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Friday, May 8, 2015

Contrasting Approaches to Reading the Bible

I have observed two basic approaches that people take to reading the Bible. And the more learned and scholarly the people are who read it, the more pronounced these two approaches appear and the higher the contrast between them.

One approach is like a prospector searching for gold nuggets amid a welter of silt and rock. The reader sifts through the material, discarding the impurities, accretions, and distracting substances to find the comparatively few precious elements in the texts.

The other approach assumes that the entire thing is pure gold. The problem is that the reader is visually impaired and handling the material in a dim room. Therefore the gold is sometimes hard to see—the luster of much of it is not bright, and sometimes it does not look like gold at all, but the reader believes that it still is.

In the first approach the defect is in the material handled. In the second the defect is in the handler and the environment (the world) in which it is handled.

In the first approach, the reader critiques the word and alters it. In the second the word critiques the reader and alters her.

One might posit that both are possible, that one could approach the biblical texts as imperfect things read by imperfect people in imperfect situations. In that case the critique and alteration goes both ways.

That is logically possible, but in practice I believe it to be rare if it ever happens at all. At least one reason for this is that human beings powerfully oppose being altered deeply. (Even the most flexible and adaptable of people, for example, oppose any attempt to make them inflexible and nonadaptable on certain matters.) Therefore, when the text demands something tough—a major behavioral sacrifice, or an even more imposing relinquishment of one belief or opinion for another—the option of identifying that text as impure (textually obscure, culturally bound, politically motivated, from an unreliable source, self-contradictory, etc.) is too alluring. The path of least resistance is impossible to resist.

I take the second approach instead. The reasons for this are complex, and I do not intend to get into them here. But you can find part of them in this old post.

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