A good deal of my teaching this fall turns out to require some open reflection on the way that I read the Bible . I keep discovering that my habitual way of reading Scripture is not obvious to everyone, though it comes naturally to me as a reader of literature and poetry ( It is probably no accident that some other thinkers about the contemporary church and the Bible – including Verna Dozier and Brian McLaren and probably others, started life as English teachers – and that is also my background, training, just my way of reading Marcus Borg gets us to this approach when he writes about taking the Bible “seriously but not literally.”
Taking Scripture seriously, not literally, means that I am always coming to a Biblical text, in daily meditations or in small group, with the assumption that there is something that I can learn about God by engaging with this text, simply because, as Scripture, it contains the record of someone’s experience of God, or of what it means to think of ourselves as in some sense “God’s people.” So I’m always trying to read the text in some ways “faithfully,” even when I don’t completely accept or believe – indeed even when I might be appalled by -- the ‘plain sense’ of what I’m reading. This assumption that the text has something to teach us is the difference between approaching a Biblical text simply as a “message” to accept or reject and approaching it as “Scripture,” a text that has been given to us, as the prayer book says, “for our learning.” So – here are some questions I’ll bring to a text of Scripture that I’m reading for a class or for my personal meditation. ( I’ve just written these questions down off the top of my head, as I begin to prepare some of my fall teaching around creative, engaged, thoughtful reading of Scripture. I wonder what readers of the café might add to the list that would help “common readers” of the Bible without requiring too much additional reading beyond the text).
1. What kind of text is this? Is it poetry, or history, or folk story, or is it a parable or lesson to be learned? The Bible contains a lot of different kinds of texts and reading it faithfully requires having a sense of where we are. It makes a big difference, for example, whether we read the opening of Genesis as a poetic text (which it is closest to being) or as a scientific treatise (which it can’t be because they didn’t write them back then).
2. What do I know about the context that gave rise to this text, what it might have said to the people who first heard or wrote it down. What comes right before it in the text? What questions was it answering for people then? How do those questions compare to my own questions? Are they the same?
3. What do I know about this text in relation to other parts of the Bible? Sometimes this can give us some good insights: talking about a passage in a group can be a great source of wisdom around this question
4. What do I know about how this text has traditionally been read? What questions did that tradition bring to the text? Are there insights to be gained by looking at different translations of the same text (often these are clues to interpretive decisions). What questions does this raise for me? All of which leads to. . .
5. What question am I bringing to this text? Where is it speaking to me or challenging me? Identifying these questions can become a good signal to pause for prayer and “listen” to what the text might be saying – what words or phrases jump out or speak to me? What is the process of reading this text telling me about my own search for deeper understanding of the mystery of life with God?
6. After a time of meditation, alone or in a group, I might ask: what am I learning from this passage of Scripture today? About myself? About God? About being part of “God’s people”?
What this kind of approach avoids is simply reading into the text whatever we bring to it, or getting hung up on what we don’t like about a particular text of Scripture and so dismissing it . – It allows us to step back and let the text “speak” first and acknowledge that any act of reading is an entry into a kind of relationship. I like it that the Rabbinic tradition of interpretation or midrash has known this for a long time: that the act of reading Scripture, and especially wrestling with the parts that we don’t understand or like, and trying to make new sense of them, is always a religious activity – a process of drawing nearer to the Mystery regardless of whether we can get an interpretation fully “right” . It is a gift to read the Bible as Scripture in this sense -- as inviting a process of learning, as something organic and “still speaking” --rather than as something fixed and rigid. The approach that these questions sketch out helps us to experience Scripture as “word of God” – as a way we’ve been given to respond to the generosity of a God who for some mysterious reason keeps on trying to get through to us.