Why Read the Bible?

Why read the Bible, especially if, like me, you don’t necessarily see yourself as Christian? I went through a spell recently where I wondered (again) why I bothered, so I revisited my notes from the final days of last year’s #30DaysofPaul challenge. After an intense month of reading Paul’s letters in chronological order for the first time, on […]

How to Read the Bible: A Review

Sullied by unjust and even hateful usage over the years, the Bible is a book under fire. “Look at all the ignorance and cruelty in these pages,” cry its critics, with plenty of evidence at hand to prove their point. “The Bible kills our babies (real and figurative) and never apologizes for it!”

To read the Bible, to like it, to care for it have become reasons to blush. Too many awkward conversations result from cracking it open in public. One feels the urge to fold brown paper over the cover before carrying it onto trains, planes, and buses. At the very least, it seems prudent to carry it with another book, preferably something like David Sedaris’ Let’s Talk about Diabetes with Owls—anything that suggests you are not a closed-minded bigot.

I promise this is not the opening gambit in a missionary’s spiel. I’m not here to tell you to get right with God, but I am rethinking my relationship with the collected legends, poetry, proverbs, letters, and stories that were so dear to me before my college religious studies courses left me feeling betrayed by them. It turns out Moses never parted the Red Sea, we know next to nothing about the historical Jesus, and Paul probably didn’t write Ephesians, one of my favorite books of the Bible.

I’m grateful to my teachers for trusting in my intelligence, but oh man, what a letdown.

I ended up swapping my love of the Bible for a love of the history of the Bible. I did feel it was necessary to choose. And from day one of Elementary Hebrew, did I ever fall madly in love with the history of the Bible! It was love of the sort that put me in the company of Marianne Dashwood from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I was pretty sure it would kill me. Melodramatic? Yes. But you have to understand that I read the Bible all the time. Even the smallest helping of the history behind it was like leaning too far over deep water.

How to Read the BibleHarvard professor Harvey Cox knows the feeling. In his new book How to Read the Bible, he uses the word “vivisection” to describe that dreadful but wonderful awakening. For better or for worse, I happen to own a book on the history of medical experimentation. The authors couldn’t help themselves; they filled their rather slim volume with enough vintage sketches of vivisection to shock unsuspecting readers by the page. Crowds of onlookers stare with expressions somewhere between lust and horror as, on a stage fitted with an operating table and a rack of what look like the instruments of torture rather than healing, doctors cut open live dogs, pigs, and even human criminals, all in the pursuit of scientific truth. If I was Marianne Dashwood, it seems Harvey Cox was the pale attendant looking over the doctor’s shoulder.

Thankfully, the story does not end here. The Bible need not remain the condemned criminal and untrue lover in our newly dystopian state. There is hope. Cox draws upon a lifetime of study to assure us that it’s okay to still be moved by the Bible. The Bible can survive our scrutiny. We can read it with care and common sense at the same time.

To accomplish this, Cox modifies the guidance he received long ago from his friend and colleague, the late Krister Stendahl. Stendahl taught Cox to take a two-pronged approach to the Bible.

The two great questions about any Bible passage are, “What did it mean then?” and “What does it mean now?” … The “What did it mean then?” obviously fell in the realm of biblical studies. The “What does it mean now?” question belongs to Bible study, preaching, and spiritual formation.

As Cox tried to put this into practice, he found it was never so tidy. The two questions tangled and tussled and never quite stayed apart. “More and more today,” he tells us, “thoughtful historians, including those in biblical studies, know that complete ‘objectivity’ was never obtainable and was always probably undesirable.” In place of that, he encourages us to read with “a candid awareness of one’s personal objective.” We read for a reason, not the reason.

How do we do this? Cox advises us to read in three stages:

  1. Read the text as a story, fully absorbed in the drama and emotions as with any literary work.
  2. Become an amateur detective of history and uncover the “who, when, where and why” of a text.
  3. Engage the text in a spiritual “no holds barred wrestling match.” Be ready to change but willing to argue with what you find.

Throughout the book Cox shows readers, over and over again, how this approach can enrich our reading of the Bible. I found the chapter on Job especially moving, not to mention startlingly relevant to my life.

Has Cox convinced me to read my Bible in public again? Yes, I believe he has. I have been reminded of what it was like to relate with the people of Bible—in the stories, behind them, around them. I feel I have been given tacit permission to talk about both what I cherish and what goads me.

One thing I will not do: oversimplify.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

30 Days of Paul Reading Challenge

Letters of Paul small squareEarlier this week I posted a 30-day plan for how to read the letters of Paul in chronological order. Several thousand visits and a ton of Facebook comments later, you’ve let me know you’re ready for the challenge!

