On Scriptural Study; or Christianity Is Dangerous

scripture

The two basic disciplines of the Christian life are prayer and Scripturally-connected study.

For anyone who’s spent any time in church, this is a pretty unsurprising statement, but bear with me: I hope to take this in a more interesting direction. First let me phrase this a bit more aggressively: if you’re not doing both of these disciplines on a fairly regular basis, you’re at incredible risk of not following Christ.

A bit of ground-clearing here so you’ll know where I’m coming from regarding Scripture (ok, a LOT of ground-clearing. My apologies in advance). Do I believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible? No. I greatly prefer the words that the Bible uses to describe itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16) The whole notion of “literal truth” developed much later than when the Bible was written (Bart Ehrman has made an interesting argument that fundamentalist Christianity is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on objective truth). To ask the Bible to adhere to the standard of “literalness” is to impose a set of values that are external to Scripture. I’d rather stick to what the Bible says about itself.

To be honest, I’ve never quite understood what it means to believe the Bible literally. What would a literal understanding of the poetry of Song of Solomon look like? The Scriptures are full of metaphor, and no one is tempted to take those literally. Does anyone believe that the streets of heaven are paved with element number 79 on the earthly period table? Does anyone expect that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will actually ride horses? “Literalness” applied to poetry and metaphor would fundamentally misunderstand those words.

And what would a “literal” reading of a parable be? Parables are explicitly stories for our edification; no one literally believes there was an actual Prodigal Son. It’s a bit of fabrication that’s meant to yield a deeper truth. (Yes, I guess I did just call Jesus a liar. Another word for that is “storyteller.”) Those stories are designed to prompt our interpretation. Their power is not in their literalness; it’s in the call for us to participate in making sense of them for our lives.

What “literal” means is that you treat parts of the Bible literally; not the metaphor and poetry but the events depicted. But then you’re picking and choosing which portions of the Bible should be understood “literally” (the Creation, the Flood, the Exodus, Satan, and the miracles, not the parables), and so we’re back in the world of interpretation and choosing which portions of Scripture should be our focus and which should not.

We do this all the time in Christianity. We expand the significance of certain scriptures by making them prominent (there’s a lot less about original sin in the Bible than you would expect, given its prominence in doctrine). We ignore virtually all of the behavioral prescriptions in the Old Testament Pentateuch (except for the Ten Commandments, of course) because Jesus has done away the old law.

More pertinent to modern Christians is the way we bypass the Apostle Paul’s anti-women rhetoric, particularly his very explicit statement that women should be silent in church (I Corinthians 14:34). How many churches observe this today? Hopefully not many. Hopefully we use our interpretive powers to see how individual prescriptions in the Bible can be counter to the overall message. Those individual words should be weighed within the whole and interpreted in light of God’s Spirit, not weaponized to silence and harm others.

So there is no alternative to “interpretation;” it’s built into our experience of the Bible at the most basic structural level (and to the process of all reading. If you want my secular thoughts about “reading into” a text, I’ll point you to something I wrote for introductory film/media classes called “It’s Just a Movie”). There aren’t vowels actually written in the Torah; they have to be added by the reader. The familiar structure of chapters and verses was as added later by not-particularly inspired scribes trying to break the text up into more manageable and quotable chunks.

Rabbis interrogate and interpret the Scriptures; the idea of nailing down the “literal” meaning of Scriptures would be utterly foreign to the enterprise that Jesus himself participated in. And of course the Bible is written in Hebrew and Greek, and so translation into another language is necessarily a process of interpretation. Reading Scripture is participatory.

Because of this participation, I believe that the Word of God is a living, breathing process, and that process expands Scripture. Jesus himself magnified a part of the existing Jewish law (on love, on thought/motivation, and against materialism), opened up more intimate access to God, and increased the reach of the gospel outside of sanctimonious people in Israel and Judea (to prostitutes, ethically compromised officials in imperialist governments, and Samaritans).

