Reverent but Critical Bible Reading -- a reposting
Reflections, originally posted October 24, 2006
I recently posted a "review" of sorts for Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation. In that diatribe against religion and Christianity in particular Harris takes particular aim at the Bible. Now, Harris will admit to only one understanding of the Bible, and that's the understanding of the most rigid of Fundamentalists. It does of course offer the starkest of contrasts between his enlightened views of the world and the benighted Christian perspective.
As I said before, I'm not comfortable with his characterization of my views, so I'll repeat them so to speak.
The rigid fundamentalist position is to take the Bible with a wooden literalism -- of course even the most rigid find it necessary to recognize that this isn't possible. But what is often done is read the Bible flatly, as if there isn't any difference between a passage in Numbers and the Sermon on the Mount. Too often the Bible is read without its context, in proof-texting fashion. You can just about prove anything you want that way.
There is an alternative to this perspective and throwing the thing out completely. One can read it reverently but critically. You can, as I do, refer to the Bible as the Word of God without believing that every word in it is a word from God. There are those who believe that the Bible was literally dictated by God, but those who take this view are much fewer than many think. A critical reading of Scripture asks questions of context, cultural/social backgrounds, history, transmission of the text. The Bible is full of patriarchal statements, and yet it also offers a egalitarian perspective. Women are told to be silent in the church (1 Cor. 14) and yet in the same letter from Paul they're told how they should comport themselves when they pray and prophesy in public. Phoebe is a key aid to Paul and a trusted church leader (Romans 16). Slavery isn't denounced per se, but Paul also says that in Christ there's neither Jew nor Greek, Male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). If we're all one in Christ then maybe that means that I shouldn't own my brother or sister in Christ. It takes a critical mind to work through these issues. But such an effort will yield great benefits to our world!
There are a number of places to go with this. I'd recommend a few good books as resources. I think Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (HarperSan Francisco, 2001) is an interesting read here. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Harper Collins) and the New Interpreter's Bible (Abingdon) are very useful. The latter is a multi-volume commentary. So read the Bible and by all means, read it reverently but also critically!