Yesterday a person who’s attending the Christian mysticism event in Portland wrote to me and said:
A question just occurred to me … for a few reasons (one being paralyzing fear about End Times) I haven’t been reading the Bible in the last few years. I was taught to read and interpret in a very unhealthy, fearful way. I had to disconnect myself from it for a while but I’d like very much to reintroduce myself to the Bible and begin reading with new eyes and my new heart.
What a great question, and one that I think many people drawn to the contemplative life wrestle with. After all, the Christian tradition pretty much universally acknowledges the Bible as the “Word of God,” and yet there is much in the Bible that, in the words of the scholar Phyllis Trible, constitute “texts of terror.” Language of God’s wrath, of God allowing or even mandating war, rhetoric of violence against one’s enemies (see Psalm 137:9 for a particularly disturbing image), sexism, the rejection of homosexuality (or of sexuality in general), and finally, the horrifying condemnation of everyone whose “name was not found written in the book of life” by being thrown alive in to a lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).
What are we to make of all this?
Clearly, the way we approach this text of the “Word of God” will determine the shape and tenor of our experience reading it. What is interesting is that the insistence on reading the text only literally is a peculiarly modernist phenomenon. Some of the earliest contemplatives of the church — for example, Origen of Alexandria, who lived ca. 185-254 CE — acknowledged that the body of scripture consisted of different literary styles, and different writings that often had to be read in multiple ways: literally or historically, but also symbolically, allegorically, ethically, or mystically — discerning the “hidden” meaning of scripture.
If someone 1800 years ago could figure out that the Bible is too important to be taken just literally, then we here in the third millennium have an obligation to read the text only in the light of the best scholarship, the most discerning commentary, and with a clear understanding of the heart of our faith — that the message of Jesus is one of love, not fear; of forgiveness, not violence; of community, not layers of privilege. Therefore, when we encounter texts that seem to be about such things as violence or privilege or the rejection of the body or the feminine, we have an obligation to weigh those texts in the light of the core Biblical messages such as “Be not afraid” (John 6:20), “Perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18), “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) and “My peace I leave with you” (John 14:27).
Those are just a few initial thoughts (and probably enough to get me in trouble with those who would rather worship the Bible than God!). Let me refer you to a couple of books that I have found helpful in my journey toward a contemplative understanding of scripture:
Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time uses the catchline “taking the Bible seriously but not literally.” Borg is a leading voice among Christians who seek an intellectually honest but spiritually vibrant approach to the faith.
Richard Rohr’s Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality recognizes that the Bible is best approached as a messy, all-too-human record of the great story of the love affair between God and humankind. Rohr is not afraid to look at the apparent contradictions and disconnects in scripture; he sees such issues as evidence of how humanity “meanders” in its journey into the love of God.
Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity is not specifically about the Bible, but does an excellent job at explaining how we tend to bring hidden cultural assumptions (often deriving from Greco-Roman philosophy rather than Biblical values) to our reading of the scripture. Understanding and “deconstructing” such hidden assumptions can liberate us to see the sacred text in a fresh, and perhaps more faithful, way. For example: McLaren challenges how many Christians read the Bible almost as if it were a legal document: a “constitution” of the faith. He calls us to read scripture in the spirit in which the texts were originally written: as poetry, hymns, prophecy, sacred stories, and letters of pastoral care.
I hope that these few thoughts can be helpful for anyone who seeks a contemplative, rather than literalist/fundamentalist, approach to scripture. May God richly reward your engagement with the Word.