God’s Library – Some Notes On How To Read The Bible

By Alan Jones

Not long ago, I was driving behind a truck with a large bumper sticker. In bold letters was the command: “Read the Bible everyday!” As I got closer, I could read, in smaller print, the warning” “It will scare the hell out of you!”  The Bible can be scary and, as a kid, I was intrigued by those gory bits in the Old Testament. I remember, in particular, the story of Samuel hacking Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal and Jezebel being thrown out of the window to be eaten by dogs. I loved all these stories but my favorites were the ones about Joseph and his brothers and Moses and the Burning Bush. In fact, the whole story of the Exodus captured my imagination. I wasn’t, however, given much help (as an eleven year old) in understanding what I was reading.

Later I learned that the Bible is an amazing book, which takes us on a great journey from a Garden (Genesis) to a City (The Revelation of John) and presents us with all the glory, challenge and complexity of being human.  It used to be a custom to read the Bible from cover to cover once a year. Its images provided the architecture of people’s thoughts and the conversations of our grandparents – certainly mine – were full of Biblical allusions (with quotations from the King James Version).  That world of shared allusions has largely disappeared and many of us, even in the Church, are bereft of a common Biblically based treasure house of images. So, how should we read the Bible today? What might be some of the ground rules to help us understand it and live in and by its wisdom?

We might start by recovering two simple truths. First,  the Bible is actually a library, a collection of books, written at different times and in different styles, for different audiences. And second, that the Bible isn’t a set of rules.  Some of the books read like history or chronicle, some stories sound mythical (a very important way to convey deep truths), others are collections of moral sayings and poems of great beauty and passion (the psalms).  There are also blood-and-guts adventure stories, like the amazing one about Samson and Delilah. And there are tender stories about love and loyalty like the story of Ruth.  I was taught that while the Bible wasn’t a rule book,  all the stories have one single message — “God reigns!” God is God.

Finding out who God is, how God acts, and what our relationship is with each other and with God, is why people have read the Bible with devotion and deep attention through the centuries. It reminds them that, rather than a rule book, the Bible is a great Drama, which is bigger than their own little psycho drama. It’s wonderful and liberating to find yourself part of a bigger unfolding story.

Most people know that God’s Library comes in two sections. The first one is the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). The second section (the New Testament) starts with three life stories of Jesus – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. They were written by the early Christian communities in such a way as to challenge the readers and hearers to change their lives and be signs of hope in dark times. This second section ends with a very strange book called The Revelation of  John.

What’s really odd is that Christians have called this varied collection of books “The Word of God.” How can this be so?  How can an odd collection of peculiar material, some of it contradictory, be thought to be God’s Word?  It may be that many find the Bible to God’s word because God is an actor in its pages. The Bible is exciting, intriguing  and nourishing precisely because it is a book having a vigorous argument with itself as the drama unfolds.  But thinking of the Bible as directly the Word of God has got a lot of people in trouble. It has been used and abused by people more concerned with power than with being willing to be open to its liberating energy. Part of the good news is that this abuse hasn’t thwarted the Bible’s power to change lives for the good.

A friend of mine says reading the Bible is rather like thumbing through a very large family album with photographs of our relations, the disreputable ones as well as the admirable. We gather round at Thanksgiving or Christmas and get the old album out to recapture the sense of the family drama. There’s uncle George who often tried to wreck family occasions with his conspiracy politics and aunt May who always had a little too much to drink. When we read the Bible or thumb through the photo album, we  get back to our roots, know a little more of who we are and where we’ve come from.  It’s more accurate, therefore, to think of the Bible as containing God’s communication to us. The Bible is the Word of God only in a secondary sense. Jesus is God’s Word in the first instance. The Word is Person with all the depth and impenetrable mystery of a person. The Bible bears witness to Jesus who invites us to re-imagine what it might mean to be human in communion with God and with each other.   The important point, then, is that the Christian tradition insists that God’s word  is primarily a person not a collection of texts. Jesus is God’s word to us about ourselves. And persons are intractably elusive and yet palpable and present. Martin Luther put it well. He tells us to think of the Bible as the swaddling clothes in which the infant Christ is laid.

