How I Read the Bible
Living in Philadelphia and being an avid non-fiction reader, I can’t help but consume history books in large quantities. They say that if you don’t know your history you’re destined to repeat it, and indeed whether in personal or professional settings I have seen how looking back to the back story is essential to interpreting what is happening now and what will happen next.
What’s particularly great for this history lover is that there is so much history to consume. For example, perhaps black history, classical Rome, and famous scientists are old hat for you, but for me they are a wide field of fascinating stories that I am enriched by digesting because they are largely unexplored by me to date. So it’s wonderful to think there is so much more out there to digest.
In the course of reading history, what has been interesting to me lately is not just learning about the history itself but learning about history is recorded. After all, history isn’t exactly the history itself but rather individual authors’ choices about how to explain it to future generations. We are connected to history not directly, but rather indirectly through the words of historians, who are finite and have agendas and are subject to the influences of their day.
Growing up in America and going to very good public schools, I learned about history in a very modern, Western, and intellectual way. History in this form is linear, descriptive, and thematic. It has only been since my grade school days that I have come to learn that history is messier and more fluid in other settings, at other times, and for other peoples. Other approaches to history are no less accurate – indeed, it is often our modern Western textbooks that gloss over important contextual details out of a need to hew closely to a simplified and archetypal depiction of key people and events – they are simply different, and need to be digested accordingly.
Which brings us to an important history book, the one I read daily if I can help it, which is the Bible. Perhaps you don’t believe the Bible is a history book or that it is inspired by God. Please bear with me, because I respect that opinion although I do endeavor to want to influence you to reconsider.
But my post today is less for you than for people who may heartily assent to my claims about the Bible but may be discomfited by what I am about to say, because it may seem contradictory and even heretical to their core beliefs. Although I assure you that I am writing not in the spirit of tearing down treasured truths but rather building them up on stronger foundations.
Taking the Bible literally as a historical document is a very Western impulse. Not to say that things like creation, Noah’s ark, and Jonah in the belly of the whale are purely allegorical, with no basis in scientific or historical reality. But neither were they intended to be consumed as history in the same way we read about yesterday’s stories in today’s newspapers. Rather, they were events processed by contemporary authors – working under the guidance of God’s direction but also subject to the influences of the day – to make a point. And, contra what we are used to with our modern Western eyes and ears, history back in the day was untethered from our need for precise sequencing and literal descriptions.
Do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not suggesting that the Bible is not historically accurate, nor that historical accuracy is unimportant. I am suggesting that we acknowledge that our frame of reference for historical accuracy is based on a modern Western construct that is not the same as the construct that Biblical authors operated under when they wrote the books of the Bible under divine inspiration. Therefore, the key to absorbing the Bible is not trying to understand it from our frame of reference but rather trying to understand what its authors were intending to convey from their frame of reference.
Let me also address a little bit of a pet peeve of mine by saying that the key to reading the Bible is not to know your point and then find verses that support it; it is to read its words and wonder what point God and the words’ authors was trying to make. Which is why I do not like thematic writings or sermons that start with a premise and then pick and choose passages that line up with those themes. All too often such an approach yanks a phrase or sentence out of context, thus rendering its truths far less powerful. Better is to approach passages more humbly, trying to understand the circumstances being described as well as the circumstances within which the authors are reaching into the future to convey something in their time.
Related to yesterday’s post about "modern-day Pharisees," I see in this country far too much deification of a certain set of messages that purport to be from the Bible but are merely a modern, Western, and shallow extrapolation of portions of it – and a historically poor and out-of-context extrapolation at that. The real Bible and the real characters and messages found in it are so potentially transformational. Yet, sadly, there is far too little good reading of the books and chapters and verses. I know there is far too little good reading because there is far too little wonder and far too little uncomfortable shifting in place, and far too much false pontificating and far too much fretting over the accuracy of literal interpretations. This is a bad reading of history, with grave consequences for our souls and this generation. And we are the worse for it, mind and body and spirit and society.