The Intimidating Task of Bible Study, Part 1

Taken from Wes Howard-Brook’s introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, Becoming Children of God:

Attempting to read a biblical text challenges us in ways that quickly threaten to sink us in a quicksand of questions.  Which translation is “best” if we don’t read ancient Greek or Hebrew?  And even if we try to learn something about these long-dead languages, how do we move forward in our language to talk about the text?  Once we start getting enmeshed in inquiries about language, the paradoxes of words and their relationship to reality “out there” can become powerfully mind-boggling.  Linguistic and literary theory are minefields in which much heat is radiated but precious little light remains after the explosions.

it's all Greek to me

At the same time, the biblical texts – like almost no others still widely read in our time – confront us with worlds confoundingly foreign.  Names of people and places seem unpronounceable, and locations are obscure.  People behave in ways strange to our “normal” practice, but we cannot easily discern whether their behavior is strange to those with whom they interact in the stories.  Much of the context involves situations with which we have absolutely no experience or concern.  Furthermore, few sources of information from the ancient world are available to enlighten us on these crucial matters.  A few pieces of broken pottery or tablets and miscellaneous scraps of documents are hardly sufficient to recreate for us a sense of the long lost world of Israel.  What would future cultural historians do with a couple of our daily newspapers and a handful of random paperbacks from the best-seller list?  Would such artifacts allow for reasonably certain inferences about our daily lives and concerns?

What Is One To Do?

Beginning to consider these questions and the infinite corollaries that cascade from them can lead to several responses among prospective biblical readers.

First, we can attempt to close our minds to the questions and, like fundamentalists, pretend in effect that the Bible was written in English in the recent past, interpreting its “plain words” according to our (unspoken) cultural assumptions.  This is the de facto reading “method” of most people of goodwill who have grown up with the Bible as a book on the shelf to be read among other selections from history or literature.  Whether because the questions are threatening or simply because they have not occurred to us to ask them, we read the Bible naively and come up with naïve – and often dangerous – interpretations.

A second option is to allow the questions to take us over and move toward becoming biblical scholars at one level or another.  One can very easily be swept up into methodological questions – for instance, questions of form criticism and hermeneutics – and never return to the Bible itself.  Or one can attempt (impossibly) to consider all that has been written on a particular biblical text in an effort to cull the wisdom of “better” and “more qualified” readers than oneself.  This project runs into the barriers of one’s own linguistic competence (biblical scholarship speaks many languages) and the supply of periodicals in local theological libraries.  Not to mention the financial and social costs of giving up one’s job and family to create the time to read such a mountain of material!

A third possibility in the face of the mammoth nature of the undertaking is to give it up altogether.  The Bible is too arcane, too distant, too complicated to be of much practical use for those of us struggling to discern the Creator’s path for humankind in our troubled era.  Why bother to conjugate lost languages to figure out how to act in the face of racism, poverty, and the infinite oppressions of everyday life in the American empire?  The very act of attempting to dig out from under the mound of questions is evidence enough of the privilege we should probably be about the business of renouncing.

approaching the text

Each of these options avoids in a different way the challenge and opportunity to learn from our ancestors what the Bible offers.  Whether one chooses fundamentalism, ivory-tower academia, or some “new” religious approach disconnected from the biblical tradition, the result is to deny the invitation to acknowledge that we stand on the pinnacle of the mountain of human experience.  Our “age” – whether we conceive of that term as signifying the baby boomers, generation X, millenials, the period of technology, or the era of democratic capitalism in the West  – is only the most recent chapter in a human story spanning many millennia.  The simple fact remains that the Bible is the deepest echo of our ancestors’ own cries of “Who are we?” and “What are we to do with our lives?”

So, if we are to choose an alternative to abandoning or getting lost in the search for biblical wisdom, we must begin with a humble acknowledgement that our efforts are limited by many factors that cannot be overcome.  Rather than denying either the invitation to learn or the existence of barriers, I urge us to name our limits and continue to move forward.

Who We Are Matters 

This very process has also been taking place from within the formal institution of biblical scholarship.  Where once professional Bible readers (are there such things?!) claimed “scientific” methods that obviated the need to claim the personal positions and limits of the interpreter, more and more we find scholars admitting what has been true all along.  That is, each reader or community of readers comes to the Bible with a panoply of prejudices and commitments that necessarily play a powerful part in shaping how one hears the word of God speaking.  Poor peasants in Latin America can connect with Jesus’ parables drawn with images of farming far more readily than clean-fingered university professors in the United States or Europe.  Women can hear both the pain caused by the patriarchal mind-set that permeates the Bible and Jesus’ shocking invitations to reshape that mind-set in ways that men such as myself can never do.  People anywhere committed to the transformation of unjust social structures into God’s realm of shalom will pick up the pervasive political context of the gospels when readers satisfied with the status quo find only “spiritual” messages.

This is not to suggest that one particular cultural perspective or sociopolitical ideology is “better” for reading the Bible.  Rather, it is to call all prospective readers to the enlightening and humbling task of paying attention to how who we are affects who we believe the God of the Bible to be.  At the same time, it is not to succumb to a trackless pluralism in which anyone and everyone can read the Bible and find their “opinion” equally valid.  Criteria do exist for distinguishing among readers, just as distinctions between faith in Yahweh and faith in Baal, Marduk, or Caesar are not mere tricks of the text.  Our image of God and sense of God’s will for us and for creation powerfully influence our sense of what makes for a “right” world.  Are we simply part of a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest struggle to survive, or ought we to aim together for a harmonious interconnectedness that respects the dignity of all life?  Our biblical interpretations are crucial to answer this eminently practical inquiry.

Beginning the Journey

This getting to know ourselves in order to get to know the Bible can, of course, produce the same avoidance of the question as does the attempt to get to know the Bible “directly.”  We will never completely know ourselves any more than we will completely know the Bible.  But just as we should not allow our ignorance of Greek or Pharisaic practice to prevent our encounter with the sacred texts, we should not stop reading the Bible simply because some unrevealed prejudice may be affecting our reading.  Instead, we can, like the Hebrews in Egypt, courageously accept the invitation to leave our captivity behind and begin the journey toward liberation.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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