I believe it is significant that the first major theological struggle documented for early believers is the question of whether Christianity would be a Jewish sect or a religion that extends to Gentiles. The Book of Acts details a conversion story in which Peter has to be convinced that non-Jews can be followers of Christ. That conversion happens (in part) by face-to-face encounters between Peter and Gentile believers. When he is confronted with real human beings who undeniably love and serve Christ, he alters his theology. He discovers that the chosen people of God are no longer a tribal few, even though the vast majority of the written Scriptures say that it is. In the ministry of Jesus and in the earliest interactions of the church, we see the Kingdom of God grow past our narrow Scriptural confines. I do not think this is coincidence; I think this is a demonstration of how we should all interact with Scripture.

I don’t see why the process of revelation should stop with the Book of Revelations (growing up in fundamentalist religion, I was taught that the period of such prophecy was over, though it was never clear to me why that was). Partly I blame mainstream Christian education for this, particularly its Protestant version. We somehow pretend that our church began with Martin Luther’s revolutionary reinterpretation (opening up the doors to the Kingdom further by enlarging the “priesthood” to include all believers), managing to ignore all that Catholic church history beforehand.

We don’t hear much about a series of councils throughout Christianity’s early centuries in which our theology moved from open, contested questions to settled doctrine. The concept of the Trinity and the idea that Jesus was fully human and fully divine at the same time became official church theology through a combination of argumentation and assertion of authority. These core Christian tenets are far from being clear, obvious parts of the faith; believers managed to follow Christ without having these things settled for centuries.

Far from a “the Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it” mentality, it took many generations of Christians to arrive at what we now think the Bible “says.” We do a disservice to those generations of followers of Christ to ignore the struggle to make sense out of such a complex book and to pretend that now such questioning is somehow settled. The history of following Christ is a history of struggling to understand and to continue the work of expanding the Kingdom of God.

And so it makes perfect sense to me to expand our understanding of God’s kingdom to include gays and lesbians. The key to expanding our theology is people, not doctrine (just as it was for Peter). When I attended a Methodist church in the Nineties, my minister had what he described as a “conversion experience.” A long-established pillar of the church came out to him as lesbian, and through a series of interactions with her, he altered his understanding of the Kingdom. When confronted by the raw fact of an incontrovertible follower of Christ, he (like Peter) enlarged his theology.

In similar fashion, I am open to the idea that the Kingdom of God includes those who don’t use the J-word or the C-word when they pray. I have met people of undeniable spiritual maturity from faiths other than Christianity. I have no problem seeing God working through them. If we take the world-expanding experiences of Jesus and the early church seriously, then we too need to be open to the call to grow the Kingdom. What if “evangelical” came to mean “opening up our own understanding of the Kingdom to incorporate a wider range of people to participate with us in religion?” (instead of forcing them to “convert” their thinking to ours)

Encounters with other religious traditions can enrich a follower of Christ. If your reading stays entirely within the Christian sphere, you also inherit certain time-honored traditions about what you believe and what you practice. Learning something about other religious practices can help shake the cobwebs off your theology and your spiritual discipline. Buddhism, to my mind, has a much better articulation of what “holiness” is; in Christianity, it’s a word we toss around without really thinking much about what it means. After learning about meditation, my prayer life has changed dramatically from the all-words-all-the-time tradition in which I was raised to a much more quiet, contemplative experience. I’m intrigued by the greater involvement of the body in Buddhist and Muslim prayer; our Christian heritage has given us a fraught relationship with our bodies.

Judeo-Christianity has never stood alone. From its earliest days, it has cross-fertilized and been influenced by Zoroastrianism, wisdom traditions, and Greek philosophy. We do ourselves a disservice by trying to set Christianity entirely apart from other religious traditions. Learning about other religious practices has strengthened my own Christian path. Other religions emphasize other parts of the enormity of God. The altered perspective they provide allow me to see familiar Christian teachings with new eyes. A new perspective is a gift; I welcome it wherever it comes from.

