No sooner had I posted guideline number one than I saw this comment in Richard Rohr’s daily musings:
The sacred texts of the Bible are filled with absolute breakthroughs, epiphanies, and manifestations of the highest level of encounter, conversion, transformation, and Spirit. The Bible also contains texts which are punitive, petty, tribal, and idiotic. A person can prove anything he or she wants from a single line of the Bible. To tell you the truth, the Bible says just about everything you might want to hear—somewhere! This is a sad and humiliating recognition. But you can relearn your way of reading Scripture in a prayerful, calm, skillful, and mature way. Then you can hear with head and heart and Spirit working as one, and not just a search for quick answers.
Breakthroughs, epiphanies, encounter, conversion, transformation.
This Biblephile likes those descriptions.
Punitive, petty, tribal, idiotic.
Those are harder to swallow. But because I am a Biblephile, I have to own those for this Library as well – perhaps adding to the list violent, bloody, confusing, baffling, disturbing. Oddly enough, for me, that’s why it’s good news. The Divine is manifested not on sublime and pristine fields but in the muck of humanity. God remains the God of Jacob – the God of the selfish, insecure, flawed human being who keeps reaching and struggling. Which means he meets me.
It’s also why we’ve had such a cacophony of interpretations and applications. Unspiritual readers have done and are doing very unspiritual things with the darker hues of this Library – or, worse, bending the light of the brighter ones. Which means people like me have been visiting this room. Using the Library as a quick answer service not only doesn’t help, it’s a huge part of the problem. We must relearn how to read. Just because we quote the Book doesn’t mean we are taking it seriously. With Rafiki we must look harder.
So here are the remaining guidelines from the Jude sermon that now seems like ages ago. Let’s illustrate these guidelines using our own past controversial issue of slavery. Proslavery believers during the 19th century in this country made a biblical case for slavery employing many biblical texts – Old Testament and New – that seemed to support the institution. Abolitionist believers argued their own case from the same ancient Library.
It’s instructive to compare the two approaches and see what guidelines for healthy reading emerge:
First, abolitionists valued the general over the specific, the Big Picture over little pieces. The proslavery hermeneutic pointed to legislation regulating slavery in Exodus and Leviticus as well as New Testament counsel to slaves in Ephesians and Colossians, all as evidence that “God sees this as the natural order of things.” For abolitionists, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this is the law and prophets,” carried far more weight as well as revealing the impelling direction of the Story. Which leads to the next guideline in our relearning how to read:
In looking for the Big Picture they couldn’t help but see the unfolding Story; they read narratively. It’s not a matter of quoting verses, of building a case. Anyone can do that, and everyone does. It’s a matter of seeing the Story and where it’s heading. The Story traces the path of humanity through a violent and troubled infancy when we were “under the ABC’s of world religion” with it’s primitive rules and rituals that were more about survival than transformation. The Story leads us to expect the transformation, to look for a rising standard of ethics, a challenge to love more deeply, more profoundly – a love that undermines and redefines our systems, overturning the tables of our religious, economic, cultural and political systems rather than endorsing them.
At the heart of this Grand Story, this Epic, is Jesus. They thus read the Bible Christocentrically. I like to illustrate this by holding a Bible up first by the Old Testament: Moses and law is then the high point that defines all else that follows. Then I hold it up by the latter part of the New Testament: the theology of the Epistles and the violent imagery of the book of Revelation now becomes the definitive vantage point from which all else is understood. Finally I hold it up, my hand underneath, the spine of the Bible pointing up with the rest flowing from it, to the right and to the left. The spine is Jesus. He is the ultimate vantage point from which we understand both Moses and Paul. The four Gospels form the heart of this Library. Everything flows from that Center. In the Old Testament, Moses only saw the backside of God; in Jesus we see God’s face. The words of Jesus in Luke have more weight than the words of Moses in Leviticus – or better, they provide us with the means of finally getting Leviticus.
Finally, they read the Bible relationally as a Library of Love, ultimately, rather than analytically as a Repository of Rules. This leads us to ask not simply “What does the Bible have to say about slavery?” or “Is slavery permissable to a law-giving God?” But rather is slavery desirable to a God who loves slaves along with the widow and the orphan – the God who first revealed himself, in fact, to a nation of slaves in the defining action of freeing them from their bondage?
So there you go. As I say at the conclusion of each book review I write: Take and read.
Or better, this Library is a door that is intended to be a portal to a journey, that is intended to be used, to be walked through – rather than to keep us locked up in a room as a holy, decorative brick in the wall. Use the door. Take the journey.
But then, it’s a dangerous business, going out your door…