Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Reading the Bible

Coming to terms with what sounds like a simple act.

The Mindset of the Act.

I don't think there have been many days since I learned to read that I haven't read the Bible. I've gone through times of extreme discipline where I read a certain amount every day, usually to accomplish some goal. I try to start off every year and every semester by reading through the Bible pretty quickly in this way: just going in the order by page, chapter by chapter, book by book, until I'm done. I'm a pretty fast reader, so I figure I go through the Bible this way a few times a year.

I've gone through other times where I barely even pick it up.

Usually, most days, there's something in between.

Generally, for me, I'm thinking about something. I remember a verse or a portion of a verse that I think applies and I use my phone's concordance to look it up. I get the context of the verse, look through cross-references, think some more, and look up other verses in the same way as my train of thought goes. It's not the most systematic way of "reading the Bible," but it means I probably spend anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours reading the Bible and thinking about it. Sometimes I spend more time reading. Sometimes I spend more time thinking. It's not very disciplined, but that's how I do it.

This blog, however, isn't about the physical act of reading the Bible. It's about the mindset of the act. It's, in terms we rhetoricians use, how we approach the text. It's something that I think about a lot, but I've been thinking about it more lately.

I teach in the humanities department and the upcoming chair and I have discussed the possibility of me teaching a New Testament Survey class. It's in the catalog and generally does pretty well. I'd like to try it. As I've thought about it, I've considered a few things. What ancillary texts would I bring in? How would I guide discussions? What papers would I consider? What would I allow? These questions have made me think about the ways I approach the text and the ways other people approach the text, or hermeneutics.

Approaching the Text as a True Believer (mysticism).

One way to approach the text of the Bible is simply as a true believer. I am a believer, so often (but definitely not always) this is my approach. When read in this way, issues like historical context, translation, and sometimes even the context of a particular portion to other portions around it are ignored. Reading the Bible is a mystical experience in which one connects with God. It is read in conjunction with His Holy Spirit and verses are brought to life and provide insight on particular contexts within one's own life.

It's a really cool way to read the Bible, and it is advocated in the Bible itself:
"And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (II Peter 1:19-21).
So, it is a good way to read the scripture. The interpretation is given, not through contemplation or private interpretation, or studying context, but through an active work of prophesy brought about by the mystical act of interacting with the Word of God.

Like much in mysticism, it's beautiful and mysterious and hard to articulate in tangible terms. I certainly would accept papers that incorporate such a reading, so long as it was incorporated along side and with evidence from one of the other methods It is also not the only way of reading scripture nor is it even the only way that the Bible itself advocates.

Approaching the Text as Theology

Another way that I approach the text of the scripture is theologically. Approaching the text theologically is seeing the text as an argument, or series of arguments about the nature of God and the relationship of other things, including people to Him. Theology is not apologetics (that's historical or philosophical and we'll get to it later). It doesn't try to prove there is a God. It assumes that there is one and tries to logically derive information about that Divinity.

There are different ways that the Bible can be used in this way.

Rhetorical Theology:

I don't know if anyone else refers to this method as rhetorical theology, or if there is another term for it I don't know, but basically, it looks at the text as a coherent argument about the nature of God in and of itself. While I can't think of a place where this is expressly advocated in Scripture, there are lots of places where one scripture refers to another as evidence to the nature of God. In several of the gospels (although I'll use the example from Mark) Jesus engages in this kind of use of scripture to discuss the nature of God:
"Jesus said to them, 'Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong'" (Mark 12:24-27)

So, if Jesus used this method of approaching scripture, most true believers shouldn't have a problem with it either. But atheists or those coming from other theistic systems should also feel comfortable reading the Bible in this way. It is an argument about the nature of God, an argument that an auditor can accept or reject or even reject a part of.

Systematic Theology:

Systematic theology is a means for arguing about the nature of God which can take scripture as its premises and incorporate arguments from other sources in order for the writer to make his or her own arguments about the nature of God. Although I believe the scriptures are rife with systematic theology, it is a little difficult to prove it. The problem is that when premises outside of scripture are used for arguments within scripture, then they become scripture. Thus the theology is no longer systematic but what I previously called rhetorical. An assumption has to be made that the source texts could have been used whether they were used or not. Once that assumption has been made, it is easy to find examples of systematic theology within scripture, the most well known example being Paul's argument to the Athenians at Mars Hill:
"So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’" (Acts 17:22-28)
Arguments here come from multiple sources, those accepted as scripture and those from pagan poets to whom Paul is referring. Scripture is used as a premise of an argument about the nature of God, but only as one of several premises.

Either rhetorical or systematic theology are hardly the only acceptable ways to read the text.

The Bible as Moral Philosophy

The Bible can also be seen as a work, or collection of works, that contain arguments about how we should live our lives. In this way, the Bible can be read alongside the works of Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Hume, Locke, Rawls, and Nietzsche as making arguments for certain thought patterns and resulting behavior. Moral Philosophy assumes that right and wrong, if they exist at all, are logically derived and that by logically approaching these questions, one can arrive at answers for what it means to think and be good in the world.

Most moral philosophy does not claim to be creating something new, but rather to be guiding the reader's thoughts toward a particular goal at which the reader, if she or he had been thinking properly, would have arrived on their own if they really thought things through. It takes the reader carefully from premise to premise, or from narrative to narrative, to show that particular right thoughts and actions are manifest.

The Bible advocates its use as a means of moral philosophy in a number of situations. First of all, the Bible argues that the moral philosophy it advocates stands alone as a morality outside of itself. The morality is knowable by without the Bible and that the Bible merely provides a road-map, so to speak, of a morality already known:
"For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Romans 2:14-15).
Of course, the Bible still claims that it is useful as a road-map to arrive at moral thoughts: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (I Timothy 3:16). To approach the Bible looking for the right way to live and arguments for right living is an appropriate way to read the text, but certainly not the only appropriate way.