And so you’ll note that I say that one of the central disciplines of following Christ is “Scripturally-connected study” and not simply “reading the Bible.” By the former phrase I mean “engaging in reading and study that enlarges your understanding of the Bible.” Sometimes that means reading the Bible. But as I noted, it’s easy for the cobwebs of Christian tradition to accumulate in our minds; it’s hard to find new perspectives if you’ve been in the church for awhile. Sometimes it’s better to read works that elaborate on Scripture. Sometimes it’s good to study religious perspectives that are foreign and to use those traditions to illuminate the Bible. Such “foreign travel” can help you see your religious “homeland” in a larger way.

For many Christians, the answer to problems is “read your Bible.” (Some people prescribe the Bible like medicine: “read some and you’ll be all better.”) But we also should recognize what a frustrating, confusing, and at times boring book the Bible is.

Let me be clear: the Bible is at the center of Christianity. We (like generations before us) need to keep coming back to that book. I believe that reading works of Buddhism or Islam can enliven your Christian understanding, but if those works become truly central for you, then you’re probably no longer doing something called “Christianity.” One thing that connects millennia of Christ’s followers is that we are all doing the same thing: trying to figure out what purposes can this first century book can serve in our contemporary world. Connecting your study and your life to this annoying, beguiling, and undeniably central book is a key discipline.

As you might guess, I think the two disciplines of prayer and Scriptural study begin to bleed into each other. The Word of God is not just a book; it is a living thing that grows, that exists not only between the covers of the Holy Bible but also in words spoken and written and actions done today. Some may be uncomfortable with how porous the Word of God is for me. Doesn’t this loosey-goosey “expanding the Word of God” stuff make it pretty easy for me to invoke “God’s will” and substitute my own? Isn’t it easy to remake the Bible into your own image, for your own purposes?

Hell yes. That’s a danger.

Let me first note the other danger: using the Bible without prayerful meditation about how God wants you to put those words into action. If your focus is entirely on the Bible, then you are making the Bible into your God. It is possible to violate the “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” commandment by putting a legalistic version of the Bible first. God is larger than the Bible. Biblical study without prayer can become rigid and judgmental.

The opposite danger is prayer/meditation without checking in with the Scriptures. It is easy for such practice to become solipsistic, for you and your own ideas to become your God. As I’ve said, I need to regularly experience voices (in sermons and in reading) that remind me how inadequate my own understanding of God is. We need both disciplines: prayer and Scripturally-centered study. One without the other is deadly.

I’ll go further: if you study and contemplate the Scriptures as a whole and if you regularly listen to the still small voice of God that you hear in prayer/meditation, you should do what that voice says. Over and over again in the Judeo-Christian faith, we have examples of people acting through faith on their revelations of what God wants them to do in the world. We believe that if you’re doing both of the central disciplines, you should act boldly on what you are called to do.

I’ll admit this is scary stuff. This is terrorist stuff, potentially. What if you believe God is calling you to smite your enemies? (There’s an awful lot of smiting that goes on in the Bible, so you can definitely find precedent) How does this faith differ from the justifications that terrorists give?

Let me add to the discussion earlier blog posts in which I argued that the primary job of a follower of Christ is to love God and then to engage in charity and justice. Those are the central calling/activities for following Christ, as I see it. If you love God and work for charity and justice while you pray and study Scripture, then I cannot believe that the still small voice of God will tell you to commit violence. That is not the God I know. I recognize the danger of getting this wrong. Christians have gotten this wrong for centuries (witness the Crusades and the support of slavery). But that is the faith I have in those central beliefs and disciplines.

Christianity is dangerous. Or it should be.

(More on prayer, that other dangerous discipline, next time.)

One thought on “On Scriptural Study; or Christianity Is Dangerous

  1. Another good one, Greg. Well-said: “I believe that the Word of God is a living, breathing process, and that process expands Scripture.” Grammatically speaking, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma,” or as the United Church of Christ says, “God is still speaking.”

    Liked by 1 person

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