I meet them whenever I give talks or lead retreats: people who have questions about, or difficulties with, the Bible. Some are optimistically confused; others are more subdued. A few are genuinely distressed, as if they’ve discovered their sweet little 80-year-old grandmother has secretly been selling crystal meth down at the day centre
There are different reasons for their distress. It could be the brutality and the bloodshed, or the apparent contradictions. Or maybe they don’t actually believe what they are reading– that a fish can swallow a man, that a boat can contain all known species, that God placed responsibility for the entire fate of humankind on two people and their behaviour around a fruit tree.
Anyway, I meet them. A lot of them. And these are just the acute cases. Behind them are a number of ordinary Christians who have been told that the Bible is a life-giving and good thing which Every Proper Christian Should Read With Joy in Their Heart, but who really find it vast, verbose, obscure, irrelevant and even, at times, mind-numbingly dull. These problems are real and need acknowledging. The problem is not with these questions, and it’s certainly not with the Bible. The problem is that people have been misinformed about what the Bible is and how we are supposed to read it.
I believe that our interaction with the Bible is one of the most important, rewarding, transformational experiences that any human can have. The problem is that the way in which we describe the Bible – and the way in which we are taught to read it – actually makes people less likely to open the thing. We place it on a pedestal and address it in hushed tones. We talk about studying it, as though it were some kind of laboratory specimen. We turn it into a textbook of theology, and forget that it is a story. It’s time to rethink our approach.
The Bible isn't God
The book of Job is a story about a completely righteous man to whom a series of terrible disasters happen. It addresses the question of why good people suffer. But this is not some kind of abstract discussion on the nature of evil, it critiques the theology of other parts of the Bible. The writer of Deuteronomy, for example, suggests that if you obey God, you’ll get all the rewards (see 7:12–15). “That,” replies Job, “is a load of camel manure.”
What Job shows, among many other things, is the Bible in vigorous debate with itself. It turns out that questioning the Bible is actually a very biblical thing to do. The Bible is full of people who challenge teachings found elsewhere in the book.
But when we come to do that the alarms go off. Too often people with questions feel guilty, or stupid or unfaithful: this is the Holy Bible! If I’m questioning the text, surely I’m questioning God?
The Bible is not God. It points us to God, tells us about God, but it is not God. I can think of at least three obvious signs of this fact. Firstly, it was created by men. Secondly, it’s not perfect. And thirdly, it’s made of paper. I could list more, but those will do for now. The point is, we have to stop treating the Bible as though it is the fourth person of the Trinity, as if it is God with an ISBN number.
We need to stop worshiping the Bible. That includes the way we talk about how we got the Bible in the first place. Too many people have the impression that a large leather-bound volume was delivered by an angel to St Paul in some kind of heavenly jiffy bag. It didn’t happen that way. The text was written by humans and edited by humans. Humans – in the form of the Church – eventually decided what books constituted their sacred scriptures, and even decided on the title – the Bible.
I’m not for one moment saying that the Holy Spirit was not involved in the process. But the interaction between God and all those authors, compilers and editors is a complex and collaborative task. The Bible is a very human construct. It did not just magically appear.
Equating the scriptures with God is a form of idolatry. And you know what the Bible says about that. You might think that I am being irreverent. But that’s the thing, I don’t think the Bible wants my reverence, I think it wants my attention. Which brings me onto...
Death by exegesis
Bible study. It’s hardly the most exciting term, is it? Hardly likely to have people queuing up for tickets. And we don’t use this terminology in other areas of our lives. I go out for a drink; I don’t do a “Beer study”. But the real problem is that it characterises reading the Bible as an academic pursuit. It treats the Bible as though it were a textbook, something we revise so that we can pass our final exams and graduate into heaven. The Bible is literature. And literature doesn’t work like that.
Literature invites us into a conversation, an interaction. When you read a story about Jesus in the Gospels, for example, you’re invited into a story, an adventure. And the Bible is full of stories, hundreds and thousands of stories carried indifferent forms.
