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Repost: Reading the Bible Like a Christian

PS asked for my reaction to 3 Things People Need to Know about the Bible‚ a post by Kelly Fryer. My one-sentence summary? I’m mostly in agreement. Rev. (Dr.?) Fryer sets out a case against “a fundamentalist, literalistic approach to Scripture‚” in terms of three propositions:

  1. The Bible is a RISK God was willing to take.
  2. The Bible is not the final authority‚ not about ANYTHING. Jesus is.
  3. God is still speaking to us in and through the Biblical story.

Under her first point, Fryer notes that God speaks in ways that (limited, fallible) humans can understand. The risk God accepts is that we will muck things up anyway. This means part of interpreting the Bible rightly is sorting out all of the ways we humans have misunderstood it in the past. We all bring our presuppositions, prejudices, and misinformation with us to the study of the Bible. Therefore,

We take the Bible seriously because it is an expression of God’s deep and everlasting love for us. But taking it seriously means NOT taking it literally. We need to say this without hesitation and without apology.

Second, Fryer emphasizes Jesus Christ as the living Word of God. The Bible’s importance is that it points to him. Its importance does not lie in mining statements from the text and trying to shoehorn them into a purpose that is alien from Scripture’s own.

Third, we must strive to listen for what God is still saying to us through the Bible rather than arguing about what this or that verse is saying. In Fryer’s words,

The truth is we spend altogether too much time as Christians arguing about what this or that passage or text in the Bible is saying instead of really wrestling with what GOD is trying to say to us today in and through these stories. And that’s the challenge: How do we help people learn how to listen for what GOD is SAYING in and through the Biblical stories?

She then suggests two things that need to happen for Christians to reclaim this kind of reading of the text. We need, she says, both to deprofessionalize and to dethrone Bible study. We need to deprofessionalize Bible study by empowering lay people to read the Bible for themselves rather than rely, sheeplike, on the trained clergy to read and interpret the Bible for them. We need to dethrone Bible study by becoming engaged in ministry in the “real world.” This will provide a fresh perspective on the Bible’s relevance in everyday life so that, rather than getting bogged down in minutiae, we have a context in which to hear God say in Scripture things we might have otherwise missed.

I wholeheartedly agree with all three points and both of the subpoints under number three. In my former life as a pastor and now as a Bible curriculum editor, a professor, and an ordinary church member, that is how I have wanted to handle the Bible. I think a community of believers who took the effort to read the Bible this way would go a long way toward discovering the Bible’s beauty and power in ways they had never imagined possible.

But I don’t know if it would make them less literalistic.

Here I must indulge Rev. Fryer’s forbearance, because I don’t know anything about her except what I read in this blog post. I do know that, like “liberal,” “literalist” can be a slippery term to define. In a couple of recent blog posts, John Hobbins of Ancient Hebrew Poetry has discussed Avery Archer’s definitions of “literalist” (one who “interprets the Bible at face value unless otherwise clearly indicated“) and “fundamentalist” (one who “refus[es] to pick and choose which parts of the Bible [he/she] takes to be authoritative, in the manner that many liberal Christians do”) and concedes that those terms define his own approach to Scripture—although his views on unfulfilled prophecy in the Bible probably don’t sound much like the stereotype most people have of people who would define themselves by those terms.

To be honest, doesn’t every Christian take at least some of the Bible literally? Was Jesus ever actually born? Did Paul preach to the Gentiles? Did God, by whatever method, create the heavens and the earth? We even take some of the Bible’s moral teachings literally. “Love your enemies” is understood to be a literal commandment pretty much across the board, and if someone resists taking the Old Testament discussions of homosexuality literally, the same may not be so for the Levitical provisions for the year of Jubilee. Some dismiss Christians who take “thou shalt not kill” literally with respect to abortion, but then use the same verse to argue against war or the death penalty.

I take it Fryer has something more specific in mind when she uses the terms “literalist” and “fundamentalist” than simply Christians more conservative than she is. Even so, I’m not convinced that “literalist” is the best term for the kind of inauthentic readings of Scripture that Fryer wants to combat.

Her blog post is written in the context of an upcoming workshop on these issues where she expects some “knee-jerk resistance” to her challenge to a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. She hopes to reduce this resistance by asking a few questions about the attendees’ experiences with respect to biblical interpretations:

  • Are you reluctant to share your faith with people because you feel like you don’t “know enough” about the Bible?
  • Have you ever “hidden” your faith‚ or avoided having a conversation about it‚ because you were afraid of what somebody would think of you?
  • Have you ever felt “beaten up” by another Christian who questioned the sincerity or depth of your faith?
  • Is there a Christian in your life you avoid talking to about faith issues or the Bible because he or she makes you feel intimidated?

These are all good questions. I can see myself asking them as part of a talk I have given a time or two about how we read and hear the Scriptures today. But suppose I answered them for myself. I’ll pass on the first one because, well, I’m probably more part of the problem than the solution on that one. :-) As for the rest, I might say the following:

  • I have occasionally avoided religious conversations with some of the outspoken “liberals” in my circle of friendship for fear that they would think less of me, perhaps by lumping me with the stereotypes of “literalists” and “fundamentalists” they often freely express.
  • There were times in seminary when, since I usually did keep quiet about my beliefs, I got a firsthand look at how some of my fellow students felt about folks on the more rightward end of the theological spectrum. Questioning the depth of my faith is one way to look at it. Outright ridicule is another.
  • I don’t intimidate easily. You can’t go through a doctoral program—or be a pastor!—without developing a pretty thick skin. But I do know people who are intimidated by outspoken liberal Christians to the point that they keep quiet about matters of faith in their presence.

Platypus that I am, I might have answered just as truthfully about how I have sometimes kept quiet about some of my beliefs or devotional practices (or been made to feel inferior because of them) among folks on the conservative end of the pond.

If Rev. Fryer, in her context, has a more pressing concern for the perils on the right than those on the left, then I wish her well. I have had the privilege of being both the token conservative among liberals and the token liberal among conservatives. On the whole, I prefer the former.

Personally, however, I would much rather that Christians read the Bible Christianly, no matter their exegetical or theological commitments. I find I have more in common with biblical literalists who do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God than with more liberal or progressive types who are simply full of themselves. Nobody has a monopoly on being an arrogant jackass when it comes to theology.

That’s something people need to know about the Bible.

technorati tags: bible, hermeneutics, interpretation, theology


1 Comment

  1. Bill says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks so much.


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