2017-07-12
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.

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.

Today, however, many people will admit to having little real understanding of the Bible. This is true even for members of justice movements that were inspired by the progressive biblical interpretations of earlier generations. It is true today even in progressive schools and congregations. Many people are vaguely aware of at least some recent developments in biblical studies--archeological discoveries, historical studies, insights from comparative religion and anthropology, literary/ critical or feminist interpretations. But there are few guides available other than collections of literary essays, scholarly treatises, and seminary textbooks, or an endless stream of pious books aimed at those who consider themselves "Bible believers."

I'm reminded of a parody hymn that a friend of mine once penned. It's to be sung to the tune of "Onward Christian Soldiers," which has another, more liberal, set of words: "Forward through the Ages." His parody goes this way: "Forward through the pages/ Never read a line./ Honor all the scriptures,/ Think them all just fine./ Books of differing sizes/ Spread across our shelves;/ We will never read them;/ We think for ourselves!"

When I was in college, many of the most interesting friends I made had been raised in progressive homes that had far more books on the shelves than the home in which I had been raised. They were morally engaged in the issues of the time. But they were biblically and religiously ignorant. Because I was majoring in Renaissance and Reformation studies and had at least some religious literacy, they often turned to me to explain the biblical and religious references in paintings, poems, and other texts--even in jokes!

Like the one about Dorothy Parker arriving at a New York apartment for a swank party, clad in her little basic black dress with pearls. A young actress, dressed to the nines, arrived at the door at the same moment. There was a certain jockeying for precedence. Finally the young actress stepped back, saying, "Well, age before beauty, I suppose!" Going ahead, Dorothy Parker reportedly quipped, "No, my dear: pearls before swine!" Writer and raconteur Isaac Asimov once sadly reported that he had decided to stop telling that joke, because fewer and fewer people seemed to get the biblical reference anymore!

Even among erstwhile, cultured despisers of the Bible, however, the tide may be turning. There is a growing yearning for an understanding of the biblical heritage that is intellectually respectable, justice-oriented, and spiritually enriching. I can testify to that.

When I was serving a liberal, activist congregation in the very secular city of New York during the late 1980s I gave a series of lectures. It was striking to me how many people of great sophistication were drawn to those lectures. When they were over, a group of women writers and educators surprised me even more by coming to me, asking if I would meet with them for a closer study of selected portions of the Bible, every week. I was both stunned and gratified.

At first these women claimed their motivations were related to their craft as writers and people of culture. They knew that no one can claim to be culturally literate without an understanding of the Bible, since it has influenced, directly or indirectly, nearly all of Western literature and art. Not only is it obvious that one can't fully understand Renaissance art, Bach, Shakespeare, Milton, T. S. Eliot, or even Emily Dickinson, without understanding the "coded" biblical references and their interpretations.

Even many modern writers and artists in rebelliion against the standard interpretations of the Bible and its authority can only be understood against the backdrop of what they reject. Biblical themes are also a source of continuing inspiration and creativity for novelists, poets, and artists. Not to mention for ordinary people struggling for justice and seeking an authentic and deeper wisdom, maturity, and spirituality. And as our group study of the Bible went along, that became a third important motivation.

The first motivation could be called political: If you can't or won't understand the Bible, others surely will interpret it for you. The second could be called cultural or literary: Within this culture you can't be fully literate or creative, artistically or rhetorically, without an acquaintance with the Bible.

But now we come to the third and most personal reason: You also can't be spiritually mature or wise by simply rejecting the Bible as oppressive. The oppressive uses of the Bible are real, but unless you learn to understand that there are other readings possible, the Bible will, indeed, simply continue to be a source of oppression for you, and not a source of inspiration, liberation, creation, and even exultation as you understand it anew for yourself, at a deeper and less literal level.

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