The Bible: What it is and How to read it.

by Elias Blum

The angry anti-christians and the angry fundamentalists at least agree that the bible has to be taken as literal, direct, timeless revelation, or not at all. So either the bible is a horrid book that justifies slavery and genocide (as the anti-christians would claim) or it demands that we believe in talking snakes and six-day creationism (as the fundamentalists would insist).

For it or against it, it is what it is, and there’s no room for nuance or selectivity in engaging with it. Sincere attempts to discern wisdom, and to find that which is truly ‘a word of God’ to us within its leather-bound pages, are dismissed as ‘pick-n-mix religion’, or as ‘making it up as you go along’; it invites scorn from the anti-christians and condemnation from the fundamentalists.

Liberal or progressive Christians don’t see it that way. We try to see the bible for what it is: not a timeless dictation from God, but an evolving record of the thoughts and experiences of God as told by two communities – the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians.

Once you see it through that lens (as a human artifact, that attests to our encounters with the divine, but does not itself claim to be divine) it makes much more sense. It accommodates the fact that the image of God in the bible is not a consistent one: it is an evolving one, from a very partial tribal understanding to one that comes to reflect – first through the social justice prophets and then through Jesus a universal ethic of love.

It also enables one to accept the fact that the bible does not always speak with one voice, but with a plurality of sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory voices: these are not ‘false contradictions’ to be ironed out by epicycles of elaborate exegesis, but simply reflections of the fact that human understanding of God has differed, and that the bible records that conversation – including the voices in that conversation that are later shown to be wrong by deeper reflection and wider love (Joshua slaying enemies vs Jesus loving them).

That’s not to say, of course, that God does not speak to us in and through the bible, but only to warn against taking it as a simple rule-book or even history book: it’s much more of a story book, which invites us to reflect on and dwell within the stories.

Even those who deride the bible as a book of ‘myths and fairytales’ are closer to the truth than they think, but only because myths and fairytales are treasuries of cultural wisdom, of the reflections of communities, over time, on the most important matters of identity, meaning and ethics.

How then, are we to discern the meanings of these stories? One way is to focus on the main character: Jesus. The individual stories – the tales of murder, genocide, rape, pillage, slavery, and all the other horrible things that the bible records – are embedded in a larger, framing narrative.That is the narrative that the world, although imperfect, and in many cases spoiled needlessly by our own sins and vices, is nevertheless permeated by a God whose nature is love and whose passion is to heal and restore us. This God, through the Holy Spirit who is alive and active in the world and in our hearts, and through Jesus who showed us the Way, is at work to bring about a world that is as it was always meant to be.

As we allow ourselves to be filled by that Spirit, and to concentrate on the actual teachings and example of Jesus, a consistent tool of analysis emerges: love. Jesus rejected biblical literalism, may times saying ‘You have heard it was written x, but I say unto you y’. He recognised that fundamentalist obsessions with rules and regulations could not lead us into a life of love, joy, peace and wholeness. The only way to achieve that was through mutual forgiveness, through embracing the other, through non-judgmental service to our fellows.

Jesus confronted head-on not only the arrogance of the rich and the despotic power of the rulers, but also the twisted and cramping piety of the religious. His ethic was that it is better to be loving in our treatment of others than to be punctilious in the observance of religious rules. That is the ethic with which we should read and interpret the bible. If we do so, we will probably not go far wrong.