After a recent sermon, a friend told me that they love the way I “read” the Bible. They went on to say that I frequently have a different take on familiar passages. What they meant was that, at least in their opinion, I bring fresh light and meaning to scriptures that they had not considered before. Now, I’m not sure how accurate their opinion is, but I’ll take it as a compliment nonetheless.
While I don’t feel as if I have a special take on scripture, I do feel like there are some things readers of scripture can do that will expand their reading and give them fresh bread. These are 10 practices I attempt to hold close as I search the scriptures.
1. Remove yourself from power. Because of my upbringing in the South and other “disadvantages” that came with it, I naturally see the story of scripture from the “outsiders” or “foreigners” perspective. When God tells the Hebrews to destroy a city and kill all the non Hebrews, I’m aware that I am not a Hebrew, and had I been living in that unfortunate city, the God I now worship would have instructed his people to kill me. That changes the way you read the Bible. It gives you a different imagination regarding what God is really up to in the world.
Plus, my ancestors were slaves. Try reading Paul’s instruction about slavery in the light of that fact. What was scriptures teaching to my great-grandparents? Try having an easy reading of the Bible with slave blood in your veins. The Hebrew’s years as slaves in exile become more formative than the reign in Jerusalem. The suggestion: Try reading the Bible as a minority. This one thing alone will radically enhance your reading. Here’s a hint: If your reading gives you more power over others rather than more surrender to God, then re-read.
2. Beware of Injustices. My presupposition is that Jesus becomes flesh to liberate the world (from selfishness, pettiness, death, etc…). As I read the Bible, I’m always mindful of how someone or some group has used a particular text to bind people to a cultural or social moray rather than liberate them. If a text has been used to enslave others or as an instrument to maintain an inequitable social status quo, it at least needs review. Southern Christians abused Pauline texts to maintain segregation. The question we have to ask is whether or not their use is what Paul actually intended. Your views may not change regarding certain things, but the texts should at least be examined.
3. Get Behind the Story. In every text there are a host of things happening. There is a story going on already and a verse or pericope of scripture is only a small part of that story. For instance, if you don’t know what’s going on in my favorite book (2 Corinthians), then you have very little idea about the depth of the teaching. We should be grateful for theologians. They serve the church. We need to explore what they tell us now about then. We need to know what the larger story is. If we don’t then it’s easy to fall into bumper sticker theology. So, if your preacher says, “I’m preaching through Acts.” Then go into your church library or down to the Christian bookstore and pick up the best commentary on Acts. Or better yet, ask your pastor/teacher/minister to share with you his resources. If they don’t,worry!
4. Know What Your Assumptions/Biases Are. It’s hard to read the Bible authentically if you are not aware of your biases. And as you get to know them, you have to be open to them being challenged. Part and parcel with this is the idea that you have to be open to being wrong about previously held conclusions about the text. You move forward if you think you know it already and you can’t move ahead if you’re not aware what you assume. In addition, you need to be aware of what you think the Bible is trying to do. Is it an answer book? Helpful tips for daily life? A grand narrative of God’s actions in the past and future? A pattern for church governance? Lots of questions flow out of this, but we have to know our assumptions first.
5. Read With Your Humanity on Your Sleeve. We have to read the Bible as people. That sounds obvious, but many of us read scripture like machines thinking that we were born exegetes and not people. This occurred to me last year when Larry James spoke at our Men’s Retreat. Larry — in a few short sentences — talked about stuff I knew already about Mary and Joseph and Joseph’s age when Jesus was born and the strong likelihood that Jesus was the son of a single mom for most of his rearing. That has to change the way you see Jesus, and the ways you see single moms and children. And you won’t believe this, but until that moment, it had not dawned on my that I was the son of a single mom. I had never considered it before. My mom raised my brother and me be herself. Single moms were other people, not us. We frequently read our Bibles and don’t see ourselves in it and it keeps us from seeing ourselves in others.
6. We Would Have Reacted Like They Reacted. As we comb the Biblical text we have to be aware of the fact that we would have reacted like they reacted. This means Jesus is talking to us, Paul is instructing us, the Prophets are shouting at us. It’s easy to be on the side of Jesus, but we are the 9 lepers that didn’t come back. Let’s bring some humility to the way we treat those who didn’t follow Jesus, those who rejected Paul, those who were forced into the right actions under threat and endurance of plagues, and those who show favoritism. They are us and we are them. Another way to say this is to have a “confessional heart.”
7. Read in Community. You might have noticed that the Bible creates a community and is best read in community and was read and spoken to communities initially. The Bible is read best in fellowship and informed discussion (shared ignorance for 1-hour on Sunday morning is not the same thing). In community notions can be affirmed, challenged and enhanced. In authentic community the Bible comes alive as we see it lived in the lives of others.
8. Read On Your Knees and in A Posture of Obedience. Interpretation doesn’t work because we are clever. It occurs because God reveals Himself. If the Bible is read without a robust spiritual life and deep prayer we may be missing a great deal. Again, my presuppositions come into play: If it’s merely an answer book, then there is no need for spiritual life. Simply read and do. But if the Bible is trying to create a particular kind of person who lives in a particular kind of community with a particular mission in the world, then more must be done. Bible reading, I assume, is asking us to do and be something that we would not have done or become without having read the Bible. For that, I need intimacy with the God revealed in the Bible.
9. Read for the Sake of Reading. People in my profession often find themselves fingering through scripture in preparation of a class or sermon. This is unfortunate because it’s when we are reading for the beauty of the narrative that God often jumps up and surprises us. Here’s where I put in a plugged for The Voice. As I’ve re-read the gospels this Advent, The Voice, and it’s imagery have grabbed my heart and drawn me back into the story juts like when I was a kid. And I’m excited about who Jesus is all over again.
10. Look For Distress. The Bible causes distress. When the events it recounts occurred there was distress. After Guttenberg there was distress. In each text there is something that should cause distress for the reader. It always has. Certainly, there are comforting passages, but there are just as many distressing parts that call us to change everything; to repent. In fact, there is only one true Bible study question: What in my life would have to change if I were to take this text seriously? The Bible changes our lives and we don’t always like it.
Well, those are some of the ideas/commitments I bring to Bible reading. And surely there are some bad thoughts/assumption in there and some important things I totally missed. What can I say? I’m human. At any rate, I hope this helps reignite some of our passion for the Bible. And now I will give you my BIG tip that some people don’t like, but I think is most important.
** Beware Bibliolatry. I don’t understand what people mean when they say they “love” the Bible. In my view, the Bible is a way — a primary way — that God is revealed, but at the end of the day, I want to spend time with, to lavish in the love of, to worship, and to serve God, not the Bible. God is most clearly revealed in the Bible, I get it. But the Bible is not the endgame. To make it such is idolatry. God is the endgame.