Why Liberals Should Read the Bible

The Bible doesn't go away if we don't read it. Others just tell us what it says.

Today many otherwise well-informed, intelligent people--religious liberals, seekers after wisdom and justice, even skeptics and the news media--often speak as though the Bible says and means only what fundamentalists say it says and means.

This shows not only a lack of understanding but also a failure of maturity and wisdom. Those who reject or neglect the Bible fail to recognize that to "throw the Bible out" because others have turned it into an idol, or because you don't accept what you take to be the conventional understanding of its teachings, doesn't mean that it ever goes away. Rather, it simply means that it ends up only in the hands and on the lips of others--often reactionary others--where it can and will be used against you.

How did we happen to give away our right to question religious authority and to interpret the Bible for ourselves?

The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great champion of social justice, had a theory. We tend to misdirect our skepticism, he said. We use it to ask superficial questions of the Bible, like "Is this story really, historically true?" (Another great Bible scholar quipped that many Bible stories are not literally true--just eternally true!) Instead of directing our skepticism toward our forebears, maybe we should direct some toward ourselves, Heschel said.

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Is it possible that we use our superficial questions to avoid more important ones in the Bible? Questions like those posed by the prophet of old: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic. 6:8). Is it possible we have turned away from eternally important questions because we are uncomfortable with the idea that the Eternal, the God of history, actually might require something from us? Is that why we have replaced that question with the more comfortable questions of a consumerist age: "What do I require?" Require in a book, a teaching, a God, or a good that I might be willing to take seriously.

So one reason to bother with the Bible today has to do with questions of justice and power. Another has to do with sheer cultural literacy. In Heschel's time, it could be assumed that most American young people had been taught something of the Bible. As children they had lessons from it at home or in church. Even in the public schools of many communities, daily Bible readings were still the norm well into the 1950s, '60s, and beyond. Some had at least studied the Bible "as literature" in college or private school. Many others had been in adult Bible classes at church, if only in the more traditional congregations they began in, not the more liberal ones they went to after they started raising critical questions about it.

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