Sunday, June 15, 2008
How to read the Bible
(From Frederick Buechner, in "Listening to Your Life," 1992; originally in "Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC," 1973.)
What follows are some practical suggestions on how to read the Bible without tears. Or maybe with them.
1. Don't start at the beginning and try to plow your way straight through to the end. At least not without help. If you do, you're almost sure to bog down somewhere around the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus. Concentrate on the high points at first. There is much to reward you in the valleys too, but at the outset keep to the upper elevations. There are quite a few.
There is the vivid, eyewitness account of the reign of King David, for instance (2 Samuel plus the first two chapters of 1 Kings), especially the remarkable chapters that deal with the last years when the crimes and blunders of his youth have begun to catch up with him. Or the Jospeh stories (Genesis 39-50). Or the Book of Job. Or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Or the seventh chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, which states as lucidly as it has ever been stated the basic moral dilemma of man and then leads into the eighth chapter, which contains the classic expression of Christianity's basic hope.
2. The air in such upper altitudes is apt to be clearer and brighter than elsewhere, but if you nevertheless find yourself getting lost along the way, try a good Bible commentary which gives the date and historical background of each book, explains the special circumstances which it was written to meet, and verse by verse tries to illumine the meaning of the difficult sections. Even when the meaning seems perfectly clear, a commentary can greatly enrich your understanding. The Book of Jonah, for instance -- only two or three pages long and the one genuine comedy in the Old Testament -- takes on added significance when you discover its importance in advancing the idea that God's love is extended not just to the children of Israel but to all mankind.
3. If you have even as much as a nodding acquaintance with a foreign language, try reading the Bible in that. Then you stand a chance of hearing what the Bible is actually saying instead of what you assume it must be saying because it is the Bible. Some of it you may hear in such a new way that it is as if you had never heard it before. "Blessed are the meek" is the way the English version goes, whereas in French it comes out "Heureux sont les debonnaires" (Happy are the debonair). The debonair of all things! Doors fly open. Bells ring out.
4. If you don't know a foreign language, try some English version that you've never tried beforee -- the New English Bible, Goodspeed's translation, J.B. Phillips's New Testament, or any other you can lay your hands on. The more far-out the better. Nothing could farther out than the Bible itself. The trouble with the King James or Authorized Version is that it is too full of Familar Quotations. The trouble with Familiar Quotations is that they are so familar you don't hear them. When Jesus was crucified, the Romans nailed over his head a sign saying "King of the Jews" so nobody would miss the joke. To get something closer to the true flavor, try translating the sign instead: "Head Jew."
5. It may sound like fortune-telling, but don't let that worry you. Let the Bible fall open in your lap and start there. If you don't find something that speaks to you, let it fall open to something else. Read it as though it were as exotic as the I Ching or the Tarot deck. Because it is.
6. If somebody claims that you have to take the Bible literally, word for word, or not at all, ask him if you have to take John the Baptist literally when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God.
If somebody claims that no rational person can take a book seriously which assumes that the world was created in six days and man in an afternoon, ask him if he can take Shakespeare seriously whose scientific knowledge would have sent a third-grader into peals of laughter.
7. Finally this. If you look at a window, you see fly-specks, dust, the crack where junior's Frisbie hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.
Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.
Of course, behind this list, or series of steps, or whatever, is the notion that there is a heart to the Gospel, a core, or as Luther and many others after him said, a "kernel", with a disposable "husk", that could be dispensed with easily enough. I'm not so sure about the disposable husk, but the "high points" are usually those points that set the tone for understanding the rest of the text.
Of course, if one's "kernel" is the Song of Songs, that could lead to interesting reading . . .
is a more pertinent question to 99%of people today.
First Why and then How. So would not "how" be based on why?
Absolutely, but isn't that what Sunday School and Sermons are for? Why bother to read it when there are so many people able and willing and eager to tell you what is in it and what it means. I mean, I could watch biblical TV all day long 24/7 if I chose.
Also I would contend that there are two steps missing from the "how to read a Bible" directions. Find a Biblical Critic to read as well in conjunction with what you read. Avoid the apologist.
I read the whole thing last year for two intro classes. Nothing will motivate like a grade and forced discussion. I recall my Catholic Sunday School teachers telling me that each page of the Bible I read is a day off my time in purgatory, so the parole must be rather substantial by now ...
They're nice suggestions; I like reading the Bible in Spanish rather than in English, it sounds better and it has more impact. But I would disagree on the commentary part. How boring if you're just reading for historical/archeological facts and stats. Use a commentary that will broaden your idea of how people different from you read the Bible: Global Bible Commentary, Women's Bible Commentary, LGBT Bible Commentary, African American Bible Commentaries. The fun in the Bible isn't what is read, but it's how the way we read it reveals who we are.
It occured to nobody to humble yourselves before God with an attitude of prayerful study, to partake of God's wisdom and guidance through the reading of His word.
No wonder y'all treat it like it's just a book...
I was just wondering how you figured out which parts don't apply anymore, which parts are fairy tales, and which parts actually mean anything.
Your post suggested that you are supposed to look to Bible critics, Commentaries, and that you should "stick to the high spots..." but mentioned nothing about Prayer, and I was simply pointing that out.
Maybe the "just a book" jab was a little out of line.
Re, "I was just wondering how you figured out which parts don't apply anymore, which parts are fairy tales, and which parts actually mean anything."
THAT is the very story of my life, and my faith -- my journey from that pew I walked from at age 8, to the altar I walked to, the preacher I prayed with, the Bible I then read ... the life I then have lived since then, to now.
It's a story as long as 36 years! Maybe someday I'll post a whole post about it.
In the meantime, just take what I post as glimpes of my faith journey, please, and realize that it all rest on Jesus.