Reading the Bible again for the first time. Isn’t that an interesting idea? Suggests some kind of initial acquaintance, and then a return, a seeing-again with new eyes.
It’s certainly my story. I grew up singing songs like this
Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the Word of God
You all know that song?
But then I got a little older, and I started to struggle with how my teachers were interpreting the B-I-B-L-E, as well as with the kinds of hurtful things people were doing in the Bible’s name. I had to let the B-I-B-L-E go for a long time actually, until Unitarian Universalism helped me read it again for the first time.
Another story of this comes from writer A. J. Jacobs in his both hilarious and insightful book, The Year of Living Biblically:
“I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: Not very. […] It’s not that my parents badmouthed religion. It’s just that religion wasn’t for us. We lived in the 20th century, for crying out loud. In our house, spirituality was almost a taboo subject, much like my father’s salary or my sister’s clove cigarette habit.
“My only brushes with the Bible were brief and superficial. […] I attended a handful of bar mitzvahs where I zoned out during services and spent the time trying to guess who had bald spots under their yarmulkes. […] And as far as childhood religion, that was about it.
“College didn’t help my spiritual development. I went to a secular university where you were more likely to study the semiotics of Wicca rituals than the Judeo-Christian tradition. And when we did read the Bible, it was as literature, as a fusty ancient book with the same truth quotient as The Faerie Queene.
“For a long time, I thought that religion, for all the good it does, seemed too risky for our modern world. The potential for abuse too high. I figured it would slowly fade away like other archaic things.” But then A. J. Jacobs goes on to say, “I was spectacularly mistaken. The influence of the Bible — and religion as a whole – remains a mighty force, perhaps even stronger than it was when I was a kid. So in the last few years, religion has become my fixation. Is half of the world suffering from a massive delusion? Or is my blindness to spirituality a huge defect in my personality? What if I’m missing out on part of being human, like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? And most important, I now have a young son – if my lack of religion is a flaw, I don’t want to pass it onto him. So I knew I wanted to explore religion. I just needed to figure out how.” Thus began A. J. Jacobs’ year-long adventure in trying to live the Bible in complete literal fashion. The book is a scream. Gotta read it!
Point is, people are reading the Bible again for the first time, and there’s lots of reasons why. I did it simply because I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and Judaism and Christianity are one of our six main sources of truth and wisdom; but I also did it because the Bible reflects a significant part of my history, struggles and all, and I don’t want to have to shut that out of my life, I don’t want to let unresolved issues about the Bible limit my spiritual growth or my relationships.
As for A. J. Jacobs, he might have grown up with only fragmentary impressions of the Bible; he might have read it in college and been bored to tears; but now that he’s older, and sees the permanent and all-pervasive nature of its influence, he wants to go deeper. It’s about being fully alive. “What if I’m missing out on part of being human,” he asks, “like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love?” He doesn’t want to miss out on being fully alive—and doesn’t want his son to miss out on that, either.
Reading the Bible again for the first time. So many reasons for why we might do this. Yet another is to improve our cultural intelligence. From classics like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and Bach, all the way to contemporary movies like Dead Man Walking, Pulp Fiction, the Matrix, and Hannibal: Bible themes are everywhere. Know your Bible, you can grasp better what’s going on. Don’t know your Bible, you’re missing out, you’re in the dark.
