Learning How to Read the Bible
As my college lectures continue, I am beginning to meet some new ideas. One of my subjects this semester is ‘Reading the Bible’ which happily is more complex than it sounds. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with ever since I learnt that we don’t actually have an original copy of the Bible even though we do have other writings that predate some of the Biblical books. So why did God not preserve an original manuscript of the books in the Bible? Could it be that perhaps we are giving it too much emphasis? Or the wrong sort of emphasis? Are we meant to be completely sure that we have all the answers?
Part of my lecture preparation this week is to read an article by N.T. Wright. Not sure if you’ve come across him? He writes lots of Christian stuff. I tend to think that he writes about interesting issues, but I find his books very difficult to read. Some writers produce work that flows easily into my head, and others are more of an effort. I’m not sure why, maybe it has something to do with speech patterns. If you want to read the whole article by Mr. Wright, the link is here:
Mr Wright begins by questioning what people mean when they talk about ‘the authority of the Bible.’ This intrigues me too—what exactly do they mean? People often tell me: “The Bible is God’s word,” but I’m never quite sure whether they mean the original books (which we don’t have any more) or their own translation, or the essence of the books but not absolutely every word/sentence/paragraph. It does seem that sometimes people treat the Bible as if it is God. I was interested to read that Mr Wright also struggles with this (well, to be fair, he didn’t say that he struggled, so he might be completely sorted on this point). He notes that the Bible itself only gives authority to God. He says that the Bible is one way that God reveals himself.
He then describes (not especially kindly) people who look at the Bible for ‘a daily blessing’ or ‘the answer to a question’ or ‘divine inspiration.’ He thinks this is a misuse of the Bible. Whilst I sort of agree with him (in the same way as I think people often use prayer as if God was a genie in a lamp, waiting to grant their requests) I didn’t much like his tone. In the Bible, people came to God for all sorts of wrong reasons, like they were scared of dying, or they had just watched a miracle and thought following Jesus would be the ancient equivalent of knowing the lottery numbers each week. Mostly, people came for selfish reasons, but God took them anyway, Jesus let them follow, and they learnt the truth along the way. People probably rarely come to God—or read the Bible—for the right reason. Not initially, anyway. However, the next thing Mr Wright wrote was, I thought, rather clever.
He described a pretend situation where a new play by Shakespeare had been discovered, but the last act was missing. Rather than produce the play while incomplete, or ask a modern playwright to write the ending, a group of Shakespearean actors decided to produce the play themselves. They thoroughly learnt the first few acts, so they were familiar with the characters, they knew how they would respond, they knew the situation they were in, and then—following the essence of the original—they finished the play. They didn’t simply regurgitate an earlier scene, nor did they ignore the essence of what was already written; they kept to the ‘authority’ of the first part whilst creating something that finished the drama completely in-keeping with what had gone before. This, says Mr. Wright, is how we should view the Bible. We are ‘making up’ the final act of the play, but it needs to be consistent with what has gone before.
It’s an interesting viewpoint, and I think I probably agree with it. We do need to be immersed in the Bible, so we know the message that it presents, but rather than it being a static, historical work, we can make it something alive, something relevant for today. Which means that the selecting of certain passages to ‘make rules’ is a dangerous game, not really what our purpose is meant to be. They might not apply in ‘the final act.’
I will mull on the idea, and try to think about the wider issues—but so far it looks like a useful analogy. What do you think? Of course, you do need to actually read the Bible. Do you?
Thanks for reading. I’ll give you more updates on what I discover at college as I go. It’s mainly been very interesting so far (one bit isn’t, but I’d better not talk too much about that!) Have a good day. Take care.
Love, Anne x