The Strange New World Within the Bible

May 18, 2006

My own relationship to the Bible has erotic and dysfunctional dimensions: I find it beautiful and passionate but treacherous. I can't stay away – but each encounter I wonder if this will be the time I'm left twisting in the wind. The funny thing is, while to other Xians I'll readily admit my own ambivalence, when I hear someone from outside the faith criticizing the Bible my first reaction is to rush to the defense. Someone will bring up something embarrassing – youths killed by bears for insulting a prophet of God, for example – and all I want to do is find reasons this should not be embarrassing. For the course of the discussion I'll focus on the text itself. What I rarely do is talk about the way the Bible is read – by detractors as well as worshippers. In my community group  last night we discussed a sermon given in 1916 called “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” which proved extremely pertinent to this rarity.

The preacher begins his sermon by walking through the Bible, imagining it as a series of stories in which the mysterious character of God features prominently. He asks: what's going on here? What's going on in the Bible? What's the truth underlying its disparate texts and voices? He notes that by even asking the question we put ourselves at risk:

The question, “What is in the Bible?” has a mortifying way of converting itself into the opposing question, “Well, what are you looking for, and who are you, pray, who make bold to look?”

We see this all the time. Watching a Xian like me rush to the defense of the Bible, twisting myself into knots trying to account for (let's say) the massacre of the Canaanites, it's easy to see a man who badly wants to know that he has built his life on some stable foundation, and has been looking to the Bible for a platform for morals. The idea that immoral behavior appears in the Bible, and is even celebrated there, is profoundly threatening – but that detail reveals more about me than about the text.

Likewise, after watching someone fulminate for a while over the inaccuracies of the Bible, the atrocities it documents/ celebrates, its incoherencies and contradictions, I begin to think: who IS this person, that this is all they see in the Bible? If it were the case that anyone who reads with an open mind rather than as part of some brainwashing process, would see the same things, then there would be no mystery about it. That is emphatically not the case. Every rational man or woman who comes to the Bible takes away something slightly different, and the range of responses is very broad. When someone comes away from it with (mostly) a stockpile of bombs to throw at dogmatic religion and its adherents, we know something about that person – not so much about the Bible.

So, the preacher assumes, human beings do not have the power to go to the Bible and find there anything beyond themselves – their own fault lines, their own fetishes. So to go to the Bible and hope to learn something you don't already know is an act of faith – faith in oneself, at the very least.

…we must trust ourselves to reach eagerly for an answer which is really much too large for us, for which we really are not yet ready, and of which we do not seem worthy, since it is a fruit which our own longing, striving, and inner labor have not planted… Neither by the earnestness of our belief nor by the depth and richness of our experience have we deserved the right to this answer.

He describes this as a process, not as an event. You can't go to the Bible and come away with a hermeneutic vacuum. You come asking, “What is there?” and you get the answer you deserve. Hope arises from the fact of your eventual dissatisfaction with your previous answer. It is as if the Bible were saying to you: “You found something compatible with your prior commitments, your idiosyncrasies, your cultural moment. So far you have only found yourself. Look again, and see me for what I am!” In a sense, you get egged on into a state of chutzpah.

This daring is faith; and we read the Bible rightly, not when we do so with false modesty, restraint, and attempted sobriety, for these are passive qualities, but when we read it in faith. And the invitation to dare and to reach toward the highest, even though we do not deserve it, is the expression of grace in the Bible; the Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God.

I'm aware that skeptics are often told by Xians, “Well, if you had some acquaintance with God your reading of the Bible would be more profitable! As it is, you are blind to the truth!” So what's the difference between that kind of logical rudeness, as Peter Suber would put it, and what the preacher is talking about? I would suggest, first of all, that a kind of relationship to the text is being described here that no one who would ever engage in that kind of rhetorical warfare could experience. The Xian tries to impugn the skeptic's very ability to understand the text rightly in an attempt to defend the text, defend the faith, defend (ultimately) their own insecure selves. I'm all too familiar with this dynamic. As the preacher – or Darth Vader – would say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

Reading the text faithfully would not mean coming to secure conclusions about its Meaning and then telling off those benighted souls who (alas) have not been given access to that Meaning. Reading the text faithfully begins with a moment of humility – the recognition that the Bible does not exist as an object on which we can pass judgment – and ends in an adventure in which we are challenged to go beyond what we are. God does not want to give us the Cliffsnotes to the Bible – he wants to give us a life, and there is no room in that life for saying to someone else, “Too bad God doesn't love you like he loves me and hasn't empowered you to understand the Bible like I do!” You're supposed to be too busy living the life to wag your tongue in this way, and too busy loving God to invoke him as a bodyguard for your fragile ego in its clashes with outsiders who have outwitted you.

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