For 75 years I have used the Bible as a guide for understanding life and a manual for living in an ethical and constructive way. I read it privately and in public ceremonies, and I base many of my public presentations on excerpts chosen from this set of ancient religious documents.
What I have never learned to do, however, is to love the Bible, to feast upon the Word, as many people say they do. I recognized this inability while listening to Bonnie Bowman Thurston’s 2013 Turner Lectures in Yakima, Washington in early October. Bowman is a recognized, much published scholar whose writings combine technical biblical scholarship and a thorough knowledge of contemplative spirituality.
Two of her lectures focused directly upon long-practiced ways of reading the Bible that move beyond the explicit meaning of texts so that metaphorical and mystical meanings are perceived and experienced. “Can all parts of the Bible, even the bloody narratives in Judges, be used this way?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered, “although it takes longer for the richer insights to arise when one is reading problematic portions like Judges and Leviticus.”
Immediately following the lectures, I spent several days in the home of a daughter and her Old Testament/Hebrew Bible husband. A new book on the coffee table—Joshua and Judges, edited by Athalya Brenner and Gale A. Yee—helped me continue my reflections on how to read and understand the Bible. This book is part of a series that explores “Texts in/at Life Contexts.”
Because of my Finnish ancestry, I immediately turned to an essay entitled “The Finns’ Holy War against the Soviet Union: The Use of War Rhetoric in Finnish History during the Second World War.” I remember listening to radio accounts of that war when I was ten years old and also remember how proud I felt as I heard of the exploits of the people in the homeland of my mother’s family.
The essay shows how the Finns found new non-historical meanings in their reading of the Old Testament book of Judges. The essayist, Kari Latvus, however, dissents. He quotes another scholar, Marti Nissinen: “Religion can give rise to visions of peace and reconciliation, but it can also become ‘evil’: God can be invoked for the purpose of violent pursuits.”
Latvus then concludes his essay: “Following these lines, it is possible to say that using God-talk in the way it was done during the Second World War in Finland was simply a misunderstanding: Holy Wars do not exist.”
Another of my son-in-law’s books was Preaching on Judges by Joseph R. Jeter, Jr. He outlines five methods for interpreting the book, noting, however, that he had been warned against all of them by his professors when he was in school. Jeter then observes that all of these methods, with “scholarly names,” are now generally accepted.
He quotes Danna Nolan Fewell: “This does not mean that a text can say anything that a reader wants it to say. Texts have rights, too. Texts have constraints.” Jeter concludes that while they have this responsibility to the text, preachers also have a responsibility for their people. “If they cannot process the text in its raw form, or if they cannot hear the gospel through a traditional sermon, we may need to reread or recraft or both.”
Since the love of holy books and practices of reading them contemplatively for meanings that lie beyond the words themselves are well-authenticated realities in religious life, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or other world religions, my pragmatic, pay-attention-to-what-it-says attitude is the anomaly.
It started when I was six years old, listening to my father reading Bible stories before we went to bed. I could not believe that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt and remained there until this day, as the paraphrased story worded it. At the traditionalist little church we attended, I learned a plenary inspiration, literal meaning understanding of the Bible, but it didn’t take.
In high school English classes, I chafed when teachers showed us how to read poetry so that inner meanings would gradually emerge—meanings that even the poets had not intended and might not even be able to understand.
I know that many of the world’s spiritual giants and many of its most effective activists have been shaped by their reading beyond the texts of their holy books. For their devotion and contributions to the well-being of the world, I give thanks.
But as a prose-oriented, poetry challenged reader, I am bound to what the texts actually say. I parse them to derive the writers’ intensions. I look for underlying principles that extend beyond the immediate context. I affirm some texts as constructive and others as misrepresentations of God’s character and will.
Maybe that’s a flat place to be, but after all these years of reading the Bible, this is where my theological and religious life is firmly rooted and likely to remain.