Reading the Bible again for the first time. Isn’t that an interesting idea? It suggests some kind of initial acquaintance, followed by a time of separation, and then a return—a seeing-again with new eyes.
It’s certainly my story. When I was 15 and teaching Vacation Bible School, I would sing
Yes, that’s the book for me
I stand alone on the Word of God
I’m singing that and 50 kids between 5 and 10 are belting it out with me:
Yes, that’s the book for me….
But soon enough, it stopped being the book for me. I found myself struggling with how my teachers at church were interpreting the B-I-B-L-E. I found myself struggling with the kinds of hurtful things people were doing in the Bible’s name.
I had to let the B-I-B-L-E go for a long time, actually, until Unitarian Universalism helped me read it again for the first time.
It’s something people are doing these days, actually. Consider the writer A. J. Jacobs, who tells his story of this in his insightful and quite funny book, The Year of Living Biblically. He says,
I grew up in an extremely secular home in New York City. I am officially Jewish, but I’m Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: Not very. […] It’s not that my parents badmouthed religion. It’s just that religion wasn’t for us. We lived in the 20th century, for crying out loud. In our house, spirituality was almost a taboo subject, much like my father’s salary or my sister’s clove cigarette habit.
My only brushes with the Bible were brief and superficial. […] I attended a handful of bar mitzvahs where I zoned out during services and spent the time trying to guess who had bald spots under their yarmulkes. […] And as far as childhood religion, that was about it.
College didn’t help my spiritual development. I went to a secular university where you were more likely to study the semiotics of Wicca rituals than the Judeo-Christian tradition. And when we did read the Bible, it was as literature, as a fusty ancient book with the same truth quotient as The Faerie Queene.
For a long time, I thought that religion, for all the good it does, seemed too risky for our modern world. The potential for abuse too high. I figured it would slowly fade away like other archaic things.
But then A. J. Jacobs goes on to say,
I was spectacularly mistaken. The influence of the Bible — and religion as a whole – remains a mighty force, perhaps even stronger than it was when I was a kid. So in the last few years, religion has become my fixation. Is half of the world suffering from a massive delusion? Or is my blindness to spirituality a huge defect in my personality? What if I’m missing out on part of being human, like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love? And most important, I now have a young son – if my lack of religion is a flaw, I don’t want to pass it onto him. So I knew I wanted to explore religion. I just needed to figure out how.
Thus began A. J. Jacobs’ year-long adventure in trying to live the Bible in complete literal fashion. Again, it’s all quite funny and very thought-provoking.
Point is, people are reading the Bible again for the first time, and there’s lots of reasons why. Because, for one thing, it’s about cultural intelligence. From classics like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all the way to contemporary pop culture and movies like Wonder Woman, Pulp Fiction, and the Matrix: Bible themes are everywhere. Know your Bible, you can grasp better what’s going on. Don’t know your Bible, you’re missing out, you’re in the dark.
You can’t live in American culture without being touched in some way by the Bible.
But it’s also about aliveness. A. J. Jacobs speaks to this. He says that he might have grown up with only fragmentary impressions of the Bible. He might have read it in college and been bored to tears. But now that he’s older and sees the permanent and all-pervasive nature of its influence, he wants to go deeper. It’s about being fully alive. “What if I’m missing out on part of being human,” he asks, “like a guy who goes through life without ever hearing Beethoven or falling in love?”
He doesn’t want to miss out on being fully alive—and doesn’t want his son to miss out on that, either.
Reading the Bible again for the first time. So many reasons for why we might do this. Yet another has to do with the issue of trauma. There are several sides to this. One is simply the fact that, all too often, contact with the Bible can be traumatizing, and the resulting unresolved issues need to be worked through lest the wounds fester….
And then there is the issue of how, all too often, the Bible is twisted up by the Religious Right and used as a series of talking points in defense of policies that, in truth, are cruel and completely unfaithful to Jesus and his teachings.
We can’t let folks get away with that.
Now, there used to be a time when religious liberals like ourselves were leading spokespeople for what the Bible said. Over time, however, for various reasons, we have grown increasingly unfamiliar with it, and this unfamiliarity makes it easy for us to cede authority to interpretations of the Bible that come from the Religious Right. They say that the Bible says X, Y, and Z and because we don’t know any better, we can agree with them. So we miss out on all the ways that the Bible honestly stands for something better. As religion writer Bruce Feiler points out, “on a wide range of topics, including respecting the value of other faiths, shielding religion from politics, serving the poor and protecting the environment, the Bible offers powerful arguments in support of moderate and liberal causes.” This is a wonderful thing, and it’s time that this best kept secret about the Bible be spread far and wide.
People need to know!
So here we are: reading the Bible again for the first time. This is actually the title of a book written by religion scholar Marcus Borg, and we’re going to be using it as our primary source text for our year-long sermon series. It’s a popular book and you can purchase it in any bookstore or order it online. It covers the entirety of the Bible, which is composed of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian scriptures combined. Today, we’re looking at the introductory ideas covered in Borg’s first three chapters. Next month, we’ll dig into the Bible’s very first book: that of Genesis.
