Friday, June 17, 2016

Are We Reading the Bible Right?

Last week I came across this op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times:

You’re Reading the Bible Wrong  by Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel

Needless to say, my interest was piqued.  After all, week after week I spend all this time with our Sunday readings so that we can aptly apply their lessons to our weekly Adult Faith Formation and RCIA sessions, which gives all our candidates some insights into our faith.

But let's be honest... The Bible is a difficult book, on so many levels.  Yet it is this collection of sacred writings that form one of the primary pillars of our Catholic faith.  Scripture on one side, Tradition (our lived experience inspired by the Holy Spirit) on the other.  We are constantly encouraged to read it... told that we should read it, but are given little guidance on how to read it.  So how should we approach it?

As the authors of the op-ed suggest, when we view the Bible strictly as "The Word of God," it can create problems for us, not the least of which makes it somewhat unapproachable (like the ancient Israelites, so afraid of the voice of God that they asked Moses to do all the talking for them.  And to a certain extent, our Liturgical presentation of the The Word doesn't help... We call it "The Word of the Lord," and shroud it with a reverence that can often lead us to misunderstand what it's trying to teach us.

Many of you are probably familiar with the bumper-sticker that says "God said it, I believe it, that's the end of it."  It comes from a very fundamentalist understanding of the Bible that lead our more evangelical brothers and sisters in the wrong direction.  We Catholics, as well as many other Christians, not to mention those Jews and Muslims who also consider this to be sacred scripture, understand that everything written in the Bible needs to be viewed in context.  That is, if we are to truly understand what these books are saying, we also need to understand what they said to those who first wrote them and read them.  Have you ever wondered why Catholic Bibles have so many footnotes?  It's because our Church fathers and elders want us to understand the context of what you're reading.  It helps us to put it all in perspective.

The authors of this Times Op-Ed say we should approach the Bible as "humanity's diary."  It's an interesting perspective.  I often tell our Adult Formation groups that the easiest way to understand the Bible is to see it not so much as "the Word of God," but as "a peoples experience of God."  It reminds us that God's words and wisdom and love are expressed through us... it's flawed, human scribes.  And those scribes are not without bias.

This understanding helps us to sift the necessary truths the stories are trying to teach from the day-to-day customs that while valid for their time, may not be so now.  This is where our second pillar, tradition, comes into play.  The book of Exodus tells me I may sell my daughter into slavery to pay my debts, but the very thought of this today is met with revulsion, and rightly so.  This is because the Holy Spirit has taught us that to do so would be a violation of the love we are meant to bestow on each other as equals.  Time, knowledge, and perspective give us new insight.  While it may contradict scripture, it doesn't diminish the truth scripture is trying to teach (which in the case of this passage from Exodus 21, the master must treat her with the inherent dignity she is owed).

There are few wrong ways to read the Bible.  Likewise, there is no one right way to read the Bible.  There are in fact, many different ways to read the Bible, all of them valid.  Don't lock yourself into one particular way of thinking when you approach the text.  Most importantly, however, is that we need to actually READ it, not just leave it on a shelf to collect dust.

How do you start? Most assume you start at the first page, aptly starting with, "In the beginning...".  Genesis is perhaps one of the most difficult books to start with. Try this... Start with the readings from Sunday Mass. The Lectionary was designed to make Scripture approachable. Take the Gospel for the week, and read that passage. If you're feeling eager, read the whole chapter so you can see the action surrounding the Gospel passage. When you've got some time, pick one of the Gospels and read it in its entirety. When you've finished that, read it again, but this time read the footnotes and flip over to the other referenced passages (the Bible is full of cross-references, because all the authors borrowed from one another, and Jesus commonly quotes Isaiah and other prophets.).
Still feel challenged, how about joining our Bible Study group. Yes, I think too many of us read the Bible the wrong way. That's why it's important to connect with people who know how to read it and can help guide you through it. I think you will see that much of it is still relevant to us today.

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