Chapter 1: Seeing the Bible Again

I have been thinking about the Bible and how I have come to interpret it throughout my life. My guide in thinking this through involves an old friend (in a literary sense) Marcus Borg, whose book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time speaks to the experience of many Bible readers such as myself. My blog entries invite you to overhear what I was considering or remembering as I read through Borg’s book.

The first chapter speaks of the lenses we put on when we come to Scripture. Borg talks about different conflicting lenses that our modern culture brings to the investigation: the “Bible-Believing” conservative lens and the “Metaphorical” postmodern view. Many people have these glasses firmly on but some of us are more cross-eyed and often see one way and then the other depending on the stresses and strains on us.

It gets more complicated when we can’t make up our minds whether to reach for our reading glasses or our regular corrective lens. Which lens corresponds to which model Borg is presenting is up for grabs sometimes. For most of us in our group our trainer lenses were literal. Borg makes a helpful differentiation between those who are natural literalists and those who are conscious literalists. The usual evolution is that as younger children we read the Bible with a delightful and faithful literalism that just entered the book believing what was there in a straightforward way. There really was no option but to just assume what we were reading was true since no alternative had even entered our minds. There comes a time in childhood when we become more discerning readers. We begin to interpret, and to interpret is to filter what you are reading through a perspective. Given that most of us were Anabaptist-Evangelicals we read through that grid and became consciously literalist.

Maybe it happened something like this:

You just came home from a friend’s place and were playing with toy figurines, some action figures, some soldiers and of course some of those cool dinosaurs that your pal knew all the names of. You weren’t so familiar with the names and really liked tromping around the dining room handling a brontosaurus. So you asked your parents if you could start a collection of your own. They were glad you had a good time over at your friends but where concerned about what you were playing there.

At the dinner table where you had family devotions, dad read the first chapter of Genesis. "Cool story," you may have thought, "but where’s the dinosaurs?" Later in the week the animals that came into the ark two by two were sans brontosaurus. No dinos? Why? This is the day mom and dad introduced you to conscious literalism. We don’t believe in dinosaurs. Why? you may have asked. And if they were well-read evangelicals they would give you a way to think about the lack of brutish reptiles. If not, they may have just said that the Bible didn’t teach about them so they didn’t exist. This may have been re-enforced by asking you whether you believed God’s word or man’s? You were initiated.

Borg doesn’t use this example but he does spell out the reasons why natural literalists transform into conscious ones. He says it has to do not so much with faith but with worldview and our response to the modern world. Borg clearly believes that faith is based on more than literal facts. He points out that what you and I may have thought was the faithful traditional way of understanding the Bible was linked up pretty firmly to the fact train, a modern heresy. Here is the way Marcus describes the difference between natural and conscious literalism.

Natural literalism is quite different from “conscious literalism,” a modern form of literalism that has become aware of problems posed by a literal reading of the Bible but insists upon it nevertheless. … It requires “faith,” understood as believing things hard to believe.

Put bluntly, sucked into the modern view that only facts are truths, literalists feel that because the Bible originates from God directly and contains all the authority that implies, then interpreting it literally is the only faithful option. If, however, as Borg says, truth has more sides and it can be metaphorical, then faith takes on a more nuanced character. This same character was present in most of the church’s faithful interpretation from its origin until the Enlightenment. In a sense this perspective reflects the title of his book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Borg’s way of reading has many modern features but it isn’t a new way of reading Scripture. Rather it is very much tethered to the original reading of Scripture, he claims.

This old new way is capable of adapting to who we are as modern people. It can integrate our experiences of pluralism, cultural relativity, scientific method and turn toward experiential knowledge in a far more satisfying manner than literalism. This all rings true in my experience.

As Borg says, the three flash points of these lenses clashing are: evolution, sexuality and historical Jesus studies. After a profound religious experience as a young adult I encountered my first battle with conscious literalism as my fellow students attempted, and almost convinced me, that evolution was a prideful theory that denied God intrinsically. I settled for theistic evolution, which to me seemed both rational and faithful but not without a struggle. As for homosexuality, I was asked to give a talk at a ministers and deacons conference and caused quite a stir because I took a moderate position on the question. I fully accepted homosexual people as fellow Christians. But sadly at that time I was convinced by the literal interpretation that faithfulness for them required celibacy and that while membership was legitimate any leadership position in the church was restricted. Over the years my conscience and my new-but-old interpretive position won out. I came to believe in absolute inclusivity of homosexual persons in the church. The hardest and more debated issue for me of late has been the historical Jesus and the interpretation of Scripture. But as I have come to understand how the Scriptures were written and accepted in the church I have realized that our faith is not in the historical truthfulness of the Gospels as history but in their witness to God’s revelation in Jesus as the Christ.

I am not as confident as my statement suggests. There are times when my lenses blur and I regress back to my old ways. This happens when I lose perspective on grace, when I decide that my belief and correctness are the linchpins to faithful relationship to God. There is a sense, however, when I have experienced a post-critical return to natural literalism as a corrective to fact fundamentalism of most biblical criticism. What I mean is that Scripture is not to be ransacked to establish believable facts but is most transforming when trusted as God’s living, dynamic, creative and metaphorical word to my actual situation. Other old ways are becoming new to me as I explore using the allegorical method of the early believers or when I use Scripture as a means to prayer (Lectio Divina) and intimacy with God. These old-new ways often surpass the techniques of biblical scholarship and result in genuine transformation