There’s one more reason to consider, before we move on. The political reason. I’m talking culture wars over homosexuality and same-sex marriage, culture wars over the teaching of evolution in public schools, culture wars over women’s reproductive rights. The Bible is at the heart of things here too. Specifically: the issue of how to see it and read it—this issue that our wisdom story today addressed so well. Interpretation. The fundamentalist-conservative side sees the Bible as a flawless transcription of words coming straight from God’s mouth, to be applied literally everywhere and at all times. But strongly opposed to this is the other side: people convinced that this approach is wrong, that the Bible is not to be taken literally. But then how is it to be taken? People on the other side (and I’m talking about US) often do not offer a compelling vision for how to read the Bible in a better way. So ultimately, in the end, what happens is that the Religious Right steals the Bible and transforms it into a set of conservative talking points. Because we no longer read the thing ourselves with any degree of sophistication, we take their interpretations to represent what the Bible actually says, and we miss out on all the ways the Bible stands for something better. As religion writer Bruce Feiler points out, “on a wide range of topics, including respecting the value of other faiths, shielding religion from politics, serving the poor and protecting the environment, the Bible offers powerful arguments in support of moderate and liberal causes.” This is a wonderful thing, and it’s time that this best kept secret about the Bible be spread far and wide. People need to know. Just can’t let the Religious Right steal the power of the Bible to be used for ends that are unloving and unjust!
So here we are: reading the Bible again for the first time. This is actually the title of a book written by religion scholar Marcus Borg, and we’re going to be using it as our primary source text for our year-long sermon series. Today, we’re looking at ideas covered in the first three chapters; next month, it’s chapter 4: “Reading the Creation Stories Again.” Very very cool stuff.
You’ll also need a Bible. Perhaps that goes without saying—or does it go without saying? Gotta have a Bible—read it side by side with Borg—and my recommendation is that you use the New Revised Standard Version, because it has one of the best reputations for the use of correct original texts and accuracy of translation. Other good possibilities include the Revised Standard Version, The Revised English Bible, and the New International Version. I do suggest that you look away from that old warhorse, the King James Version, despite the archaic beauty of its language—because the language IS archaic and hard to relate to, and also because it incorporates lots of errors and mistranslations. I’d also avoid Bible paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Good News Bible, because they gloss over difficulties, they leave things out, and they do all this in order to convey a decidedly conservative religious viewpoint.
OK, so by now we know why we’re reading the Bible again for the first time, and we’ve got some of the housekeeping, some of the logistics taken care of. Now—it’s time to jump in. And let’s do this by looking at three basic principles for reading the Bible in a way that enables us to take it, not literally, but seriously and profoundly. Not slavish adherence to the surface, but faithfulness to the deeper spirit.
Here’s the first principle: to very carefully distinguish mystical experiences of the Sacred from interpretations of the experiences. On the one hand you have true Wonder and Mystery, and on the other you have people trying to make sense of what they felt and saw and heard. The two—God and humanity—simply cannot be confused, because when that happens, you have people opening up their Bibles saying, “Let’s see what God says about that.” You have people taking absolutist moral positions on the basis of 3000 year-old laws which they see as God’s laws. You have people saying all that, totally ignoring how the Bible writers said what they said in great part on the basis of the culture they lived in, the specific concerns of their communities, their personal hopes and fears.
Which means we CAN talk about the sins of scripture without dismissing the Bible altogether. The Bible writers produced so much that is usable and inspiring, but they, like all humans, bear the scars and the biases of their time. The Bible writers were not immune to the injustices of their world, and we see this in atrocious passages—toxic passages—that literalists invoke to harm women, homosexuals, children, Jews, and all of us.
But if we no longer see scripture as “God says” but “people say,” then we are free to use our ethical and spiritual judgment to separate the good from the bad, the noble from the base. “The Bible says so” must never be used to silence doubts, to put a stop to honest conversation, or to justify hurtful actions. Ultimately nothing and no one can take away the personal responsibility each of us has to do the right thing in life. People try to hand it off to one kind of religious authority or another all the time; they just want to be given orders to carry out with a clean conscience. Bob Jones, of Bob Jones University, likes to say, “The Bible itself is intolerant, and true followers of God should be as well.” THAT IS NOT GOING TO CUT IT. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. It’s NEVER “God says.” ALWAYS, it’s “people say.” We always have a choice.