Starting July 1st, I challenge you to read with me the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, and Romans. I’ll be posting a daily response on the Westar sister site 30 Days of Paul and sharing responses from others as well. Ready to go? Click here to get started.

Why these 7 letters? The so-called undisputed letters are the ones that most biblical studies scholars agree were written by Paul. They remain our best bet for understanding Paul, and they represent the earliest written evidence we have from the Jesus movement.

How to Participate in 30 Days of Paul

  • Choose your favorite translation of Paul.
    I vote for this one, which inspired the 30-day challenge.
  • Starting July 1st, read the 7 undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days:
    1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans
  • Write, draw, or record a response daily or weekly—on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like.
  • Tag your response with #30daysofPaul to share it with others.

I’ll be following the reading plan I shared earlier this week, which is in rough chronological order based on The Authentic Letters of Paul. You’re welcome to simply follow along or try another reading plan and compare notes. Here’s a PDF version for easy downloading and printing.

Why Read Paul?

I’m currently reading How to Read the Bible by Harvey Cox, one of two outstanding guest lecturers we have lined up for the Fall 2015 national meeting in Atlanta. It’s absolutely the perfect lead-up to this challenge. Cox urges us as readers not to aim to be big-O Objective—that is, completely neutral to the point of turning a blind eye to our personal stakes in reading the Bible. Rather, we should ask ourselves what our little-o objective is in reading this particular text.

To paraphrase him slightly, we need to have a sense not merely of what we’re reading about but of what we’re reading for.

So why read Paul? What’s your objective? When I first read Cox’s advice, it occurred to me that my objective even after many years away the evangelical-conservative world of my childhood has often been to read “to prove the Bible still matters” or “to find a better/more legitimate reading than the evangelical one,” or some variant of the two. That’s not really how I want to read Paul’s letters this time through. What other options are there? Here are a few I’ve brainstormed, to which you no doubt could add more:

Moral-ethical readings

  • What was Paul’s ethic? What sort of person is Paul calling for me to be? What does it mean to, as he says, love “extravagantly”?
  • Does Paul shed light on any modern moral issues? Was Paul a friend to women or not? Did Paul condone slavery? Does it matter?
  • How would I resolve the moral problems Paul faces with individual communities? If I could pick up a pen and write a letter to Paul, how would I answer him?
  • How might we revise his ethics for today?

Artistic-creative readings:

  • Respond to Paul not with argument but intuitively through poetry, fiction, drawing.
  • Laugh! Answer Paul with humor!
  • Put on Paul’s persona and pen a letter inspired by him to another community, real or imagined. Maybe it will help us empathize with the writers who actually did this in the earliest centuries of the Jesus movement.
  • Try reading a passage aloud, putting the weight on different words or using different emotions.
  • Put on the persona of someone who disagreed with Paul.

Historical-inquisitive readings:

  • How was I taught to read and understand Paul? Is that the Paul I’m finding here?
  • Who were Paul’s interlocutors? Can we reconstruct the people on the other side of the letter—agents of the empire, other Jesus followers whose mission was different, the communities themselves, the diverse factions within the communities?
  • What sort of place was Thessalonika, Corinth, Rome, in this time period? How did one travel in the Roman Empire? How did assemblies gather, and what did they do when they were together?
  • How do Paul’s own words compare with what others claimed about him elsewhere, especially in the book of Acts and the Acts of Paul and Thecla? How did writers outside the Bible interpret Paul? Can I see the roots of those interpretations in these early materials?

Spiritual readings:

  • What sort of relationship did Paul have with God? What sort of language did he use to describe God?
  • What did Paul mean when he described communities as “belonging to Jesus”?
  • How does reading Paul with the backdrop of Israel and Israel’s God affect my picture of his spiritual situation?
  • How do Paul’s words feed into my own spiritual longings and situation? Do I have a calling as Paul so strongly felt he did?
  • Must a calling be so all-encompassing as Paul experienced it? Is there ever an occasion when I would declare a particular message “good news” and feel it must be shared with others? Is “evangelizing” in this way always wrong?
  • How do Paul’s diverse, complicated relationships with his communities awaken my own longings and fears in the relationships in my life?

Letters of Paul large squareBy the way, maybe you already know this, but I want to emphasize that it’s okay to disagree with Paul. You don’t have to take him as an authority; he was human like you and me, and he no doubt made mistakes.

As I re-read this list, I find that there remains a rich conversation to be had around these ancient letters. Over the next couple weeks I’ll share more inspiration from Harvey Cox to get us all in the right frame of mind. So be sure to pick up your copy of Paul’s letters in the meantime and grab a couple friends to join you for extra motivation. July 1st is just around the corner! Go to the 30 Days of Paul site to get started!

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Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.