Sunday, March 4, 2012

When we encourage Bible reading

The volume and variety of responses to my last Daily Episcopalian post, Encourage People to Read the Bible? Maybe not (also posted at Ethical Musings on Feb 19, 2012), suggest that I wrote about a vital and controversial issue. An essential follow on question is: How should Christians read the Bible? The answer to that deceptively simple question may help to identify differences between the norm and how Christians actually read, or recommend reading, the Bible.

For at least a century, The Episcopal Church (like most other Churches) has insisted that its seminarians learn the historical-critical method for reading and understanding the Bible. An implicit, if not explicit, premise of seminary biblical studies and other courses is that the historical-critical method is the preferred, if not the recommended or even the normative, approach to reading the Christian scriptures.

Yet, after graduating from seminary, many clergy default (revert?) to other ways of reading and interpreting scripture. Exegesis employing the historical-critical method is time-consuming hard work for which many parish clergy feel both under-prepared and unsure of its necessity or utility. Historical-critical exegesis can also challenge some long held and popularly cherished interpretations, e.g., the story of Jesus feeding the multitude reflects post-resurrection theology rather than factual history. Consequently, clergy tend to use scripture in daily morning and evening prayer (whether privately or as a public service), formation programs for children and youth, and adult studies in a manner that presumes that readers/hearers will understand the text’s meaning with little or no effort.

Presuming that casually reading (i.e., the devotional reading of texts not complemented by historical-critical study) scripture can be uplifting and formative but that preaching requires solid exegesis entails an oxymoronic dichotomy. On the one hand, scripture’s meaning is apparent and easily grasped when encountered in the context of a prayer office (apart from preaching). On the other hand, scripture’s meaning requires solid exegesis – even from a text that is part of the daily office lectionary – when expounded in preaching. A cynic might characterize this apparent inconsistency as clerical hypocrisy indicative of a lack of integrity or as clerical hubris indicative of believing laypeople lack the ability or faith commitment to master and use the historical-critical method.

My ruminations repeatedly prompted reflections on how other “people of the Book” (a Muslim phrase that includes Jews, Christians, and Muslims) read their scriptures. Unlike some people who attempt to straddle religious traditions, I’m very clear about my identity as a Christian. I’m a committed Christian, not a Jew or Muslim. On the other hand, unlike some Christians who think that we can learn nothing from other religions and non-Christians, I’ve often found that examining my beliefs and practices from multiple perspectives brings clarity and fresh insights.

Islam is riven by a sharp divide over how to read the Koran. Most Muslims today, as has been normative for centuries, read and interpret the Koran in the context of its history of interpretation. Various schools of jurisprudence (a term that reflects Islamic emphasis on the Koran, God's recitation to Mohammed, containing God's commands for people) provide the continuing conversations that help Muslims rightly understand what God's timeless words mean in the present.

In sharp contrast to that approach, Salafists believe that only the Koran and Hadith (the compilation of Mohammed’s words and actions not included in the Koran) are useful in understanding how people today should obediently submit to God. Salafist schools often teach only the Koran; well-meaning but ignorant instructors sometimes teach highly individualized interpretations as definitive. Unsurprisingly, these groups interpret Islam in ways that occasionally diverge radically from mainstream Islam.

For example, the Koran teaches that men and women should dress modestly. The Koran also instructs women to cover themselves with an outer garment when they leave their house. However, neither passage directs a woman to cover herself completely. Radical Islamists often require that women cover themselves completely based on Mohammed instructing his wives to hide behind a curtain. In keeping with longstanding Islamic tradition and jurisprudence, most Muslims believe that this latter guidance applied only to the Prophet’s wives, not to all women.

