The way I read the Bible has dramatically changed over the years. I grew up in a conservative family that pretty much taught me to read the Bible straightforwardly and literally. The Bible was frequently called the “Word of God” and as such could not be questioned, could not contain errors of any kind, and could not disagree with itself at any point. The older I’ve gotten and the more years I’ve studied the Bible, I’ve realized a few things that not only have changed the way I read it, but have helped me to grasp its story in a fresh way, to grow into a deeper encounter with God, and to emerge with a greater trust in the testimony of the Bible. Here’s 5 things that are guiding my reading of the Scripture right now:
1. The Bible is not our authority, God is. God is the one who possesses all authority. The Bible is a collection of inspired writings of people struggling to know God. At times those people may disagree or emphasize a different perspective, but that’s okay because the words aren’t our ultimate authority: the God who speaks through the words is. The Bible has authority inasmuch as God speaks through it. This is not to encourage a subjective reading of the Bible in which anyone can choose any interpretation that suits them: we must submit to the assumption that the writings of Scripture were written in a particular context in which a particular people struggled with what it meant to be ‘the people of God’, knowing that an understanding of that context often eliminates things that the words could mean in favor of what the words probably mean. When the Bible is our authority, it can be used to sanction all kinds of racism, oppression, marginalization, and atrocity. When we approach the Bible knowing that God is our ultimate authority, we approach it with an attitude of humility, laying our interpretations down before the One to whom the words attest.
2. What flows from this first realization is that we are all equal before the text. No one’s interpretation possesses a monopoly on truth. No one can use their interpretation of Scripture to subjugate another people group, ethnicity, or race to their ideology. God speaks into our situations and circumstances in different ways through the same text. This staggeringly important reality underlines the importance of being in community and in conversation with others who interact with the text in order to approach what God is communicating through it.
3. The goal of the narrative of Scripture is not so that people will be able know something (i.e. doctrine, theology, intellectual facts, historical observations) but that they will know Someone. Even when John records that “this are written so that you may believe,” for John believing means knowing, trusting, and reorienting one’s life into the object of their belief (“so that you may have life in his name”). The Bible is a record of people who claim to have “known” God. Thus, studying the Bible isn’t a matter of knowledge and cognitive beliefs, it is a matter of encountering a Person … namely the covenantal God of Israel who has a purpose for history and who fulfilled his purpose for humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
4. The Bible is a story and must be read as such. At its essence, the Bible is a narrative. Its a story about a relationship with God and his people. Its a story about God electing a people to represent him among other peoples, to be holy, to steward his law and expectations. Its the story about how that people rebelled and how God remained faithful in spite of it. Its the story about how God entered into human history and became one of us, in order to draw that story to a good ending and new beginnings. The Old Testament is a vital part of the story, and thus the New Testament must be read as a coherent chapter in an already existing story. We cannot ignore the Old Testament and the story of Israel as is the tendency of many Western communities of faith: because the story of Jesus is a part of the story of Israel. While sometimes its helpful to draw important lessons from stories, as well as theological assertions, the Bible presents itself as a “meta-narrative,” a story that explains all other stories. The conclusions we draw from this story must be at the places where we see our story intersecting with the greater and encompassing story of God.
5. Finally, the Bible constantly urges its readers to hear the voice of the marginalized. There are ways in which we have adopted the language of empire and the ideology of the state, and then have altered our religion so that it ultimately supports and legitimizes the State. What results is a fake spirituality that reduces the God of History to an imperial deity that exists to encourage ultimate allegiance to country and culture, not to Christ. The emphasis on the “triumph of Christianity” promises people ecstatic “worship” experiences, & communities of homogenous peoples that agree with each other so that they will lose sight of the reality that commitment to Christ has anything to do with real life, and has everything to do with what a person believes or the experiences they have at church on the weekends. The first casualty in this loss of sight is the marginalized. The consolidation of power in groups of people possessing unexamined affluence, always leads to the oppression of the marginalized and the support of a religion that justifies that oppression. Thus, the Bible is a call to critically examine our allegiances and to be aware of voices of critique and irony which arise from the margins (like Jesus) to confront the “dominant culture” and imagine alternative futures.