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When we encourage Bible reading

When we encourage Bible reading

By George Clifford

The volume and variety of responses to my last Daily Episcopalian post, Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not, suggest that I wrote about a vital and controversial issue. An essential follow on question is: How should Christians read the Bible? The answer to that deceptively simple question may help to identify differences between the norm and how Christians actually read, or recommend reading, the Bible.

For at least a century, The Episcopal Church (like most other Churches) has insisted that its seminarians learn the historical-critical method for reading and understanding the Bible. An implicit, if not explicit, premise of seminary biblical studies and other courses is that the historical-critical method is the preferred, if not the recommended or even the normative, approach to reading the Christian scriptures.

Yet, after graduating from seminary, many clergy default (revert?) to other ways of reading and interpreting scripture. Exegesis employing the historical-critical method is time-consuming hard work for which many parish clergy feel both under-prepared and unsure of its necessity or utility. Historical-critical exegesis can also challenge some long held and popularly cherished interpretations, e.g., the story of Jesus feeding the multitude reflects post-resurrection theology rather than factual history. Consequently, clergy tend to use scripture in daily morning and evening prayer (whether privately or as a public service), formation programs for children and youth, and adult studies in a manner that presumes that readers/hearers will understand the text’s meaning with little or no effort.

Presuming that casually reading (i.e., the devotional reading of texts not complemented by historical-critical study) scripture can be uplifting and formative but that preaching requires solid exegesis entails an oxymoronic dichotomy. On the one hand, scripture’s meaning is apparent and easily grasped when encountered in the context of a prayer office (apart from preaching). On the other hand, scripture’s meaning requires solid exegesis – even from a text that is part of the daily office lectionary – when expounded in preaching. A cynic might characterize this apparent inconsistency as clerical hypocrisy indicative of a lack of integrity or as clerical hubris indicative of believing laypeople lack the ability or faith commitment to master and use the historical-critical method.

My ruminations repeatedly prompted reflections on how other “people of the Book” (a Muslim phrase that includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims) read their scriptures. Unlike some people who attempt to straddle religious traditions, I’m very clear about my identity as a Christian. I’m a committed Christian, not a Jew or Muslim. On the other hand, unlike some Christians who think that we can learn nothing from other religions and non-Christians, I’ve often found that examining my beliefs and practices from multiple perspectives brings clarity and fresh insights.

Islam is riven by a sharp divide over how to read the Koran. Most Muslims today, as has been normative for centuries, read and interpret the Koran in the context of its history of interpretation. Various schools of jurisprudence (a term that reflects Islamic emphasis on the Koran, God’s recitation to Mohammed, containing God’s commands for people) provide the continuing conversations that help Muslims rightly understand what God’s timeless words mean in the present.

In sharp contrast to that approach, Salafists believe that only the Koran and Hadith (the compilation of Mohammed’s words and actions not included in the Koran) are useful in understanding how people today should obediently submit to God. Salafist schools often teach only the Koran; well-meaning but ignorant instructors sometimes teach highly individualized interpretations as definitive. Unsurprisingly, these groups interpret Islam in ways that occasionally diverge radically from mainstream Islam.

For example, the Koran teaches that men and women should dress modestly. The Koran also instructs women to cover themselves with an outer garment when they leave their house. However, neither passage directs a woman to cover herself completely. Radical Islamists often require that women cover themselves completely based on Mohammed instructing his wives to hide behind a curtain. In keeping with longstanding Islamic tradition and jurisprudence, most Muslims believe that this latter guidance applied only to the Prophet’s wives, not to all women.

About 85% of Muslims are Sunnis, who have no authoritative clergy. Denying the value of centuries of Islamic juridical scholarship has multiplied individual interpretations and had the unanticipated result of producing extremist movements that include al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Turning back to Christianity, I find the analogues strikingly clear and horrifying. A few terrorist groups self-identify with Christianity, e.g., Operation Rescue, which targets abortion providers and bombs abortion clinics. These allegedly Christian groups, like their Muslim counterparts, justify their crimes with idiosyncratic readings of scripture. Mercifully, scripture study leads blessedly few Christians to become violent terrorists.

However, appallingly large numbers of self-identified Christians inflict terrible emotional and spiritual damage on others because they, like Muslim Salafists, reject their religion’s mainstream normative approach to reading and interpreting scripture in favor of individual interpretation guided by the Holy Spirit. These Christians include those who argue that women should be subordinate to men, all homosexual behaviors are sinful, effective child discipline requires generous and frequent doses of corporal punishment, and caring for the environment is unimportant.

