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!