The Bible Is Not Written To You

The Bible Is Not Written To You October 11, 2019

Fred Clark sums up well one of the biggest problems with the way that many in our time, and Americans in particular, interpret the Bible:

When 21st-century American Christians go looking for 21st-century America “in the Bible” they’re approaching the text in a way that ensures they’ll never see what it actually says. Their problem isn’t merely a howling anachronism, but a narcissism that won’t allow them to seek or to find anything but their own reflection. What were the authors saying? Who were they saying it to? What for? When? Where? Why? If you think you’ve already got the answers to those questions — and the only answer you’ll accept for any of them is “Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.” — then you’re suffering from a form of narcissism that renders you functionally illiterate.

Now, to be fair, reading the Bible as not merely relevant to one’s own time but prophetically about it is not some new modern phenomenon. But it is precisely because of how odd we find the efforts of ancient people – the group at Qumran, for instance – to find themselves and their time in texts no matter what, that we should treat them as a cautionary warning against doing likewise in our own time and circumstances.

Also relevant to how we interpret the Bible, even when we’re not conscious of doing it, Kristin Fontaine writes:

I suspect that additional details of the crucifixion narrative have slowly accumulated and become attached to my version of the story. Everything from the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to Easter Services, to different translations of the bible, to Sunday School teachings, to historical accounts of the time of rattle around in my brain.

Since humans are natural storytellers, it is second nature for my mind to take all of the bits and pieces from different sources and try to weld them into a whole and consistent narrative. I have an impulse to make stories work and to fix them if they don’t make sense.

So when I read the passage from Mark and really looked at the words, I was surprised to see that my memory and personal story didn’t match the text.

Given this experience, I think it is very valuable to go back and re-read the actual text from time-to-time and not just rely on my memories of the stories of the Bible, especially since I’ve seen how my own inner-storyteller is willing to edit, adapt, and transform the narratives without my even realizing it.

Michael Pahl explains why the Bible isn’t necessarily clear even if you think it is. He writes:

[U]nless you’re reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, say, in Koine Greek, and you’re fluent in the language, and you’re familiar with the particular circumstances surrounding the letter, and you’ve got a good grasp of Paul’s and the Roman Christians’ specific cultural settings, you can’t really claim that anything in the book of Romans is “clear” to you. You’re reading someone else’s translation of an ancient text, with all of that depth of nuance flattened into a modern English version that makes some superficial “sense” to you in your setting today.

Also about the Bible, including the very interesting Bible Project:

The Bible Project: a remarkable resource

Bible Project: The Gospel

The Bible Project Interview

Two podcasts:

What and How is the Bible?

Biblical Translation, Narrative, and Literalism

The Marks of Scripture: Rethinking the Nature of the Bible

Two book reviews:

Bible Curious

The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation

5 Reasons You Should Read Your Bible

Baylor Annotated Study Bible – Quick Review (Gupta)

How To Read The Bible


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  • Yes, all of this. Thanks, James.

    • John MacDonald

      What you said!

  • bobyount

    I enjoyed and agreed with Mr. Clark’s post. Interesting and extremely funny.

    • Yes, I confess that I read Fred Clark as much for the therapeutic benefit of laughing out loud as for his theological insight. If you’ve never read it, his series of blog posts about the Left Behind series is hilarious…