No analogy is perfect. Christianity has had a dynamic, evolving approach to interpreting its scripture. Thankfully, the Church no longer regards allegory as a key interpretative principle. Yet from the second century forward, allegory figured prominently in reading and interpreting all of scripture. Similarly, after bruising controversies (e.g., with Galileo), the Church began to move away from a literal reading of the text toward a more complex reading informed by multiple disciplines (history, linguistics, psychology, science, philosophy, and so forth), tradition (i.e., a continuing conversation among God’s people), and reason (to include experience).

I’m not arguing that scripture and its interpretation are properly the exclusive prerogative of the clergy. In any case, widespread literacy and access to the Bible and other materials prevent that from happening again. Nor do I want to adopt something akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium.

I am arguing that Christians rightly use the historical-critical method to read and interpret scripture. Engaging in that endeavor requires effort and education; it also entails dialogue with the Christian community, directly (e.g., conversation) and indirectly (e.g., reading commentaries). I wonder what the Church might look like today if substantive biblical study that used the historical-critical method replaced the pabulum that widely passes for religious education. Every parish could, indeed should, regularly offer substantive, Bible study for all ages that teaches and uses the historical-critical method, empowering people to read and seek to understand scripture.

Judaism teaches that God gave the scriptures, particularly the Torah, to Israel. The scripture does not belong to an individual but to Jews collectively. Interpretation, therefore, belongs to the community rather than to individuals. Rabbis are not priests but Jews who have received an education in Torah, devoted themselves to the study of Torah, and to whom the Jewish community grants authority to teach because of that education and devotion. Judaism reads and interprets its scriptures through an ongoing dialogue between living rabbis conversing with scripture, dialogue with the rabbinical tradition of interpretation, and one another. This communal interpretive process explicitly recognizes that Jews today read the scriptures within a very different context than the one in which Israel received its scriptures from God.

Episcopalians, thanks be to God, are not Baptists or Pentecostals. Unlike many in both of those traditions, we believe in the importance of an educated clergy. We don’t ordain the uneducated, naively trusting God to guide them when they teach and preach. It’s time that we also believed in an educated laity. Only then will we honor both their calling as God’s ministers and the Christian heritage of reading scripture informed by multiple disciplines, tradition, and reason.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.


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George Clifford

Comments to my essay make good points and deserve response:

Fred is right, I think, in emphasizing the limits of the human intellect. The challenge for the historical critical method is elucidating the presence of the divine; the lack of clarity on this issue is partially a result of some biblical scholars seeing themselves engaged in the academic study of the Bible rather than the study of the Bible within the Christian faith tradition. One constructive approach to this conundrum is situating the historical critical method within the communal context of the Church, in a way analogous to how Jews tease out God’s word today from their scriptures. This is not a juxtaposition of a communal reading against the historical critical method, nor a substitution for the historical critical method, but situating that method within the communal context.

Stephanie, a number of good introductions to the Old and New Testaments exist, written to a greater or lesser degree for general audiences. For the New Testament, you might consider Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Luke Timothy Johnson’s The New Testament: A Very Short Introduction, or Stephen Harris’ The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction. For the Old Testament, you might consider Michael D. Coogan’s A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, Bruce C. Birch’s A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, and Don C. Benjamin’s The Old Testament Story, an Introduction. Of course, other good volumes exist. You’re wise to avoid simply going to Amazon. I did that and the first recommendation for both testaments was published by Intervarsity Press, a fundamentalist publisher.

Pamela, I disagree that not everybody is “suited” for historical critical study of the Bible. First, the Bible, although widely available, is not an easily accessible volume. Pleasant or otherwise, only hard study helps the Bible to become accessible. Introductions that leave people puzzled by the importance of the historical critical method are incomplete or presented in a way that did not effectively communicate. If people are offended by the method, so be it. The goal of serious Bible study is not to placate or please but to grapple with the text, a task not everyone wishes to pursue. In that case, they’re not ready (which is different than not suited) for Bible study.

Second, the community’s passionate commitment to the Bible needs to be shaped by the results of historical-critical study. Otherwise, the conversation becomes one in which the most charismatic, most persuasive can prevail – sometimes with disastrous results, e.g., Jim Jones and the People’s Church.

Third, people educated in the historical critical method are the same people, in your words, “educated by persistent and loving service to the poor, and people educated by naming and contending with their oppressors, and people with a heart for children, and people whose nests are built on the side of the altar, and poets, artists, and musicians, and people with a heart for dirt, water, and trees.” In other words, the problem has been that a few have claimed the historical critical method as their exclusive possession rather than making the method the property of the community. Your point that the method is necessary but not sufficient is absolutely right.

