Monday, February 11, 2013

Reading the Bible with Head and Heart

Denzel Washington's "The Book of Eli" (2010) is, on the surface, an imaginative tale about the battle for the Bible in a post-apocalyptic America. Just below the surface, it becomes apparent that it is a realistic and cautionary tale about the battle for the Bible in contemporary America. Whoever controls this book, controls the world. 

I have been thinking a lot lately about the diverse ways in which the Bible can be read and the polarized positions that can be supported with chapter and verse. The Bible can be (and often has been and still is) used to argue for and against...






gay marriage

interracial marriage


capital punishment

...just to name the few that immediately come to mind. This point is well-known, of course, but the significance of this is not often well understood. Speaking just for myself, I am only beginning to come to an awareness of the significance of this fact. 

I used to believe that the Bible really did have one right answer to give on all these subjects and more. Over the past 15 years, studying the Bible has occupied my time more than anything else. I still love studying the Bible's history, culture, and language more than most anything else. I used to think, though, that the answers are just "there" and that if a person just studied and prayed hard enough, all the right answers would certainly come, and you could be sure of them. 

I don't believe that anymore. 

It was hard to let go of that conviction. It hurt. But I let go of it because it simply isn't true. 

Letting go of illusions always hurts, but it is always the best thing to do, because we live in reality, whether we like it or not.

There is a personal risk that we must all take ownership of when it comes to what we think and how we act. We must all make decisions in the context of ambiguity and uncertainty. 

Saying this doesn't put us on a slippery slope. It just acknowledges that we are all already on one.

Yale New Testament scholar David Martin says in one of his books, "The Bible doesn't say anything. We say things with the Bible." While that might be an overstatement, it isn't much of one if it is. The Bible doesn't have a voice. We have a voice and we speak with the Bible. We choose what we pay attention to and how we fit it all together. The Bible doesn't come to us with footnotes that say "read this one in the light of that one" or "take this one metaphorically" or "let this one be more central than that one." We have to make those sorts of decisions. 

How we make those decisions often says more about us than it does about the Bible.

With the Bible, we can create worlds that look like this:

With the Bible, we can create worlds that look like this:

I don't mean to suggest that all biblical interpretations are equal and therefore must be arbitrarily chosen, or that there is no role for historical study in trying to figure out what an author was trying to say to his or her original audience. I just mean to make the point that we need to have (I need to have) more self-awareness, and potentially more self-critical awareness, about how we are using the Bible to say things. Who is helped and who is hurt by this interpretation? How might this interpretation keep me from loving others? How might this interpretation help me to love others better? How might this interpretation make the world more like the kingdom of God, and how might it keep the kingdom of God at a distance?

One of the theological giants in the Christian tradition, St. Augustine, said that no interpretation of the Bible could be correct if it doesn't cause us to love God and neighbor more.

An even bigger theological giant said that the key interpretive lens we should bring to the Bible is a desire and willingness to empathetically identify with other people and to work for their good as we would work for our own. 

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matt. 7:12)

I am starting to see that Jesus didn't just intend for the Golden Rule to be the central guide for how we treat each other. He also intended it to be the central guide for how we treat the Bible and what we choose to do with it. 

Reading the Bible with a head full of knowledge can be a very dangerous thing unless your heart is also full of love. 

Jesus said that "out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34). I think we could add to that: Out of the overflow of the heart, we speak with the Bible. 

Whatever is in our heart will show up in what we say is in the Bible.  


  1. The Bible has also been used to support and deny reincarnation, and the consciousness and soul survival of non-human animals.

  2. "Letting go of illusions always hurts, but it is always the best thing to do, because we live in reality, whether we like it or not."

    You are getting work on your God delusion.