I love reading the Bible. I grew up reading it, I am passionate about studying it, and delight to preach from it whenever I get the chance.
I also recognize that it is getting harder to do in our contemporary context. I am a loud critic of simple dualism (constantly contending with my Evangelical associates) – but even I must concede when there are two main schools of thought that have set themselves up in opposition to each other. I buck the ‘spectrum’ thinking like Liberal v. Conservative (as if those were the only two options) in almost every circumstance. However, when it comes to reading the Bible, it is tough to avoid the set of major trenches that have been dug on either side of this narrow road.
The first group reads the Bible in what is called a ‘straight forward’ way and while they spend a lot of time with the text, there is little acknowledgement of what is going on behind the text. This group reads the Bible primarily devotionally, preaches exegetically and views it as not just instructive but binding for all times and places.
In my interactions with this group, there is little awareness of hermeneutics (in may cases they may have never heard the word before) and even less willingness to engage in scholarship that does anything behind the text.
The second group engages in Historical-Critical methods. They are willing to look at things like redaction (later editing). They don’t harmonize the Gospels into one Gospel. They are willing to acknowledge that Matthew and Luke’s conception, birth and subsequent details do not line up. They understand that while the story of Daniel happens in the 5th century BC – it was not written in the 5th century BC. They joke about Moses writing the 1st five books of Bible (how did he write about his own death?).
Lately I have been engaging books like :
How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel
Whose Bible Is It? A History of the Scriptures Through the Ages by Jaroslav Pelikan
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Over the last 4 years, it has become painfully clear to me that we have a problem when it comes to reading the Bible. Simply stated, those who spend the most time with the Bible know less about it but make greater claims for it than those who do more scholarship on it but may have little faith in it.
I was listening to a seminar on the Historical-Jesus and talking to several friends of mine who do Historical-Criticism, here are 3 sentences that no evangelical I know even have ears to hear:
- Paul didn’t even write that letter
- Jesus probably didn’t say that sentence
- The Bible is wrong about this
I get in trouble for saying much much milder things about the literary device of the virgin birth, the prophetic concern of Revelation which is limited to the first 2 centuries CE, and Jesus being ironic about ‘bringing a sword’. Can you imagine what would happen if I thought that Paul didn’t write the letters that are attributed to him, that Jesus did not utter the red-letter words we have recorded in the gospels or that the Bible was wrong about something? I can’t.
So how does a moderate engage Biblical scholarship without stumbling over Historical-Critical pitfalls and Historical Jesus land-mines? The thing that I hear over and over is
“Just stick with N.T. Wright. He has navigated the gulf for you”
Now, I love N.T. Wright as much as the next emergent evangelical (especially his Everybody series) … but I am as unwilling, on one hand, to forego the best and most comprehensive stuff (like Dom Crossan’s work on Empire) as I am, on the other hand, to subscribe to the inane prerequisites of the Jesus Seminar.
What I would really like to see is a move within the emerging generation that is tenacious about engaging contemporary scholarship while fully embracing the kind of devotional passion that the innerant camp demonstrates – all the while avoiding the fearful and intimidating chokehold that camp utilizes to squelch innovation & thought.
I want the next generation to both find life and direction in the scriptures and also to not have to read the tough parts with their fingers crossed behind their back.
a hopeful moderate – Rev. Bo C. Sanders