Reading the Bible After 9/11
Second, to break us out of our hermetically sealed present, we should be trying to understand how earlier hearers or readers may have understood these words, so accessible scholarship is a must. I have several different commentaries and general studies I consult when I want greater insight into biblical language, structure, or context, and perhaps one or more of these might be of value to you. (You could, of course, also suggest new materials in your comments.)
I employ Raymond Brown's magisterial An Introduction to the New Testament as a starting point; Walter Bruggemann serves a similar role for me with Old/Hebrew Testament texts. The Interpretation commentary series from Westminster John Knox is excellent for people who write, teach, and preach; I also like the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series from Intervarsity Press for insight into how the Church Fathers read the Bible. Amy-Jill Levine gives a Jewish perspective on the Gospels which often sheds new light on passages. And N. T. Wright is a scholar respected by conservatives and progressives alike for his thoughtful and rigorous approach to the Bible; if Wright says it, you can give his conclusions serious consideration.
Reading from several different perspectives—reading a range of scholars or hearing from a variety of different times—allows me to avoid simply imposing my bears on the text. Even if I wind up where I have always been before, I've considered other interpretations and opinions held and advanced by sincere believers. Along with my book The Other Jesus, Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally and Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity are works that take the hard and holy work of interpreting the Bible seriously, but don't attempt to read it verse by verse as a Christian cookbook. That's bad reading of any text, and certainly of a work we expect to shape the way we live, think, worship, and react in a post 9/11 world.
My bishop, Andy Doyle, has made it a priority to say that people in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas should do theology. Just as with news sources, too many people get their bible interpretation and their theology from a single source, one with which they're already in agreement, when, as Bishop Doyle points out, it is the responsibility of every Christian to wrestle her or his way to a useable truth. As I wrote about Joel Osteen recently, bad theology makes for bad religion, so settling only for the theology you hear from the pulpit or your radio speaker may mean you are not living out your life of faith as you might—and perhaps should.
To think theologically is to enter into an ongoing conversation about who God is, what God wants, and how we are supposed to live. Since the Bible is not a rulebook that can be easily understood, theological reflection is what helps us determine our answers to these and other ultimate questions. I mentioned the Church Fathers above; any serious entry into this conversation should include reading those who helped to shape our beliefs today. Augustine's City of God speaks to our current situation and wrestles with the question of whether we should be more concerned with earthly or spiritual matters. Many American Christians have never read Augustine and don't even know the names of the Church Fathers, yet their work shaped Christianity and could shape us as well.
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.