Reading the Bible Without Understanding It

Via Fred Clark, I learned of the wonderful blog Defeating the Dragons, offering one person’s experience of leaving fundamentalism behind. Here is an excerpt from a recent post there:

It never fails to utterly astonish me that, even with all of my familiarity, even with all the Sword Drills and the Memorization Contests and AWANA and the constant stream of “the Bible says…” that I really had no idea what it actually says.

And I’ve read it as least half a dozen times.

How did this happen? How did I grow up going to church four times a week, grow up reading my Bible, go to a Bible college, take eight separate Bible courses, and come out on the other side so completely clueless?

And what I’ve been realizing, slowly, is that I never really read the Bible.

The Bible was just another tool, just another opportunity for fundamentalism to become an ingrained part of who I was. On top of the words I read in the Bible was layer upon layer of interpretation, of meaning, of what I was taught was the “correct” way to read it. I read those words with the black and white lens of literalism.

And when I read my Bible, the words that could have revealed a God of love, of justice, of mercy and compassion, were almost utterly obscured by a god of vengeance, wrath, judgment, jealousy, and righteousness. When I read my Bible, fundamentalism lay down on top of it and forced me to read through a glass darkly. The doctrines of fundamentalism cloaked and disguised things it didn’t want me to see– like the fact that Paul calls Junia “outstanding among the apostles.” I must have read those words. They’re right there, smack dab at the end of Romans. But I never saw them, never understood them, never once thought about what they could mean. I never once realized that the last good king, Josiah, went to the prophetess Huldah. Not Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, or Nahum, or Habakkuk. Huldah– a woman. Entire stories were completely erased– obliterated by the battle cry of sound doctrine.

I was taught to “rightly divide the word of truth,” but what I didn’t realize was that they were limiting me. Rightly dividing was, intrinsically, interpret anything you find according to the doctrines you’ve been given. If anything in the Bible seemed to come into tension with those doctrines, it wasn’t the Bible, no, it was just my interpretation of it, and I just needed to go back and rightly divide it this time.

All of this has left me with whispers and voices I can’t ignore when I try to read it. There are whole passages–entire books– that I have to avoid because I can’t read them without hearing another person inside of my head telling me what to think, what to see, what to believe.

This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about in my recent post about “Interpreting Scripture in Light of Scripture.” Ultimately it privileges some parts of the Bible and silences others, leaving many who have “read” the Bible countless times still unable to hear parts of it, because of the lens, the approach to reading it, that they have been taught to use.

  • Keyra

    New Atheism’s biggest problem, reading it black & white, judging by their own merits, and assuming they have a nice clear understanding of what it all means. Always going with the assumption that Christians are supposed to follow the laws given to the Jewish theocracy of the OT as a huge example. Even God Itself said the covenant with Moses would be superseded by a new covenant. There were certain laws God gave to the Israelites that were not inherently wrong actions, but were wrong for the Israelites simply because God gave them special laws to set them apart as Its chosen people. The OT law was fulfilled by Jesus & is no longer valid. We are under the New Covenant that Jesus established

    • Guest

      I don’t assume Christians have to follow the old laws, I just think any God that would ban shellfish eating but not slavery or rape is not the paragon of goodness it is claimed to be. Besides which, the ‘new covenant’ is only one theory. Jesus never said the old laws were invalid. And Peter’s dream about being able to eat banned foods seems rather pointless if Jesus had already taught him the old laws no longer applied.

  • Ryan Hite

    I’m starting to feel that nobody really understands the bible because of this. They take it as it is and it should not be that way…


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