I always wonder what it means to ‘read the Bible’. The question comes to mind when people tell others to read the Bible; when they say they’ve read the Bible, and when they ask others if they’ve read the Bible. These questions and comments often seem intended to pack an extra bit of punch; something of value always seems to rest on them. But the phrase ‘read the Bible’ could mean anything from reading random passages to a kind of epic cover-to-cover journey. It could also mean reading specific (and very deliberately chosen) sections at length. Hell, it could mean a few other things too, but for me those are the ones that come to mind.
We could also talk about different versions of the Bible. It certainly matters what translation you look at.
The random passage reading approach is always interesting to me. People using this approach open the book randomly and read what’s in front of them in the belief that they may be led (perhaps by the Holy Spirit) to some significant passage that will help them resolve a question or a problem of some sorts. It’s a fascinating approach to reading, one which gives the process more than a little trace of divination.
…a bit like palm reading or crystal gazing.
Which reminds me that I’ve been told many times one must be guided by the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible correctly. Whatever else this claim means, it usually also means that my own heathen reading skills won’t account for much on Biblical topics, at least not in the ears of the person telling me this. This may be a trip down the fallacy highway with stops in the Cities of Petitio and Ad Hominem-Circumstantial. It’s also a world in which spiritual powers and personal authority cut right across basic reading and reasoning skills, and parsing a simple sentence becomes an act of communion.
Do we want to get into the whole question of sola scriptura versus the authority of the Pope or some other religious authority?
I mean, we could, but seriously, let’s not.
I sometimes wonder at the degree to which the simple physical act of opening the book could skew this divination-reading approach to the topic. I mean just how often would you land on one of the first or last pages when you try this? And if you did, would it be due to a conscious effort on your own part or guidance by …you know who?
What actually started me down this path was a slightly more mundane question. Do you read the whole thing or do you simply read parts? People often claim to have read the Bible. I think some folks are just bluffing really. It’s a big damned sleeping pill of a book, and I somehow doubt that some folks could actually make it from cover to cover. A much more interesting question though would be whether or not it’s actually worth it to do that? To just read the Bible cover-to-cover.
Now a serious Biblical scholar might get something out of such a reading; he presumably already knows a lot about the context behind the text. I’m talking about your average Jane just sitting at home with as much knowledge of the text, it’s language, and its relevant histories as regular life gives your average Jane. Okay, I know the average Jane is itself a tricky concept, so let’s just say that in my mind she’s a middle-class American with a high school diploma (and perhaps a college degree). She watches a lot of TV, and she’s been to church a few times in herlife; perhaps she even goes regularly. You can skew this Jane-image in whatever direction you like. The point I’m trying to make is that their daily lives haven’t prepared most people (including I’ll warrant most people who claim to have read the Bible) to understand what they are reading as they go skipping along the pages of scripture. Without giving necessary consideration to the linguistic and literary traditions encompassed in the book as well as the (often murky) historical context in which the texts were written and/or translated, I don’t see how any substantive understanding (inspired or otherwise) could come out of the epic cover-to-cover reading quest. People have enough trouble getting the cool parts from Shakespeare. I somehow doubt this even older text is more transparent on first or even a third pass. No, I can’t see reading the Bible working without a lot of side reading as you go.
And somewhere in there, I can’t help thinking this ceases to be about ‘reading’ and starts to become an exercise in ‘studying’.
I’m not just saying you can do some extra study to get more out of the Bible. What I’m saying is that the exercise of simply reading that text is a rather meaningless ritual without the studying. …Okay, so perhaps the ritual does have meaning (Holy Spirit and all that) but if it does have meaning, that meaning has little to do with what we conventionally understand to come from the act of reading. I am accordingly unimpressed when people tell me that they have read the Bible cover-to-cover. When people tell me they have read the Bible, I figure this is either a hollow exercise or an occult activity with principles quite different from those of conventional reading skills. When someone tells me that they study the Bible, well that might be interesting…
It might be.
An evangelical Christian might be tempted to think that this meditation is a trap of sorts, because of course that process of study leads one to an awful lot of perfectly mortal sources of authority. How can one truly learn the word of God if doing so requires one to make decisions about alternative translations, assess the historical context based on books written by mere mortals (some of whom may not even be Christian!), and make a number of choices oneself about how to frame the context of understanding any particular passage. Far from a discrete project, the effort to study-up on the topic if a potentially infinite regress. Most believers aren’t going to want to do that any more than the rest of us. In any event, this process will never lead to anywhere near the conviction that this or that moral principle is the absolute and unvarnished word of God. For myself, I’m comfortable with that, and I suspect there are a few liberal Christians that could say the same, but I don’t think the notion that the Bible is the infallible word of god survives this process. More to the point, I don’t think that notion survives any serious attempt to think about what it takes to understand an historical text like this.
That’s my spirit-unfulfilled 2 cents.