The Bible’s Voice

The Bible’s Voice November 30, 2015

Does the Bible speak? If so, how?

An oft-told tale of the Spanish conquest of the Americas tells of the Inca ruler Atahualpa. When he met the conquistadors in 1532, some Catholic priests reputedly gave him a Bible, telling him it contained the word of God. Atahualpa put the book to his ear, but hearing nothing, he threw it to the floor in disgust and bafflement that it would not talk to him. The perceived insult to Christianity helped escalate the ensuing violence between the two sides.

That story was in my mind as I read a recent book review, and some words from it have been nagging at me. Some weeks ago, a piece in the New York Times Book Review cited a debate between atheist Sam Harris and liberal reformist Muslim Maajid Nawaz. According to the reviewer,

Harris tells Nawaz that to reform Islamic practices one must “pretend” that “jihad is just an inner spiritual struggle, whereas it’s primarily a doctrine of holy war.” Nawaz counters: “Religion doesn’t inherently speak for itself” because “no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice.” Human interpretation is everything.

Nawaz is absolutely not denying that readers can, if they choose, find in the Qur’an doctrines of armed struggle in God’s name; or if they want to do so, they can find ideas of internal mystical seeking. The text can be read either way, but it is the readers who make the difference. Nawaz, personally, devotes himself to combating Islamist extremism and jihadism.

That point about human interpretation obviously appeals to me, as I have written about the bloody and even genocidal passages of the Bible, such as the Hebrew conquest of Canaan. In some periods, such texts carry heavy weight and influence, in others they are basically ignored. Readership is all.

I frankly cannot imagine a text that is so explicit that someone, somewhere, cannot read it in some way other than what most people would think is its starkly obvious sense. Human beings are very good at reading into a text what they want to get out of it. We see things not as they are, but as we are.

I don’t want to get into a discussion about the violent traditions of any particular faith here. But what do people think about that statement about “no scripture, no book, no piece of writing has its own voice”? Conservative Christians often say that the Bible speaks, but as Atahualpa found, the book itself does not literally speak unless and until it is read by and through human voices, and human interpreters. Are we to assume that the truth of the book is so obvious and undeniable to any fair-minded and rational reader that only one voice can and will emerge from it? Or that God will inevitably and infallibly guide the faithful reader to truth?

Put another way, how much belief do I have to put into the enterprise before I can receive and hear the “speaking,” the Bible’s voice. How much cultural reference? I recently saw an ad for (I think) Thomas Nelson Bibles that used the tag, “You read it, then it reads you.” (I hope I am quoting correctly). That’s a great phrase and a fascinating idea, but it demands a lot of expounding.

For the sake of argument, assume that the Christian priests who met Atahualpa had translated some Biblical passages into the king’s native tongue, impeccably rendered in colloquial and comprehensible ways, but obviously depicting a thoroughly unfamiliar cultural universe and world-view. Would Atahualpa have “heard the Bible’s voice” in those words, any more than by merely putting the physical book to his ear?

Can we also assume that the voices that early believers heard from the Bible were the only ones available, or does the voice contain messages for later generations, for generations yet unborn?

Martin Luther famously declared that “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.” Clearly, that’s a potent metaphor (Let’s not argue that it’s a metaphor, shall we, unless you want to explain those hands and feet to me). But where and how, exactly, does the Bible speak?

So does the Bible have its own voice? Does it have a voice outside the church and the Christian community? How far does hearing that voice depend on the traditions of particular reading communities – which of course, vary according to place and time, depending on the cultures in which those communities operate?

All in all, some knotty questions.



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  • stefanstackhouse

    The thing is, though, that the Bible is not just one book, but a book of books. In particular, as a disciple of my Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ, I feel obliged to make the interpretation that He and His apostles made of the OT as recorded in the NT my own. From my perspective at least (and I don’t think I am alone in this), the OT actually is not left with no voice of its own, and is not left totally up for each and every person to make of it what they will. The NT “take” on the OT, while not comprehensive, does set some definite parameters for how faithful Christians can interpret the NT.

    This, of course, leaves us with the challenge of interpreting the NT itself. We all know that there have been all manner of disputes about this more or less continuously throughout church history. As a general rule, I think that most people would agree that context matters, literary style matters, and any valid interpretation must take fair account of all relevant scriptural passages. Even those who hold to all these principles nevertheless do come to some differing interpretations. However, they do not come to an infinite number of interpretations, and it is not the case that there never is any broad consensus (with a few dissenters) about anything. Nor is it the case that every dispute over an interpretation is equally important. As we all know, some of these disputes seem to be over quite obscure and trivial matters. Interpreting the NT is a challenge to be done entirely correctly, yet we shouldn’t think that it is impossible for the ordinary untrained layman to discover real truth in its pages and to take that truth to heart in a life-transforming way.

  • dr. james willingham

    One of our problems with the Bible is that we fail to see that it reflects depths of understanding which we are unable to discern – even when we have some awareness of them. I had a deacon who wanted me to preach on the execration text of Ps.`137:9 which calls for the dashing of the heads of the little ones against a rock. When one looks at such a text, it seems repulsive in the extreme. The mere words are hard to utter or even think…..until one considers that the writers of this passage were people who had experienced just such bitter realities at the hands of the Babylonians. Remember the sack and destruction of Jerusalem? How would we feel, if it had been our children that we had seen murdered before our very eyes or the children of our neighbors? Is there a ventilation motif in these sad and morbid verses? How did God feel, when His holy child, Jesus. was crucified on Calvary, the worst crime and sin in history. What such texts do is to challenge us to think, to reason our way through the complexities and vicissitudes of severe miseries to the reality that is coming, a reality not yet implied in the text but certainly in other places, namely, the idea of forgiveness, God’s forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of those who have offended us.
    It is remarkable that during the past year, the African American believers have often sounded the note of forgiveness for those who have wronged them, whether Black or White. We are, very likely, aware of the fact that we can choose to be a victim or a victor. I heard one of the early (and still active) apologists tell how he had been sexual abused for years in his childhood and how he chose not to be victimized by it. Facing the reality of the terrible evil done and expressing one’s anger in words appropriate to the issue without doing what is expressed is a way to discharge the angst and agony of a pain that beggars description. I suggest that our problems with the biblical voice and what it has to say to us is that we lack the equipment to handle the sophisticated communications being set forth in profoundly simple terms.

  • MesKalamDug

    There are those who contend that there is no such thing as exegesis and it is all endogesis. That is: Here is the text. It has no a priori meaning. The only meaning
    it has is what we read into it. The Phaistos Disk is offered as a prototype.

    We can, as another commentator suggests, read into the New Testament an attitude toward the Old Testament giving us a kind of two-layered approach. Thus
    we try to read, say, Psalms 137, like Jesus (or the early church) would have
    read it. This, to my mind, is working at end of a very long stick. Of course, we
    cannot think like Jesus. But even trying to think like Paul seems to me impossible.

    All a protestant Christian can do is face the text (the text itself – not an interpretation) and confront what it says.