Terms

Categories: Biblical Studies, Education, Religion & Theology

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John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has put up an outstanding post on reading the Bible, gracefully making a point I’ve emphasized for years:

Claims about the Bible work best if you take the time to actually read its contents with the empathy one reserves for any potential friend whose acquaintance you have not yet made. Once you learn to read the Bible on its own terms, with an openness to its particular truth claims, the Bible makes a lot of sense, even if, for whatever reason, you prefer a different set of truth claims.

Most people for whom the Bible contains the words of life read it through a filter that “protects” them from those parts of it that turn them off. They continue to believe that the Bible is a light unto to their path, but they want to immunize themselves from its icky parts, not to mention the parts that call into question their current way of living and understanding reality. Two common types of mosquito netting sell briskly on the market today, netting designed to keep the buyer from being infected with the malarial fever you might otherwise contract if you read the Bible without the protection the netting offers.

(1) A crass dispensationalism, per a virulent from of evangelicalism.

(2) A version of Marcionism, per one of any number of flavors of theological liberalism, including liberation theology, feminism, etc.

That is far from being an anti-intellectual reading of the contents of the Bible. On the contrary, it is a circular style of reading, inherently open to influence from a number of directions, in principle however, not dominated by an external criterion. At the same time, it is a unitive construal of a heterogeneous reality. It is subject to the temptation of silencing the particular voices of scripture. With that firmly in mind, a canonical reading of Scripture broadly understood nevertheless has a lot going for it, a lot more than its competitors.

I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been frustrated for years by the fact that most people seem to come to the Bible only to confirm what they already believe about it—what they were taught in church, etc. They are taught that it says a certain thing and then find that confirmed when they read it. It’s as though the Bible is somehow this arcane piece of literature that could never be understood by actually reading it on its own terms.

One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received in my life was when Robert Jewett, after hearing my paper on Romans 11 in November’s SBL Annual Meeting, commented that it appeared I had come to the text without theological presuppositions, being willing to follow Paul’s argument even into uncomfortable territory—further than the consensus readings had been willing to go. But this kind of openness should be the rule rather than the exception—especially among those whose job it is to study these things. But unfortunately, I’ve found that it is rarely the case. But if there is one thing I have tried to emphasize to my students, it’s the importance of dropping the esoteric notions surrounding the Bible and reading it as though it actually meant what it said.

As an instructor, I’ve found it especially helpful to read various passages out loud to emphasize this point. When I teach Paul, for example, it only takes 15 to 20 minutes of class time to read Galatians, trying my best to capture the anger, frustration, and emotion of the book. Students are startled that they begin to hear a voice in the text that they’ve never heard—the voice of the letter-writer himself, not the staid “inside voices” they had always heard before. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of removing this “devotional” tone of reading—when I have students read the text, I often find myself saying, “No! Do it again! But this time, read it like it’s not a holy book, like it’s a real letter or novel or movie script—hear the voices!” Almost invariably, these students are surprised at what they end up hearing. (This is one of my greatest complaints about audio Bibles—they’re read in a way that totally strips the voice, the passion away from very human and passionate pieces of literature.)

One of the important theoretical realizations of the 20th Century was the impact a reader has upon a text—the fact that the interpreter assigns meaning to the text. In one sense, there is no getting around this, but I do think there is a way of “circular” reading (to use Hobbins’ term) in which the interpreter’s judgment is malleable, in which the interpreter allows the text to change and influence his/her mind rather than simply reading to confirm previous conclusions. It also requires a willingness to grapple with uncertainty and the unseemly parts of the text (why is it that we can deal with the unseemly parts of movies or other literature but can’t deal with it in a sacred text?). It’s a much more demanding reading style, but I’ve found that it’s far more rewarding than its alternative.

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