Thursday, October 03, 2013

This is not a list of reasons to read the bible

"Virtuous" violence permeates scripture. The bible records many violent deeds, often condones them, sometimes even celebrates them. Christians, trained to idealize peace, often wish the scriptures were less full of these violent stories.

Just yesterday in bible study we were reading two examples. In the first, David, a shepherd, defeats Goliath, an epic soldier, with a stone and a sling. He then proceeds to cut of Goliath's head. In another, Jael takes a tent peg and hammer, and after lulling Sisera to sleep with goat's milk, drives the tent peg through Sisera's head.

Both acts of violence are celebrated, with no hint that faithful people should not harm others. 

Yet the texts are more complicated than this. Though on first blush violence is "redemptive" or "virtuous," these two texts also have a sub-text. The sub-text is that high tech forms of warfare are less desirable, and easily foiled, by the rudimentary tools of shepherds and tent-dwellers. Both Jael and David use the tools ready-to-hand to defeat much more armored opponents. 

In this sense, both violent texts challenge the diegesis. They take us to new places, but only if we stick with the text in spite of its violence, wrestle with it, and discover the layers there. 


Reading Scripture is not always worth it. First readings are typically not the best readings. Because this is our holy book, and we mostly think we already know what holiness is, we bring our presuppositions to the text and foist them on Scripture. 

Scripture wants to be heard, but it has its own terms of engagement, and these are both more dangerous and tiring than we often care to admit.

In fact, I totally understand why a lot of people, even committed Christians, read the bible very infrequently. Frankly, the bible can be boring. I've experienced the bible to be boring even while reading it out loud in public worship. The gospel of John is typically the culprit. I'm reading along, out loud, and my brain is saying, "Who can understand this? This is convoluted and odd and really dry."

If the pastor is bored and confused, the pastor wonders what the congregation might think.

So, when the bible isn't violent, or when it isn't totally upending and changing our lives, it's boring. Who wants to invest in a book like that?

All of these thoughts were elicited by reading recently Krister Stendahl's fantastic little essay in the Harvard Bulletin, Why I Love the Bible. Krister's son John, a colleague of mine in pastoral ministry, recently stopped at Harvard to record an audio version of this famous essay. It's really quite fantastic, and if you are short on time, stop reading my blog post and just go read Krister's essay.

Krister has five "nos" he says about reading Scripture, which are enigmatic and true and wild:

  • Scripture is not primarily about me. 
  • Second, it is not always as deep as we think. 
  • Third, even Paul isn't always totally sure. 
  • Fourth, don't be so uptight. 
  • And fifth, it is probably not as universal as we think.

If those points don't make you curious, you might want to check your ability to be curious. 

Stendahl's essay made me ponder again why I love the bible so much, in spite of the fact that I am constantly challenged and disturbed by the bible.

I can think of many reasons, but perhaps one is simple: the bible is so often on the side of the poor. It's surprising to come across a God that cares so much about widows, orphans, cripples, hungry people, and those in prison. Read just about any part of the bible, and you discover a God who gets on the side of the oppressed. 

Here's another example. Everyone assumes they know what sin God destroyed Sodom and Gommorah over, right? It's where the word sodomy comes from.

But have you ever read this verse?

Ezek. 16.48 As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done.  49 This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

So apparently, if we are to read Ezekiel, sodomy is having excess food, being prosperous and at ease, and not aiding the poor and needy. If your state still has sodomy laws on the books, look out.

Who knew? The bible did, that's who. Right when we think the bible is univocal, and moralizing in the way our culture is moralizing, the bible gets all focused on justice and wealth and prosperity and the poor.

However, in order to find Ezekiel 16:48, you have to read Ezekiel, which is a long and often puzzling text. How many people can honestly say they've read straight through Ezekiel? And those who have, how pleasant was the experience?


The bible is constantly like this. It's ancient, probably the oldest book most of us read, so it's going to catch us off-guard with its antiquity. 

But more than that, it's a book that really is about God. As much as we want to make God in our own image so the bible can be about us (heck, we even want to make Jesus into our own best self, rather than conform ourselves to who Christ is), the bible keeps eluding readers by continuing to be about God.

And when I say the bible is about God, I really mean it's about God. The greatest danger in naming God is that we don't really mean God when we say God. 

I like the way John D. Caputo names this in his new book. He writes, "God is great--great trouble, a great question, a great problem." Caputo gets even more radical, "No one can see God coming, including God."

No one can see the bible coming, including the bible. There are moments when I'm preaching Sunday mornings when the sheer mystery of the scripture hits me with full effect, and God's wild spirit goes to work and I say things I did not know could be said. Sometimes I wonder if the bible really only becomes Scripture in those moments. God implicates Godself in this text, all the way down, to the very point that God cannot be God without our engagement with this book.

This last point I heard Walter Brueggemann say some years ago in a presentation at Luther Seminary. At least I think this is what he said. When he said it, he made that motion with his hands that is signified today in social media with these words:

Mind. Blown.

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