About 85% of Muslims are Sunnis, who have no authoritative clergy. Denying the value of centuries of Islamic juridical scholarship has multiplied individual interpretations and had the unanticipated result of producing extremist movements that include al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Turning back to Christianity, I find the analogues strikingly clear and horrifying. A few terrorist groups self-identify with Christianity, e.g., Operation Rescue, which targets abortion providers and bombs abortion clinics. These allegedly Christian groups, like their Muslim counterparts, justify their crimes with idiosyncratic readings of scripture. Mercifully, scripture study leads blessedly few Christians to become violent terrorists.

However, appallingly large numbers of self-identified Christians inflict terrible emotional and spiritual damage on others because they, like Muslim Salafists, reject their religion’s mainstream normative approach to reading and interpreting scripture in favor of individual interpretation guided by the Holy Spirit. These Christians include those who argue that women should be subordinate to men, all homosexual behaviors are sinful, effective child discipline requires generous and frequent doses of corporal punishment, and caring for the environment is unimportant.

No analogy is perfect. Christianity has had a dynamic, evolving approach to interpreting its scripture. Thankfully, the Church no longer regards allegory as a key interpretative principle. Yet from the second century forward, allegory figured prominently in reading and interpreting all of scripture. Similarly, after bruising controversies (e.g., with Galileo), the Church began to move away from a literal reading of the text toward a more complex reading informed by multiple disciplines (history, linguistics, psychology, science, philosophy, and so forth), tradition (i.e., a continuing conversation among God's people), and reason (to include experience).

I’m not arguing that scripture and its interpretation are properly the exclusive prerogative of the clergy. In any case, widespread literacy and access to the Bible and other materials prevent that from happening again. Nor do I want to adopt something akin to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching magisterium.

I am arguing that Christians rightly use the historical-critical method to read and interpret scripture. Engaging in that endeavor requires effort and education; it also entails dialogue with the Christian community, directly (e.g., conversation) and indirectly (e.g., reading commentaries). I wonder what the Church might look like today if substantive biblical study that used the historical-critical method replaced the pabulum that widely passes for religious education. Every parish could, indeed should, regularly offer substantive, Bible study for all ages that teaches and uses the historical-critical method, empowering people to read and seek to understand scripture.

Judaism teaches that God gave the scriptures, particularly the Torah, to Israel. The scripture does not belong to an individual but to Jews collectively. Interpretation, therefore, belongs to the community rather than to individuals. Rabbis are not priests but Jews who have received an education in Torah, devoted themselves to the study of Torah, and to whom the Jewish community grants authority to teach because of that education and devotion. Judaism reads and interprets its scriptures through an ongoing dialogue between living rabbis conversing with scripture, dialogue with the rabbinical tradition of interpretation, and one another. This communal interpretive process explicitly recognizes that Jews today read the scriptures within a very different context than the one in which Israel received its scriptures from God.

Episcopalians, thanks be to God, are not Baptists or Pentecostals. Unlike many in both of those traditions, we believe in the importance of an educated clergy. We don’t ordain the uneducated, naively trusting God to guide them when they teach and preach. It’s time that we also believed in an educated laity. Only then will we honor both their calling as God's ministers and the Christian heritage of reading scripture informed by multiple disciplines, tradition, and reason.


GulfShoresSteven said...

Thank you; I believe you are correct. The odd thing is that some people in the pews are desperately hungry for solid teaching from the Bible that is thoroughly anchored in the best scholarship available. I teach an adult Bible Study every week, and I give extensive handouts, and treat the adult (mostly retired aged) people who attend like students who want to learn - and it works well. But it is hard work, which you pointed out. We should never sell our people short.

George Clifford said...

A reader sent me this comment by email:

I agree with the general concern that a proper understanding of the Bible involves determining the historical sense of the passage, and that assigning an arbitrary, subjective meaning to the Scriptures based on what one thinks is the leading of the Holy Spirit is misguided. This certainly implies as you pointed out that Christians must invest substantial time and effort if they're going to effectively understand the Bible. Certainly an education which would incorporate a basic theological and philosophical framework are critical to this end. I would add by way of caution though that the plain meaning of Scripture is often apparent, and what is required is more of a reflective, existentially oriented mind. Many of the Psalms come to mind as an example of this sort.

