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 Day 29 I wrote this:

Paul tried to make a local god universal. Unfortunately, that particular project has no relevance to my life, nestled in the high desert foothills of Idaho. As for the stories of the Bible, a collection of often profound books written by people who, like me, were looking for ways to survive in a desert climate and taking lessons in wisdom from that harsh terrain—those do have relevance for my life. Paul is a companion, a visitor from out of town. He reminds me that the local can be stagnant when not injected with new vision from time to time, and for that I extend him a hand in gratitude.

What stands out to me in re-reading this is that I didn't accept Paul's message. I was just grateful to have conversed with him. That encapsulates the problem I have with the way the Bible now operates in American culture (and probably elsewhere). It's a badge of belonging, a symbol, which makes it hard to say, "Oh hey, I've read that guy's work. I didn't agree with him, but it was a good read and I came away with some new perspective."

People, that's a perfectly legitimate way of reading the Bible. In case nobody has ever said that to you—and I was in my 20s before anyone said it to me!—it's true. You can actually read this thing, come away glad you did, and never once have to pin a gold-plated replica of it to your lapel as a badge of honor.

"It was stiffly open to Joshua 18. I left it in its place, untouched, took only this photograph." Photo courtesy of Patrick Feller.

Valuing the Bible doesn't mean agreeing with it

In my closing portrait of Paul from #30DaysofPaul, I circled around the issue of his value to me. I related to him as a human being. I even related with his struggle for legitimacy, particularly as a young person in an organization full of people with more history and therefore usually, by default, more authority than me.

Paul saw himself as both mother and father, enemy and lover of his communities. He browbeat them shamelessly. Like Moses he wanted to haul every last member stiff-necked through the wilderness to God. But he also needed them. Like Humbert Humbert and his Lolita, Paul’s legitimacy depended on his communities buying into his story. In Paul’s case, he wanted people to trust his story even where it disagreed with the story told by people with more apparent authority. Like all of us, he craved a sense of meaning and purpose that only other human beings could give. His whole identity is wrapped up in that oft-neglected web of names that float through the edges of his letters.

It's hard even to live and to function in the world without that "oft-neglected web of names" that mark who we are by where we are. I've been reading Jeffrey Robbins' new book Radical Theology, and through him I've been introduced to the work of Walter Mignolo. Mignolo invites us to ask ourselves, "what kind of knowledge, by whom, what for?" Mignolo's concern is that we not fixate on saving institutions but on saving humans when the call for salvation comes down to us. This depends an awful lot on our being aware that "without you, I'm not me."

You don't "have to" read the Bible

Bringing this back around to reading the Bible, I would suggest one thing: Let go of the idea that you "have to" read it. Look around at the people you know, the place you live, and the work you do, and ask yourself if reading the Bible makes sense in the place you're standing. Frankly, it might not. But in my case, living in a conservatively religious community in Idaho, in a country where people are building fake arks and forging gospels, with two young children whose friends talk about Bible characters and God as if they were givens, I feel compelled to read and understand these stories. More than that, I feel the need to be prepared to give short, clear opinions about Bible stories in words that my 7-year-old and 9-year-old can comprehend.

When I looked at my situation and realized that was the real reason I was reading the Bible, I was able to appreciate it again. In fact, by the time I finished reading Paul's letters, I did take away a real message from him that made a difference in my life, particularly as an adoptive parent:

Paul ... spoke of overcoming suffering through the practice of communal unity and self control, but only after first binding oneself to Jesus by ritually dying and being reborn with him. In other words, Paul believed pledging a very personal and particular allegiance to another person—building a deep and abiding relationship with another person—could invoke a special power to overcome suffering. That special power then enabled individuals to bond with others.

Paul and I disagreed on two points: (1) I don't think the deep and abiding relationship has to be with Jesus but rather with anyone who inspires us to be our best selves. (2) I don't think a commitment to self-control has to fixate on sexual behavior when many of us struggle with other things, like food. And that's fine. Paul and I can disagree, and I'm in no way devaluing Paul's writing in doing so.

I think this can be true of the Bible in general. To offer an extreme example, I can hate the fact that babies die in the Bible because of adults' moral failures. At the same time I can look around at the world and acknowledge that babies are still dying because of adults' moral failures. Then I can have some compassion for the fact that somebody felt the need to write about that issue in the Bible on a few occasions. Importantly, I'm not going to jump from a story about somebody's local god approving of revenge to then universalize that story to all references to God in all places in all eras after that. That would be silly ... if it weren't so dangerous.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. 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.

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1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Cassandra,

    I particularly identified with your comments about Paul, “I was just grateful to have conversed with him,” and “Paul believed pledging a very personal and particular allegiance to another person…could invoke a special power…”

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