(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on May 27, 2016)
“Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Philip asked.
“‘How can I,’ he said, ‘unless someone explains it to me?’ So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31, NIV).
There have been few topics more controversial within the Church and between the Church and the secular world, especially in the last couple of hundred years, than biblical interpretation. In other words, people want to know: How am I supposed to read the Bible? And plenty of people want to insist that the Bible must be read a certain way, or assume that we all read the Bible the same way. And there is an argument over the word “interpretation.” Some will say that we are not supposed to interpret anything when it comes to the Bible (because to interpret is to take the Bible and do something with it beyond reading and following it), and others will say that reading is interpretation.
So how should we read the Bible? Well, I’m not going to answer the should part that question for you, because I don’t think that is very helpful, and because there are a lot of useful ways to answer that question, which I have no interest in debating. I know very faithful Bible readers from many different traditions who engage the Bible in very different but meaningful ways. And frankly, I would rather see a lively discussion where we share methods and insights respectfully, than tear each other down in arguments. Secondly, there are different ways to read the Bible depending on ones immediate purpose. For example, as a pastor and preacher, I engage the Bible one way when I am studying for a sermon (investigating the Greek and Hebrew language, learning about the customs of the ancient world, etc.), than I do when I am doing a personal devotion and prayer, listening for the God to speak to me or my prayer group.
But be that as it is, I think that the question of Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 is a good one. The Holy Spirit prompts Philip to join his chariot, where he finds the eunuch reading the scroll of Isaiah. And when Philip asks him if he understands the scroll, the eunuch replies, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Good point. We need guidance. And to hand someone who has no experience with the scriptures a Bible and say, “Go read and good luck!” is not responsible.
So here is some guidance. Its not exhaustive, and its not meant to contradict what you might already know and do. And you are welcome to take what you like and leave the rest:
Consider the genre. What do I mean by that? Well, think about this for a moment. The Bible is not a book. The Bible is a library of books. And those books were written at different times (over the course of centuries), in different cultures all alien to us, by different people, to different audiences for different purposes. And most importantly for us as readers, we need to realize that they are different genres of literature. So, for example, a newspaper article is a different genre than poetry, and because of that, we expect to learn or experience different things from a newspaper article than we would a few verses of poetry. The Bible is a library of documents some of which are letters, some are prophetic oracles, some are epics, some are poetry. Psalms is all poetry. When someone suggests that we read the entire Bible “literally,” my question is, with all due respect, how precisely do you read a poem “literally?” Poetry, by definition is non-literal or metaphoric language. But the poetry of Psalms is extremely valuable in helping us move closer to the heart of God.
Read together. Individualism is acceptable in some respects, but I think it has gotten way out of control in our culture. The Church is a community and Jesus is always focused on bringing people together, proclaiming the social (not individualistic) reality of the kingdom of God. I absolutely encourage solitary reading of Bible but please try reading it with other people too! In fact, if I could only suggest one or the other, it would be to read in a group rather than alone. Why? Because so much of the Bible is about treating one another with love and justice, which requires we spend sacred time with each other. And you are going to be enriched by other people sharing their experience of reading the Bible, and vice versa.
Expect the Holy Spirit. When the Bible ceases to be the living Word of God (a phrase that deserves its own blog post), when the Bible becomes a dead document of ancient religion, it becomes an idol and not the authoritative wellspring of life scripture is meant to be as Jesus is constantly trying to explain to the Pharisees. And that’s when things are mis-interpreted and inappropriately used out of context. That is when we import ancient culture instead of discerning the voice of God. So, for example, there are many verses that support the institution of slavery, and many other verses that accept it as normative. Nowhere do you find a verse that says, “You know what? It is an abomination to own people as property.” These passages were used for centuries to justify the practice of slavery as God’s will. Fortunately, I don’t think any responsible Bible reader would conclude that today. But do you know what made possible people to read something different in the last two centuries than they had in the previous 20+? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s sustaining activity present in the world, which powers the Church. And it refuses to be contained by our mis-readings of scripture. The Holy Spirit will meet you in the reading of the Bible to assist us in finding and living out the merciful and loving intentions of God, rather than allowing us to continue to bear the wicked fruit of oppression, hatred, injustice and division. But we must be open to it, and we must open the Bible to find it.