As you pointed out, people may read the Bible and be compelled on the one hand to believe in the supernatural only to the turn world and find the laughing scorn of a reductionist philosophy. On the other hand they may find themselves confronted with a view of human nature and morality that is not what popular culture tells them. With an open mind, one may easily reconcile the miraculous in Christianity with science - in fact, I think science confirms Christianity. If one should come away from reading Paul with the notion that women are subservient to men, one need only inform that the Bible teaches no such thing - what it does teach is a created order between man and woman, and that's a big difference. Sometimes though, it's a good thing if there's a dissonance between what one thinks is right and what Scripture teaches: with an open mind, it may just result in a change for the better.

But what I read in between the lines of your post is a real fear that the common man should pick up his Bible and actually take it seriously, which for me takes us back in time to the Middle Ages. If my sense is correct, it's unfortunate that half of a millennium has taken us full circle back to the beginning.

George Clifford said...

My point is that ordinary people should read the Bible in an educated manner. Being a Christian is not an easy matter; we do a disservice to people when we insult them by presuming that they do not or cannot develop the necessary skills (cf. the comment from GulfSHoresSteven above). Unlike the Middle Ages, printing has made the Bible widely available. I find little in the Psalms that is understandable with a simple reading; the more I learn about the Bible, its history, the history of the periods in which it was written, etc., the less easily understood I realize the text to be. Scripture belongs to the community, not to individuals, a proposition that profoundly clashes with the prevailing ethos in American evangelicalism.

Calvin Marshall said...

As I previously indicated, I agree that people should read the Bible in an educated manner with an eye to understanding the original sense.

If by Scripture belonging to the community one means simply that Christians should have respect to the body of Christians down through the ages who have contributed to the development of doctrine, then I would certainly agree; if on the other hand, you mean something like that Christians should accept the consensus opinion of liberal scholars (with their own presuppositions), then I would disagree and say that no Christian is obliged to accept an opinion merely because the majority of scholars adopt a certain stance. This is not to say that one should not pay attention to or intelligently examine the consensus opinions, merely that a Christian may legitimately look at the sum total of evidence on any given Biblical issue and come to a different, well-informed conclusion.

George Clifford said...

People searching for an authoritative community would do well to join the Roman Catholic Church or a highly structured evangelical group. Thankfully, the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant churches recognize that being God's people is a much messier endeavor. When I say that scripture belongs to the community, I’m not endorsing a particular interpretation but insisting that scholarly discourse should guide our search for understanding, as happens in the Jewish tradition.

Susan Tait said...

I'm not sure I agree that historical assessment is the best one anymore...

Walter Brueggemann argued in his book The Prophetic Imagination that socio-scientific analysis usefully replaces a style that's hard to authenticate historically, while Education for Ministry is still using allegory and metaphor.

All to the good: anything that helps people think critically about what they know about their God, and the culture through which they found God, supports living a full life in the love of God. What I see happening is that without an energized lay audience with some education in any of these methods, the preaching falls on deaf ears.

In a subtle way, I think history-driven criticism comes from a kind of science envy. There are matters of faith that cannot be proven, and subjecting them to proof sets up faith to be validated by science. Collins remarks in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible that William Albright and others had persistent problems with historicity from Genesis through Joshua.

My point is there is no exclusive method to adopt preferentially; Macquarrie's six sources for theological reflection perhaps comes as close as anything can to teaching critical thinking to slake the thirst from the pew. And that enables the lay Christian to hold the preaching accountable by the best thinking standards available now.

Thank you for the made me think! Blessing and peace.

George Clifford said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Historical studies, by themselves, are insufficient for interpreting scripture. Similarly, viewing scripture only as metaphor or allegory is inadequate. The problem is that the text represents a variety of materials, sources, and styles. Thus, reading scripture requires a variety of approaches.