Why does God love stories? Why fill his book with so many? Loads of reasons. But one of the chief reasons is because stories grab us on a deeper, almost unconscious level. We don’t just listen to or read stories: we live them. In one study, neuroscientists used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that “readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative” and that the brain regions that are activated often “mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities”. In other words, when we engage with literature– really engage and immerse ourselves in it – we subconsciously enter the world of the book. The areas of our brains which light up are the same areas that would light up if we were actually doing the activities. It means that we can feel the same things that the characters in the Bible feel. We can act out their lives, albeit via a load of neurons firing away inside our brains.
But feelings, emotions, imagination don’t often get a look-in during a Bible study. Instead, we dissect the passage, slice into the grammar and the etymology, peel back the layers of history and theology, and we end up discovering everything about the text except how it is actually going to change us here and now. It’s death by exegesis.
The writer EB White said: “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. You can do it, but along the way the frog dies.” I have read a lot of books, listened to a lot of sermons, attended a lot of Bible studies where we started out reading a passage and ended up staring at a dead frog. Not so much a Bible study, more an autopsy.
Reading the Bible should be an invitation to use our imagination and curiosity. That’s what happens if we stop studying the Bible and start listening to it. We imagine ourselves into the minds of the characters, listen to their voices, feel what they are feeling.
In the words of the author Nicholas Carr: “The reader becomes the book.”
Stop trying to 'Get it right'
The other side effect of the phrase “Bible study” is the implication that this approach is the correct one. This is the serious bit. We’re not just reading the Bible here, we’re studying it. You have to do it right.
But there is no right way to read the Bible. There never has been. Christians have read it in very different ways across the centuries. For example, we’re not supposed to “cherry-pick” verses. We have to look at verses in context, apparently. I’m not sure why cherry-picking is so wrong. I mean, what else are you supposed to do with a cherry? Eat the twigs? Anyway, for years I trotted out the same advice, and then I realised that Jesus “cherry-picked” all the time (see for example Matthew 22:23-33). And so did Paul. And Matthew. Especially Matthew. He’s the Lionel Messi of the out-of-context quote. Take the story of the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem: Matthew sees this as fulfilling a prophecy in Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18, NRSV).
The tenuous link here is that Rachel’s tomb was thought to be in the region of Bethlehem. Apart from that, though, the quotation makes little sense. Ramah – the place mentioned– is nowhere near Bethlehem – it’s eleven miles away, on the other side of Jerusalem. And the “children” in Jeremiah are not babes or toddlers, but the tribes of Israel who have been killed or scattered by the Assyrians. But Matthew isn’t worried about context or the socio-historical setting. He was describing events in the great story of Jesus’ birth when suddenly this verse ignited in his brain. God brought it to life.
The point is that many of the most important theologians, leaders and thinkers “read” the Bible in ways we would consider unwise. Augustine, like most of his contemporaries, thought of the text as symbolic and allegorical. In one sermon, he talks about the bit in John’s Gospel where the risen Jesus eats some grilled fish. What do the fish mean? Augustine says: “Grilled fish means martyrdom, faith proved by fire.”
Grilled fish means...err...martyrs? No, it doesn’t. At least, not to us. And I’m pretty sure not to John, whose Gospel records the story. But for the great Church fathers, this was how you read the scriptures. They’re not reading the Bible incorrectly: this was how they did it.
Unreading the Bible
I want to emphasise that I am not denying the role of biblical study, or context, or historical research or any of those important tools. I have spent large chunks of what I laughingly call my “career” using these tools and teaching them to others. But they are only really useful insofar as they enable us to engage with the text, to listen to it. We need to empower people to read the Bible, to make them feel that this book has something for them, that they can engage with it themselves. We need places and approaches where people can ask questions and use their imagination. We need to liberate “Bible reading” from the fear that we might be doing it wrong.
In my new book The Badly Behaved Bible I suggest a number of ways of unreading the Bible; different approaches to engaging with scripture, from using art, to praying the text, to ancient practices like Lectio Divina and the Jewish idea of midrash.
The Bible is Holy Ground. It is a place of encounter, a place where we meet God. That’s what we mean when we say the Bible is “inspired”. It’s not because God wrote it. He didn’t dictate it or deliver the typescript to the early Church. The word “inspired” means “God-breathed” (see 2 Timothy3:16). That’s what’s special about this book: God brings it to life.
So pick up the book. Open it. Listen.