Ways of reading the Bible…

Some time ago, I posted some questions about how we understand and encounter the Bible. Someone asked me to post some answers to my questions, so I had a go at this here.

It has been quite a journey for me over the last few years- trying to come to terms with a faith that I no longer had faith in, and then discovering along the way that I was not alone, and that there were different ways to approach an understanding of God, and in particular, different ways to approach our primary source material on the life of faith- the Bible.

This process has been painful, and at times I have wondered whether my faith will survive. But the outcome has been one of renewal. The Spirit of God was once again stirring the waters…

The process of change has involved a period deconstruction- a doubting and shaking loose things that had previously seemed unassailable and absolute. This is the painful bit- when everything seems to go into freefall.

The ‘emerging church conversation’- carried out largely through blogs and websites- seemed to me to be comfortable with unanswered questions. In fact after every truth and every tenet, we added a question mark.

But then there comes a time when something new starts to emerge and it is time to construct again. It feels to me that this is where we currently stand. We do not need bombastic pronunciations or new religious structures- rather it feels that our heads have come out of the clouds, and we can see further.

Along the way, I have found Brian McLaren’s writing to be a life giving. I know others have a different experience- for some his style can drag, for others his aim is too low brow, as the are more used to the theological arguments than I am- but he has taken me places that I had not dared to go alone.

(Photo taken in a semi-ruined abandoned croft house on the island of Bernera, off Lewis, Western isles. A family bible left open above an empty fire place…)

In reading his new book (slowly and in small chunks) I came across a study guide he had written, which focussed on different ways of reading scripture, and found it so helpful that I wanted to give it a plug.

You can download it here.

But here are a few highlights-

We have been shaken loose from our previous ways of reading the Bible- the ‘modern’ way- which seemed to be all about using the text as a blueprint so that we can categorise and systematise faith. McLaren compares this to the ways that the Americans use their constitution- where each word is given equal legal weight, and is enforceable in a way divorced from emotion or wider ethical considerations.

But having shaken loose- what other ways of reading the Bible are left?

McLaren lists 14 possible ways of encountering Scripture-

  1. Narrative reading- where we get into the story, the context and history from which the words emerge from.

  2. Converstional reading- where we engage with the different conversations across the generations embraced in the Bible- for example Jesus with the religious powers of his day, the Priests and the Prophets, the Jews and the Gentiles.

  3. Missional reading- in which we ask we ask, in each passage of Scripture, how is God extending God’s overarching mission of blessing all nations through a called and commissioned community of people.

  4. Political/Economic reading- the skew of God’s attention towards those who suffer injustice at the hands of earthly empire involving money, sexuality, power, violence, and law.

  5. Rhetorical reading- in which we look for what the text it trying to do, rather than just what it is saying.

  6. Literal reading- “…when readers of the Bible develop sensitivity to the ways poets, protesters, storytellers, activists, priests and mystics use language, the Bible is liberated from its constitutional captivity to be the wild, inspired, and impassioned collection of literary artifacts that it is.” McLaren suggests that people who say they are taking the words literally often are doing the very opposite- approaching the test through a very narrow hermeneutic.

  7. Close reading- better readings of scripture will fit in with the small details of the narrative- the bits that we easily miss that the writer chose to include in the text, which is rich in culture and traditions that we easily miss.

  8. Communal reading- the Bible is complex and hard, and the only way we can really engage with it is through the broader community- firstly in terms of “the community of the dead” where we listen respectfully to how previous generations have understood scripture, whilst understanding their skew towards a western, wealthy, white, male perspective. Secondly we look for the voices of minorities- those who have been forced to the margins. It is not ONE perspective, but rather both/and.

  9. Recursive reading- understanding of the Bible, and emphases within it change, ebb and flow across generations, and within lifetimes. This might be one of the ways that the Holy Spirit brings renewal.

  10. Ethical reading- text applied without ethics have allowed our faith to justify slavery, genocide, anti-Semitism, oppression of women and gay people- therefore we have to accept that interpretation is a MORAL ACT, so we should test an interpretation by reason and scholarship,using our rational intelligence, and a sense of justice and ethics. How might I treat people if I follow this interpretation? Whom might I harm? What unintended socialconsequences can we predict if this interpretation is widely embraced? Could people be vilified, harmed, or even killed because of this interpretation? McLaren points to those in Scripture who have wrestled with God in the face of his seeming injustice… Job, Moses, Abraham.

  11. Personal reading- “the reader is himself or herself in the predicament the text addresses. So faithful readings are habitually humble, expectant, open, and hungry and thirsty to encounter the Living God. Even the “professional” reader and teacher of the Bible must remain forever an “amateur” too …”

  12. Mystical reading- we must “…develop the habit of mystical openness, receptivity not only to understanding from the text but to enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, not only to interpretation but to revelation, not only to intelligent engagement with the text but also to personal abduction by its message.”

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Finally McLaren points to one further reading, and makes clear that he believes this one to be the most controversial of his readings.

It is the one that might make people worry about the undermining of Biblical authority

Christo-focal reading

McLaren proposes that we no longer approach the Bible as a collection of words of equal weight- but rather that we approach all other words through those of Jesus.

He suggests we need to leave behind three old ways of reading the Bible that have perhaps dominated-

  1. Flat reading- where we see all Jesus’ life and words pressed down and flattened to the same level as those of Abraham, Moses,David, Isaiah, Paul, and Jude. This results in the raising of the Bible above Christ- which is a kind of idolatry. For example, it might be biblical to commit genocide by quoting Deuteronomy 7, but one could never claim it is Christ-like.
  2. Descending reading- where we start with an ideal state in Genesis, and then it all goes wrong, leading to a time when God is going to destroy everything, and Jesus is but a lifeboat for a few. Or the other decent comes from the fall too- “the problem is sin and the solution is law-keeping, with sacrifice-making as a back-up plan. The rest of the story descends from this high point, so that the life and ministry of Jesus have value to the degree that they solve the problem.”
  3. Ascending reading- “Moses’ teaching was good, David’s perspectives were better, Isaiah rosehigher still, John the Baptist ascended even higher, and Jesus was really wonderful andunique, but the crowning revelation comes with Paul and his writings.”

What McLaren proposes is something more radical- “When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning. If we follow this approach, we’ll speak less about the Bible as the supreme Word of God and more about Jesus as the supreme Word of God. We’ll let the person of Jesus –including and integrating his birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection, abiding presence, and ongoing mission through the Holy Spirit – become the light in which all interpretations are evaluated, the key in which all interpretations are played, the leader behind which all interpretations arrange themselves as followers, and the meaning in which all interpretations have meaning.”

If we start to apply these ways of reading the Bible, how might our understandings change?

This my friends, is our work-in-progress…