How Should we Study the Bible?

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I have recently been working on creating an interfaith and interdisciplinary study Bible with the goal of broadening our approach to the good book. The project would allow readers to gather any relevant video, literature, art, music, et cetera, around passages of scriptures—anything from graffiti to Talmudic commentary. I began the project because I believed and still believe it could be an important step in interfaith dialogue as well as a way to revitalize the Bible from what I believe may be a tragedy of our time: the division of the spiritual and secular worlds. For a thousand years the Bible has been at the center of life, culture, education, art, philosophy, and science. It inspired Dante, Spencer, Milton, Wordsworth, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky to name just a few authors. But now it is increasingly becoming a shield situated between the spiritual self and that dreaded secularization—or the world outside of religion. While this bifurcation helps to maintain Christian identity, I’m not convinced it is the most productive use of scripture. I would rather the Bible be sung and discussed, quoted and painted, depicted and debated rather than relegated into a corner and forgotten.

In the process of designing this project, I’ve met with friends of various faiths and received some interesting feedback and even some resistance to the idea. The most prevalent concern is of course a fear that divergent opinions will be ridiculed. We have done much to address this concern.[i] The second most common concern is that this study Bible might actually confuse people rather than bring clarity. This is a legitimate concern. The traditional study Bible, for the most part, like the traditional encyclopedia, is meant to bring brief transparency to a topic or passage rather than introducing alternatives or new ways of looking at it—people purchase a study aid to elucidate rather than complicate.

Because I sincerely don’t want to mislead people, I have had to ask myself, is this what we ought to be doing in our studies? Is our goal, first and foremost, to understand the Bible in some proper way? If so, I am doing a terrible thing by creating an interfaith study Bible that will forever be introducing alternatives. However, after some consideration, I do not believe that clarity is the Bible’s primary purpose.

As an extension of this belief, I do not believe that a diligent and honest study of the Bible by an unbiased reader would necessarily lead them to the one true Biblical theology. If you asked me to defend this, I might simply point out that Augustine was Catholic, T.S. Eliot was Anglican, and Hugh Nibley was Mormon. Every significant religion has had incredibly smart adherents—as smart as they come. This may seem disheartening or even unfaithful. If I do not believe the Bible will lead its reader to a specific doctrine or denomination then what is its purpose?

Before I answer that question head on, let me say that it is tragic when we read the Bible only to receive an affirmation of what we already believe. How could this be its purpose? The Bible is full of kings, nations, prophets, and even a God that is so foreign to the world we know and understand; it ought to cause us to occasionally question our assumptions. The reading of the Bible ought to, at least occasionally, surprise us. And, for what it’s worth, the joys of scripture study I find most potent are the moments of surprise. The kind of surprise I am talking about is similar to the element necessary in that most noble act of tickling. It is practically impossible to tickle oneself, but when someone else moves separate from our own will, unbeknownst and unannounced by our desires, it is often enough to make us laugh. It is this sort of foreign movement (surprise) that creates laughter, humor, love, and I am suggesting a joyful relationship with scripture as well.

The Bible places us in an estuary of familiarity and surprise and does not expect us to come out unchanged. But when we sail over the Bible like it is a road to wherever we want to go or like it is an encyclopedia from which to draw a particular passage in order to prove a particular belief, we lose the ability to be surprised by it and perhaps the very joy of reading.

Instead we hunt through its pages—like we were hunting Moby Dick—harpoons in hand, our eyes scanning the horizon for the mist issued from the whale’s spout, something in which to anchor our harpoon, some affirmation of our belief system. It is not necessarily wrong to pursue the metaphorical “whale;” the tragedy is when the pursuit of the whale becomes an attempt at conquering and killing the whale. Then the whale is no longer able to dive again into the fathomless ocean and return with new splendor, swimming new waters, pursued by new ships. I only suggest that rather than killing the whale we might be enamored by it.

Let me be clear, to suggest that the Bible does not prove any particular theology is not to say that it does not lead people to truth. More importantly, it leads people to faith. And the primary object of faith should never be doctrine or theology: to make doctrine or theology the primary object of faith is, in the Bible’s own terms, an act of idolatry. Faith is not centered in doctrinal systems, but in something less tame and more mysterious, something encountered, for example, in the experience of beauty.

I believe the Bible can be an extra-doctrinal experience. That is to say, beyond doctrine. It can be an aesthetic encounter, a spiritual challenge, an intellectual feast, a cultural experience. It can leave us bereft, exalted, enamored. In the Bible is more than a crystal structure of truth; there is a living, artistic vibrancy. If we look intently into those pages we might see more than our beliefs reflected back. We might even catch a glimpse of that supreme wonder, that unexplained happening, the living Word himself. At least that’s my hope and one of the goals behind my project.

Footnotes:

[i] We have addressed this concern by giving users the right to approve any comment they receive before it is publically visible and if necessary to block someone from commenting on their post again. More can be found on our Kickstarter page: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1295253479/everyword

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