Reading the Bible, particularly the New Testament, was thought to be of paramount importance because it helps us understand who we are and interpret what’s happening to us. The principle is, everything that happens to Christ happens to us. We go through times of exhilaration and fulfillment and times of suffering and diminishment. If we are awake and aware we know something the cycle of death and resurrection in our own lives.  Another way of understanding why we read the stories of the first disciples is that we repeat their experience of Jesus.  We start off with great enthusiasm. We’re captivated by the parables, the miracles, the teaching and then we become disappointed, disillusioned and even fearful when the going gets tough, when Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem. We didn’t sign on for this. Like the early disciples, we run away (“they all forsook him and fled”). And like the early disciples on the road to Emmaus we find renewal and courage in the presence of the Resurrected Christ. In other words, reading the Bible is a way by which we move through our own experience of life.

When I was growing up in England during and after the Second World War, there was a popular book published in the late fifties called Your God is too Small”.  We need to broaden our understanding of the Bible by placing it in the context of the wonders of the universe.  The medieval mystics insisted that the Bible was  one of three “books” available to us. Such is God’s generosity. The other two books are Nature and Experience and lead us to that “experimental knowledge of God” celebrated in the mystical tradition.

There’s a story about the early rabbis arguing about which was the most important text in the Bible. Rabbi Akiba said the greatest principle of Torah is found in Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Only one of the rabbis challenged this.  He argued that the simple words ‘This is the role of Adam’s descendents” were more important because they revealed the unity of the entire human race.  The human race is one.  That’s one of the wonderful things at the heart of God’s Library. This lure, this call to life “as if” there is only one human family is what excites me about the Bible. The Bible invites us simply to fall in love, like St. Francis who fell into the Christian path from sheer joy at its possibilities.  As one of my mentors (a Welsh Franciscan) told me years ago, “St Francis had a head-on collision with the living God. It knocked him silly but it also knocked him into the kingdom.” The Bible, particularly in the context of the Eucharist, provides such a collision with the shock and newness of Jesus and through Word and Sacrament we are catapulted into a new way of being in the world. Annie Dillard writes somewhere about the strange way we go about reading the Bible. She wonders whether anyone has the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke when we pray. We’re like children playing on the floor with our chemistry sets., “mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.”   In Jesus, a new way of talking about being human was initiated. The news is explosive!  Our problem is that because of the huge historical distance, we tend to miss the strangeness of it all.  Christ was a drama of rebellion against the prevailing reality of despair and diminishment, and the Bible is the great witness to this rebellion.

So, what’s the key to interpreting the scriptures?  One principle is that you never get to the bottom of it to come up with a final meaning.  The rabbis liked to point out that King Solomon used three thousand parables to illustrate every verse of the Torah, and could give a thousand and five interpretations of each parable – which meant that there were three million, fifteen thousand possible expositions of each unit of scripture.  For them the Torah, written down and read wasn’t the end of the story.  We are supposed to use our imagination to bring something fresh and new out of it – like making flour in order to bake a loaf of bread. Rabbi Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one leg. So, he stood on one leg, and said: ‘What is hateful to yourself, do not do to a fellow human being. That is the whole Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.” And, remember all those laws and rules? The rabbis affirmed that at the heart of all the legislation and the stories lies the core compassion of God’s loving heart. Love is the absolute key of all interpretation  “even if this means twisting the original meaning of the text.” This is the ancient interpretive principle, largely forgotten in this literalistic age — Whatever in the Bible is not conducive to love must be interpreted figuratively. We can then read the violence of Samuel and the death of Jezebel as cautionary tales rather than as prescriptions for behavior! St. Augustine tells us, “Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.”

Novelist Mary Gordon still calls herself a Christian – partly because of her response to her reading of the parable of the Prodigal Son – its oddness, its sheer unfairness to the older son. She writes,  “The radical challenge of Jesus: perhaps everything we think in order to know ourselves as comfortable citizens of a predictable world is wrong.” She then asks the question: how do we live? The answer?

In celebration.
Without envy.

Not a bad way to read the Bible – God’s library!

Alan Jones is dean emeritus of Grace Cathedral San Francisco and honorary Canon of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres.

[i] Mary Gordon, Reading Jesus, New York Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.2009