Storytelling is powerful. But the content of the story needs shaping by the community grappling with the text using the historical critical method. Otherwise, we risk the media becoming the message.

Elizabeth, you’re right: the historical critical method is no assurance that God’s light shining through the Bible will free people of sinful prejudices. However, the historical critical method of studying the Bible does diminish the probability of readers distorting the text in purely idiosyncratic ways by pushing the reader into dialogue with the community. The Church, not individuals, owns the Bible. Pointing Christians toward the work of John Dominic Crossan is certainly a healthy step as Christianity must move into the twenty-first century or die. The mystics almost always faced allegations of heresy – a mystical reading moves one to the light that shines through the text rather than the text itself.

Clint Davis

What method to use or not use when reading the Scriptures can only become apparent when one asks some questions, “Why in the world am I reading this anyway? Why would I want to? What do I want from it? What good do I think this reading is going to do? Why would I want anyone else to read this? What difference does it make that this collection exists? What is the Church trying to tell me by putting this collection together? Why do I care what a bunch of dead Greek-ish guys think about what I should be reading for religious purposes? Why did Jesus read Scriptures? Why do I think that truths about God are really found in this collection of books? What is it about the Christian community that leads me to trust the assertion that this collection of books has something useful to tell me, and something definitive to reveal about God?”

I could go on and on in this vein, but each and every answer is going to have various ways of reading the Bible that are relevant, either alone or in combination with other methods. Historical-critical is usually “critical” for understanding the importance of details that would otherwise go unnoticed but are essential to the meaning of a story, details that, because we don’t live in the ancient world anymore, we would miss, ignore, or fail to appreciate. Thus I can find no reason to ignore the historical critical each and every time one picks up a Bible. Beyond this, it is all a matter of faith as to what other lenses one uses to read the Scriptures. But the time and place must be a crucial aspect of most of the stories, or else they would have been set in some mythic time outside of time and place, like other religious epics. The Bible isn’t the Iliad or the Bhagavad-Gita, and this is one thing that makes Abrahamic religion different than much of the rest. Because of this, then we have a duty to learn as much about this, and to care as much about the findings of historical-critical research, as we can.

Elizabeth Higgs

Does Clifford assume that an education in historical critical analysis of the bible will free people of their prejudices against homosexuals, gay marriage, or change their opinions regarding corporal punishment, etc? If he does, then he is working from the false assumption that theology trumps ideology, which history shows over and over again is an extraordinarily rare event. People’s theology follows their ideology for the most part. People aren’t bigots because the bible tells them so. They believe the bible tells them so because they come reading it as bigots.

As an EfM Mentor, I have yet to see one member of the seminar whose ideology has changed at all unless their lives were in some way touched by the Spirit. Those who come into EfM against gay marriage and homosexuality or believing in corporal punishment leave EfM with exactly the same beliefs unless their hearts are moved, a conversion that is wholly unrelated to anything learned via the historical/critical method.

Most people are glad to have become aware of the methods of modern bible scholarship and they learn a lot from it. But as members of the Body of Christ, they do not see it as the answer to everything.

Maybe Clifford is missing the forest for the trees. Maybe he doesn’t understand that the reason so many members of the clergy default to a different reading of the scripture is not because critical exegesis is difficult, but precisely because it is NOT the language of faith.

From this essay, it appears that nothing less than a wholesale abandonment of belief in miracle (e.g. the miracle of the loaves and the fishes) will satisfy Clifford. By that same interpretive framework, we may also reject the true resurrection of Jesus Christ, a la John Crossan.

I made a comment in response to Clifford’s last remarks in which I stated that by his standards, the great early mystics of the Church could not possibly have read the bible in an intelligible way. He responded with the typically modern reply that they lived in a different time, and that faith was easier for them, as if that negates their reading of scripture. Does it not occur to him that their mystical reading of scripture is equally valid to his scientific reading of it?

I would recommend that Clifford do some reading of the great scientist/philosopher Michael Polanyi, (he could start with, SCIENCE, FAITH, AND SOCIETY) who perhaps could show Clifford the fundamental mistake he makes in believing that positivism is the correct prism through which to study matters of faith nor is it the answer to the world’s sociological troubles. Quite the opposite could be true. Like many philosophers, Polany’s writings can be difficult to wade through (much more difficult than critical analysis of scripture) but they are well worth the effort.