Very very cool stuff.
Now, you might be wondering which Bible to bring with you on this journey and read side by side with the Marcus Borg book. My recommendation is that you use the New Revised Standard Version, because it has one of the best reputations for the use of correct original texts and accuracy of translation. Other good possibilities include the Revised Standard Version, The Revised English Bible, and the New International Version. I do suggest that you look away from that old warhorse, the King James Version, despite the archaic beauty of its language—because the language IS archaic and hard to relate to, and also because it incorporates lots of errors and mistranslations. I’d also avoid Bible paraphrases like The Living Bible and The Good News Bible, because they gloss over difficulties, they leave things out, and they do all this in order to convey a decidedly conservative religious viewpoint.
Finally, if money is an issue for you—you want to participate but you’re in a tough financial spot—please let me know. It will be confidential just between us. One of the purposes of the Ministers Discretionary Fund is to ensure that everyone has the basic means to participate in church activities. And let me also say, when anyone gives a special gift to this fund, you are helping make sure that West Shore remains inclusive and welcoming to all.
Thank you for that.
OK, so now we know why we’re reading the Bible again for the first time, and now we’ve taken care of some of the logistics. So: now: it’s time to jump in. Our main focus today is looking at three basic principles for reading the Bible in a way that enables us to take it, not literally, but seriously and profoundly.
Not slavish adherence to the surface, but faithfulness to the deeper spirit.
Here’s the first principle: to very carefully distinguish mystical experiences of the Sacred from interpretations of the experiences. On the one hand you have true Wonder and Mystery, and on the other you have people trying to make sense of what they felt and saw and heard. The two—God and humanity—simply cannot be confused, because when that happens, you have people opening up their Bibles saying, “Let’s see what God says about that.” You have people taking absolutist moral positions on the basis of 3000 year-old laws which they see as God’s laws. You have people saying all that, totally ignoring how the Bible writers said what they said in great part on the basis of the culture they lived in, the specific concerns of their communities, their personal hopes and fears.
Which means we can talk about the sins of scripture–let me say that again: the SINS of SCRIPTURE–without dismissing the Bible altogether. The Bible writers produced so much that is usable and inspiring, but they, like all humans, bear the scars and the biases of their time. The Bible writers were not immune to the traumas of their world, and we see this in atrocious passages—toxic passages—that literalists have at various times invoked to harm people: indigenous people, blacks, women, homosexuals, children, Jews, and others.
But if we no longer see scripture as “God says” but “people say,” then we are free to use our ethical and spiritual judgment to separate the good from the bad, the noble from the base. “The Bible says so” must never be used to silence doubts, to put a stop to honest conversation, or to justify hurtful actions. Ultimately nothing and no one can take away the personal responsibility each of us has to do the right thing in life. People try to hand it off to one kind of religious authority or another all the time; like moral soldiers, they just want to be given orders to carry out with a clean conscience. As Bob Jones, of Bob Jones University, likes to say, “The Bible itself is intolerant, and true followers of God should be as well.”
That is not going to cut it. Take responsibility! It’s never “God says.” Always, it’s “people say.”
We always have a choice.
This first principle of reading the Bible—distinguishing the Sacred from interpretations of the Sacred—also helps us to understand something else that is extremely curious: the fact that the character of God in the Bible changes over time.
Have you ever noticed this?
At the Bible’s beginning, early in the Hebrew scriptures, you essentially have a patriarchal, bloodthirsty Yahweh–that’s God’s name in Hebrew, or at least one of them–who creates the world but ends up destroying it through a flood, and then later on Yahweh urges the Israelites to slaughter their enemies—including innocent children—without mercy.
But over time, the Hebrew Scriptures change their way of portraying God, and what you have is the God of the prophets who longs for a time when there shall be no more war, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb. By the time we get to the Christian scriptures, God is the God of Jesus, and here is what Jesus said. In his native language of Aramaic, Jesus often referred to God in feminine terms as an all-embracing compassionate womb. No patriarchy there.
Is this not extremely curious??
To all this we can say: Of course. It’s because Bible stories convey the voices and visions of people changing over time, moving from perspectives that are firmly tribal to those that are more open and universal. The Bible writers are people grappling in the deepest ways with the challenges and possibilities of life. I pray to God that we might be people like this too.
This is what it means to be fully, humanly alive.
The first principle of Bible reading, then: It’s never “God says”; it’s always “humans say”–humans in quest for meaning and truth in life, humans striving for love and justice yet always social creatures of their day, always limited by this.
That’s the first principle of faithful Bible reading.
Which leads immediately to the second principle: to stress a historical, contextual understanding of the Scriptures. Marcus Borg likes to say that “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” And this cannot ever be underestimated. It is undeniable that the Bible stories continue to inspire and inform people because they are just fine literature, powerful narratives. But as readers we will miss so much of the meaning if we are not aware of the ancient world from which these stories came.
