by Pastor Doug Kings
How—and why—do we read the Bible? My recent sermons and last week’s Reflections raise both those questions. The church has always wrestled with them but in modern times they have created a crisis. The following is an edited version of an essay about these questions I that wrote for one of my previous congregations.
I’ve basically stopped encouraging people to read the Bible. Well, that’s not entirely true. I still think it’s very much worth reading but I just know that most people aren’t going to do it. Reading the Bible nowadays is kind of like flossing: everybody agrees it’s something we should do but how many of us do it?
Former ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson enjoyed using the phrase “first language of faith” in talking about the Bible. That is probably a good way to describe it because it helps make clear the problem the church faces. Since the Bible is a “language” fewer and fewer people speak, this means people can no longer speak or think about their faith in Christian terms.
There are good reasons why few people read the Bible. It is an ancient collection of writings, by multiple authors, in languages no longer spoken, and which are difficult to translate. It assumes a world view vastly different from our own. It often talks about topics and issues which are meaningless to us and/or of no interest.
Few people are interested in reading ancient books of any kind. Calling such a book “The Holy Bible” doesn’t change that. Of course, someone can still simply pick it up and begin reading and find it of value. The reality today, however, is that for more and more people this experience is of little or no value. They might as well be reading the phone book. I’ve led many Bible studies. I try to use the Bible a lot in my preaching. The biggest obstacle in both instances is that there is just so much explaining to do!
I have been asked many times what the best Bible translation is. My response is, “That depends on what you want.” Most people say they want the version that’s easiest to read. Fine, I say, but be aware that will also be the most inaccurate. “Oh, but I want it to be accurate.” Okay, but then it’s going to be hard to read. The “best” translations try to find some happy medium, such as the NRSV we use on Sunday mornings. Still, it is very much a compromise, and you are never sure whether what you are reading is actually the thought of the biblical writer, that of the translator, or of a century’s long tradition of translation and interpretation.
Does it matter? For what is often called “devotional reading,” perhaps not. Today, however, people often pick up the Bible expecting great things but quickly get lost in meandering passages of obscure history, ritual regulations, genealogies, exotic poetry, or even nightmarish prophesy. No surprise then that they soon put it down and click on Amazon’s Spirituality or Self-Help tab to find something more understandable and relevant.
It matters very much, however, when we try to make personal or societal decisions based on what the Bible purportedly teaches. There have been multiple issues on which “Bible believing Christians” have taken combative stands based on what they believe the Bible says. In many of these cases I think they have based their positions on a serious misreading of biblical texts, attempting to uncritically apply ancient thought to modern issues, many of which the biblical writers couldn’t have even imagined or understood.
I believe the Bible has profound things to say about a variety of theological and existential questions—about God and about life, if you will. But they take effort to “tease out” because the Bible is an ancient document, written in a fashion we are not accustomed to, and with a worldview different from ours. Ignoring this, we stretch and twist the Bible to be things it isn’t and to speak to us on topics it knows nothing about.
And then there is our basic laziness. In the ancient world the Bible wasn’t treated as an answer book, though that often is what we want it to be. Modern scholarship has discovered a great deal about the Bible, but much of it is ignored because it doesn’t tell us what we want to hear. It’s unsurprising conclusion is that the Bible is theology, through and through. Thus, it isn’t history, biology, geology, astronomy, economics, political science, psychology, or any of the other contemporary subjects which so fascinate us and about which we have so many questions. For answers to their questions, we must look elsewhere.
So, when it comes to the Bible, the issue the church faces is whether theology matter anymore. Suspecting it doesn’t is one of the main reasons preachers and lay people often want the Bible to be something other than what it is. The church’s Bible problem isn’t so much people’s ignorance about it but whether it can let the Bible be what it is: the collected thoughts of a particular ancient people, containing their prejudices and ignorance but also some genuinely profound insight into God and into life in our paradoxical world of beauty and pain, purpose and confusion.
Can such a Bible bear the weight the church has put on it in the past? Probably not, but the church has been reluctant to face such an existential question. That reluctance is one the main reasons the church is in the crisis it is today. Yet it will not get past that crisis until it finds the courage to genuinely ask, what is the Bible and how do we read it today, 2000 years after it came into being?
Blessings in your life and ministry.