Let me say that I in no way reject science, nor a critical reading of scripture. I do emphatically reject the idea, though, that it is the only (or even the most) authentic way to read the bible.

A Facebook User

Clio has a taste for irony, for just as the Church has come to think of historical criticism as the “best” – or even the only – way for Christians to read the Bible, academics like Yale’s Dale Martin have come to the opposite conclusion. In his Pedagogy of the Bible: An Analysis and Proposal, Martin argues that both pre- and post-historical critical methods of textual analysis and interpretation have a place in the Christian’s toolkit.

A Facebook User:

Please sign your name next time you comment. ~ed.

Baba Yaga

I’ve been following this excellent discussion with considerable interest and I find much to affirm in George Clifford’s essay. Here are my thoughts in response.

The original question – should people be encouraged to read the Bible? – is articulated on a scale that makes it impossible to answer. The Bible is an exceptionally large, dense book, thus inviting evasiveness even from religion-minded persons. When we ask, “Why read the Bible?” a reasonable human response is, “Gee, I’d love to talk this over with you today but I have to bleed the brakes on the Chevy.” We might get better answers if we asked, why read the Book of Ruth? Why read Jonah? Why read Acts 10? Why read the Sermon on the Mount? I know that all these specific questions are subsumed in Clifford’s original question – but I think that these smaller questions have discernible, functional answers that translate fairly directly into interesting conversations and program ideas.

I think there are three problems with the historical-critical method.

1. Not everybody is suited to this kind of study. Every Bible study I’ve led or shared has included a few people who are fascinated by historical-critical detail, a few people who are puzzled by why it’s offered, and at least one person who is deeply offended by it. There’s a lot of negative energy generated by rubbing these positions together. And all the sheep need tending and feeding.

2. The Bible wasn’t given to us to be studied this way. Historical-critical study requires objectification of the text – treating it as an object of dispassionate inquiry. I certainly don’t disapprove of this enterprise and I deeply value much of its results – but the place of the Bible in the interpretive community is not as an object of objective inquiry. The Bible’s words were created, memorized, defended, redacted, fought for, loved, hidden, protected, and died for. The interpretive community’s response to them must be guided by the passionate commitment that brought them to us.

3. Historical-critical analysis is necessary but not sufficient. Certainly every interpretive community – every parish – needs a few people educated (Clifford’s term) in historical-critical methods. It also needs people educated by persistent and loving service to the poor, and people educated by naming and contending with their oppressors, and people with a heart for children, and people whose nests are built on the side of the altar, and poets, artists, and musicians, and people with a heart for dirt, water, and trees. All these people are present whenever we read from the Bible in church – the transformative question is, how may their voices and values be woven into the interpretive community’s ongoing, living engagement with sacred texts?

We are creatures of narrative. When we open the historical-critical toolbox, the language we use starts privileging specific skills: reading, study, analysis, and other diversions of the educated, skull-bound brain. At the same time, I share Clifford’s concern about individual uncritical Bible reading; I’ve heard too many people say they just don’t get anything out of it – a deficit for which they generally blame themselves.

My way of resolving Clifford’s oxymoronic dichotomy is through Biblical storytelling. I prepared for this by years of study and mentoring, and I continue an active program of study. I live with stories at length before I tell them, and my way of telling includes story, context, and some small degree of interpretation. Listening to a story is a shared activity; each person’s responses become part of the narrative event. Listening to a story engages patience, humor, and appreciation of nuance. And – I can promise you – people remember stories. Biblical storytelling might hold the possibility of engendering among us today the communal interpretive process Clifford describes in his next-to-last paragraph above.

My thanks again to Clifford for engaging a discussion on topic that are dear to my heart – and, if you have read all the way to the end of this screed, my thanks to you as well. I’m going to close with this fine quotation from Martin Smith, who speaks with more wisdom and more authority than I.

“In Christian faith the Story and the stories within it are not illustrations of truth which could be conveyed in another way. There are no philosophical principles which can be distilled from them and the stories then discarded as empty husks. The stories themselves are indispensable sacramental means of encounter with the Word which became flesh. Just as no satisfactory definition of the kingdom of God can be extracted from the parables, no abstract theory of the atonement can be refined from the passion narratives. The personal engagement with the stories can never be superseded or sidestepped by merely subscribing to doctrines supposedly drawn from them.”

From The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture by Martin L. Smith (Cowley Publications, 1989).

Pamela Grenfell Smith

Bloomington, Indiana

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