For many people today, there are only two ways to read the Bible: either God’s recipe book with instructions for every aspect of life or a bizarre fragment of legend totally out of touch with the real world. But the Bible need not be ripped between these two poles. There is another way of reading scripture, a way truer to the original writers and fully useful for us living now.
The first part of this way I call Holy Stuff. When you read a good novel or a poem, you can find an entire world in which you travel with your mind. Often when writers talk about what they do, they speak of their writing as having a kind of life of its own. It is as if, by placing words and ideas and characters together, the writer is “playing” with hot coals and something is bound to catch fire. Art and music and film can catch fire, too, but here we are talking about writing because the Bible is written art. Good writers sense this fire or spirit (this Holy Stuff) in their writing, and they work to listen and follow it.
The Bible is not one book but a collection of many books, some of them edited and re-edited over the centuries before the books were collected and set in what we now know as the Bible. To say that the Bible is divine is to say that it is good writing in the sense that the writers who wrote it recognized they were dealing in Holy Stuff. They listened and tried to remain true to the Spirit animating their language. They did not hear this as a Big-Bearded-Man-in-the-Clouds telling them what to write, but they did know they were enflamed. They saw that language is a powerful human tool because it has a life of its own and this life comes from beyond us and can speak things to us we cannot think on our own.
The second part of this way of reading I call Family Listening. The writers of the Bible’s books always wrote or told their stories and poems and letters for other people and almost always for people they loved as family. They were not enjoying writing or telling stories simply for their own pleasure or for money, but they were helping their family and community get into that Holy Stuff and listen for what it said to them in their day. Many who read the Bible today do so in solitude, but it was not written for being alone. It was written for people who were trying to live together and know peace together. We should still read it as Family Listening.
There are many other parts to this way of reading the Bible. For instance, sciences such as history, anthropology, and others can help us better understand the way of life centuries ago for those who wrote and heard the Bible when it was written. This can help us better discern what it really meant to them and thus what it means for us. But of all the many parts, the two parts most important for how to read the Bible are: Holy Stuff and Family Listening. A message beyond our own thinking is offered to us who must hear and live it in a community.
The Rev. Buff Grace is rector at The Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Stillwater.