Philosophical apologetic is a common approach to using the Bible as moral philosophy. Ravi Zacharias is well known for taking his listeners through a serious of premises logically, with little reference to scripture, and then showing how that logical conclusion is also in the Bible. From that, he asks his auditors to consider that perhaps other portions of the Bible are likely equally important.

Historical Approaches to the Bible.

There is also a way of using the Bible as a historical text. Seeing the Bible as history and reading it to gain insight.

The Bible as History

All historians of the first century Mediterranean world see the New Testament as a primary text. The Bible as a whole is a wonderful tool for getting a glimpses of a time and a place that was very different than our time, but that has a profound effect on us. Some of the authors of the Bible clearly expected their work to have historic significance and even saw themselves as writing the history of their day:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-4).
There are a few ways this is done.

The Bible in History

Using the Bible to Illuminate History

There are two primary ways that people try to place the Bible in history. One is to try to use extra-biblical historical sources in order to clarify certain passages. By knowing the facts about the Roman government, or the Alexandrian conquest of Palestine, for instance one can better understand what it means to "walk the extra mile" or the relationship between Pilot and Herod, or even why the New Testament was written in Greek. All of this adds a richness and clarity to the text. 

Personally, my study of classical rhetoric and the Greco-Roman culture in which both rhetoric and the Bible came into being have mutually influenced each other productively. Knowing how and why certain things were done helps me understand both. So, I approach the Bible this way a lot.

Using the Bible and History to Question Each other

Another way of placing the Bible in history is a Marxist influence coming from a discipline that really caught on in the 1980's and 1990's called New Historicism. This way of looking at the Bible assumes that a great deal of its influence comes from the fact that its interpretation was to the advantage of certain people, especially the Christian emperors of the late Roman Empire and subsequent regimes who have used the Bible to prop up their power.

This second method has heavily influenced the writers of groups such as the Jesus Seminar and other cultural critics who are looking for the "historical" Jesus or the "historical" Paul rather than the Jesus or Paul presented in the narrative of the scriptures. 

I have personal problems with this methodology, not just in Scripture but in the reading of other texts. "The Hermenuetic of Suspicion," as  Paul Ricoeur calls his methodology, of which New Historicism is a derivative, assumes the worst of every author. It relies on Marx and his notion of ideology to the point that it questions whether anything can exist outside of its ideology, even itself. It reduces the value of all texts to mere artifacts of an economic power with little to teach us.

Still, I have to admit that this is the current trend in Biblical studies. The Ivy League theological schools are full of these scholars and the scholarship they do is very, very good. It has provided profound insight into the power-structures of the first five centuries of  the Mediterranean and helped us know a great deal about the power structures that have produced us. So, while I would never approach the Bible or any other text using this method exclusively, I'd need to teach it to my students if I were to teach a course on the subject.

Using History to "Prove" the Bible

Sometimes, people use external histories to verify portions of the Bible. This is another branch of apologetic: where people try to show that the Bible is factual by pointing to external sources. Often this is the point of using external sources when looking at the Bible. Certainly, it works to an extent. If one assumes that because something is generally factual some particular part is also factual, history proves the Bible. Unfortunately, those portions of the Bible that are the most contentious are the least likely to leave an external historical record.

The Bible as Literature

Finally, the Bible can be approached as one of the greatest works of literature or collections of works of literature of all time. Whether one is a believer, an atheist, or a member of another religion, it doesn't take much time perusing the Bible to find that the Good Book is, in fact, a good book. It is filled with a variety of stories, essays, poems, and speeches. It is an amazing piece.

I remember the first time I got "lost" in the Bible. I was attending a Christian school where we were largely self-paced, so seeing a student reading the Bible was not something any adult would have interfered, although they should have that day. One of the texts asked me to read something from 1st Samuel and I got so into the story of David that I totally blew the entire day. I ended up having to take everything home for homework. I was 14 and I loved a good adventure story. Most of my free time was caught up in stories of swords and magic. I hadn't mean to spend five hours reading the Bible, but I did. As I closed the pages on an ancient David and being given Abishag to keep him warm, and at last he died, I was satisfied. It was a great story. Then I looked at the clock and whispered a word that was not allowed at my school when I realized I'd "wasted" the entire day.

There are so many really great stories like that in the Bible, but not just stories. When I realize I haven't read much in the Bible, my go-to is the Book of Psalms or Ecclesiastes. They are both so mournful. I love poetry, but bitter-sweet is my favorite flavor. Most of the time, when I am thinking about the Bible and end up reading the Bible though, it is the doctrinal books of the New Testament. Cogent, coherent, beautiful essays, written in the forms of letters (which gives a personal, rhetorical touch) move me . . . Romans 7. When you're frustrated with yourself, like I am all the time, read Romans 7. He gets me. He speaks to what it is to be human. That is good, flippin' writing right there. Or Galations 3. Isn't that perfect! Doesn't that just perfectly capture trying to be a good person and knowing you can't be good enough and that even trying isn't how you do it? And look at that little bit in the middle of 3, verses 15-22, It looks like Paul can get lost in a good story of the Bible too. 

Reading the Bible as literature is a great way to think through plot, genre, purpose, setting, verbal style, and audience. It is really good stuff.

It's All Okay

So, how will I teach the New Testament. Who knows. We're more than a year out from me teaching that class if I ever do. Still, it is something to consider. And something with which I am still coming to terms. 

No comments:

Post a Comment