For example, consider a parable that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the Christian scriptures. Jesus is comparing what he calls the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, which is an extremely tiny thing. But from tiny beginnings, the Kingdom of Heaven grows into something big.
Honestly, it’s a kind of ho-hum insight, and you can get far richer wisdom from the self-help section of your local bookstore.
Unless–unless we go deeper into the text, unless we understand more of Jesus’ historical context. Fact is, in Jesus’ day, this parable would have made the jaws of his hearers drop. His hearers, first of all, were oppressed peasants, and they wanted Jesus to compare the kingdom to something more bold, something more triumphant, something that would represent the destruction of the Romans and the advent of their long-awaited social and political freedom.
But Jesus doesn’t give them that. He gives them … a mustard seed. A mustard seed that grows into a plant which is scrubby and weedy.
A plant which Jewish religious law said was impure and unclean. This especially is why the jaws of his hearers dropped. Jewish gardens of the time followed the religious injunction that different kinds of plants should never mix and needed to stay separate from each other. But you know what would happen if a mustard seed got in there? It would grow and spread like a wild weed, creating confusion, uniting things that were supposed to stay separate and apart. But this is how the Kingdom of Heaven works, said Jesus. It’s a love which overcomes all differences, a love which reconciles all who are separated, a love which is always already here and now among us, a power just waiting to be recognized in this very moment!
But there was no getting around what Jewish religious law said. So Jesus was implying something that sounded absolutely outrageous to his Jewish contemporaries: that the blessed, beautiful, holy Kingdom of Heaven is essentially impure!
You’ve just got to know your Bible history—the context out of which the speakers speak—and what emerges is a book that is truly deep and surprising and utterly unique among all the world’s religious literature. Not necessarily better, but just vibrantly different and itself.
And now we turn to the third and last Bible-reading principle. This one says, Don’t allow the Bible to stay stuck in the past. And don’t dismiss a passage if science tells you that it can’t be literally true. Don’t be like Thomas Jefferson and cut it out—that’s just literalism but in the opposite direction, as in, it couldn’t have happened scientifically, so it must be nonsense. Instead, go deeper. Read it as poetry, read it as metaphor, read it as myth that conveys psychological and spiritual truth. The voice of the Bible can comfort you, can challenge you, can speak to your spirit right here and right now.
It will read you more than you read it, if you let it.
Just allow that Bible parable from a moment ago to sink in. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. It starts out small, grows and spreads like a wild weed, and mixes things up, connects things society says are supposed to stay separate and apart. To allow the Bible to read you in this instance is for you to ask yourself, What is society saying to me in all its judgmentalism, about what inner parts of me are “bad” and what parts of me are “good”? Parts of me that I can show the world, parts of me that I should keep hidden away?
Again, ask yourself: What is society saying to me, about people who are “less” important and people who are “more” important? Maybe society doesn’t speak so directly about this, so the exclusion and marginalization happens systemically, in just the way the rules of life are set up, so that when the rules are tipped in my favor, that just feels like normality, whereas for others, it feels like they’re being choked to death….
Again and again, What are the rigid polarities or dichotomies of my life? Black vs. white? Woman vs. man? Gay vs. straight? Rich vs. poor? Head vs. heart? Work vs. play? Safe and bored vs. risky and energized?
So then, says the Bible as it reads you, Imagine the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. It comes as a tiny seed, from somewhere… it comes as an idea, a person, a something that in its apparent smallness seems insignificant, but you let it grow, and BAM, it grows like crazy, it mixes things up like crazy. Rigid polarities and dichotomies start to dissolve. We start to question received wisdom. We take a fresh look at what is supposed to be bad and supposed to be good. We go deeper than society’s judgmentalism, in fact, and we get to see each other as what we each truly and fundamentally are: Children of God who are equally valuable.
We start seeing others and seeing ourselves again … as if for the first time.
The Kingdom of Heaven comes … and what happens then? What is the wholeness that happens, then?
Is Jesus’ mustard seed stirring in your life right now?
If so, are you feeling confused? Are you feeling anxious?
Perhaps that is really the initial emotional impact of the Kingdom of Heaven, as it proceeds to mix things up that are supposed to be separate and apart. Somehow, people have agreed that heaven is supposed to be angels sitting on downy clouds strumming lutes, but the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus preached is far less static and way more dynamic and therefore can trigger emotional confusion and anxiety….
Can it truly be, then, that the heaven Jesus taught wasn’t about personal comfort or happiness?
What is Heaven, truly?
Which is also and at the same time to ask, What does it mean to be abundantly alive?
All these deep questions….. All these profound reflections…..
And THAT’S reading the Bible! That’s the Bible reading you!
That’s how the Bible truly becomes sacred scripture,
when it opens your heart up,
gets the deepest possible questions and conversations going,
puts you in a place where you can feel the Spirit of Life speaking,
you can hear it speaking,
and guess what?
It’s speaking right to you.
Yes, this can be a book for me
Through its words the Spirit can speak