The Bible Beyond Fear

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.

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  • brazenbird

    Carl, thank you. You touched on all of my issues in the first paragraph. And I came to the same conclusion – that if Jesus is the Word, then ought Jesus’ words “trump” any other messages we might find? I’m just now coming to see that there are many beautiful and deeply life altering messages within the Bible; verses that were long ago memorized come to the surface now and have an all-new meaning to me.

    Thank you for the reading recommendations. McLaren’s book should be waiting in my mailbox today and I can’t believe I didn’t think of Borg’s book. His work has helped to reframe my relationship to the Divine through Christ. Richard Rohr’s book looks excellent as well. Going to Amazon now. And thank you again Carl for so thoughtfully answering my question.

    Blessings to you.

  • robert colacicco

    The best book I have read on the issues relative to your comments is “Disturbing Divine Behavior” subtitled “Troubling Old Testament Images of God”. The author is Eric A. Seibert, a professor of Old Testament at Messiah College.
    This book is a must for anyone who finds the Old Testament God to be fearsome and even unworthy of our love.

  • Mike Dorough

    Beautiful and complete from a forest point of view. Beautiful Forest Carl!

  • Paul Rack

    Borg’s The Heart of Christianity is actually pretty good. I wouldn’t call his work with the Jesus Seminar “intellectually honest.” Using arbitrary Modernist categories and methods to do violence to the text, more like.

  • brazenbird

    @ Paul – would you mind expounding a bit about your assessment of Borg’s work with the Jesus Seminar? Could you give a few examples of how he uses Modernist categories and methods to do violence to the text? I’m not trying to challenge you (despite how this might come across), I’m genuinely curious in another person’s perspective.

  • nemo235

    I like the statement about worshiping the bible instead of worshiping god. the same can be true of other religions too, where the religious texts seem to cancle out the religion.
    to Quote friday from Robinson Crusoe “Your god is A book?”