This first principle—distinguishing the Sacred from interpretations of the Sacred—also helps us to understand something else: the clear fact that different books of the Bible talk about different kinds of God, so in the beginning you face a bloodthirsty Yahweh who creates the world but ends up destroying it through a flood, and then later on He urges the Israelites to slaughter their enemies; but in other places you have the God of the prophets who longs for a time when there shall be no more war, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb; and then you have the God of Jesus, whom he called Abba, which means “daddy,”—Jesus, who at times even characterized God in feminine terms as an all-embracing womb. To all this we can say: Of course. It’s because Bible stories convey the voices and visions of people changing over time, moving from perspectives that are firmly tribal to those that are more open and universal. The Bible writers are people grappling in the deepest ways with the challenges and possibilities of life. I pray to God that we might be people like this too. This is what it means to be fully, humanly alive. This is what we’re missing out on, as A. J. Jacobs suggested earlier, if we don’t read the Bible.
The first principle of Bible reading: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say” –humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always creatures of their day, always limited by this. That’s the first principle of Bible reading.
Which leads immediately to the second: to stress a historical, contextual understanding of the Scriptures. Marcus Borg likes to say that “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And this cannot ever be underestimated. It is undeniable that the Bible stories continue to inspire and inform people because they are just fine literature, powerful narratives. But as readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of the ancient world from which these stories came.
For example, consider a parable that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Christian scriptures. Jesus is comparing what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. From small beginnings, it grows into something big: that’s pretty much what we get from the parable—kind of ho-hum, honestly, and you can get far richer wisdom from the self-help section of your local bookstore—unless we go deeper, unless we understand more of Jesus’ historical context. Fact is, in Jesus’ day, his parable would have made the jaws of his hearers drop. His hearers, first of all, were oppressed peasants, and they wanted Jesus to compare the kingdom to something more bold, something more triumphant, something that would represent the destruction of the Romans and the advent of their long-awaited social and political freedom. But Jesus doesn’t give them that. He gives them a mustard plant, low-lying, scrubby, weedy. Jaws dropped when he said it, also because Jewish religious law dictated that the mustard plant was unclean. Jewish gardens of the time followed the religious injunction that different kinds of plants should never mix and needed to stay separate from each other. But you know what would happen if a mustard plant got in there? It would grow and spread like a wild weed, mixing things up like crazy, uniting things that were supposed to stay separate and apart. But this is how the Kingdom of Heaven works, said Jesus. It’s a love which overcomes all differences, a love which reconciles all who are separated, a love which is always already here and now among us, a power just waiting to be recognized in this very moment! If that’s what unclean looks like, then the Kingdom of Heaven is unclean.
Know your Bible history—know the context out of which the speakers speak—and what emerges is a book that is radical and profound and utterly unique among all the world’s religious literature.
And now the third and last Bible-reading principle. It says, don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t cut it out. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now. It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.
Just allow that Bible parable from a moment ago sink in. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. It starts out small, grows and spreads like a wild weed, and mixes things up, connects things are separate and apart. To allow the Bible to read you in this instance is to ask, What are the rigid polarities or dichotomies of my life? Woman vs. man? Gay vs. straight? Rich vs. poor? Head vs. heart? Work vs. play? Safe and bored vs. risky and energized? Think about it. Are there places where you WANT things to remain all polarized like this? All ordered like this?
But then comes a tiny seed, from somewhere… It comes, and what does it look like? Is it an idea? A person? Something that, in its apparent smallness, seems insignificant, but you let it go, and BAM, it grows like crazy, it mixes things up like crazy. What does this look like, for you? Is it happening in your life right now? Does it scare you, make you anxious?
Does it even make sense to think that the Kingdom of Heaven might be a place or a state that creates fear and anxiety? Isn’t heaven supposed to be angels sitting on downy clouds strumming lutes? What is Heaven, truly? What does it mean to be abundantly alive?
And THAT’S reading the Bible! That’s the Bible reading you! That’s how the Bible truly becomes sacred scripture, when it opens your heart up, gets the deepest possible questions and conversations going, puts you in a place where you can feel the Spirit of Life speaking, you can hear it speaking, and guess what? It’s speaking right to you.