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.
Harvard 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:
- Read the text as a story, fully absorbed in the drama and emotions as with any literary work.
- Become an amateur detective of history and uncover the “who, when, where and why” of a text.
- 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 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.