Friday, January 23, 2009

Chapter and Verse

Real Live Preacher has written a thought-provoking essay on the violence that so many conservative pastors do to the faith of their congregants in the cause of studying (and "believing") the Bible. When we treat the Bible like a rulebook, it almost inevitably follows that the context of any passage we seek to extract a rule from becomes secondary to our quest for concrete answers, if it matters at all.

Perhaps part of the problem lies in our tendency to read the Bible as though it were a collection of individual verses. When Medieval scholars first divided the books of the Old and New Testaments into chapters and verses, their intent was to create a useful indexing system for quickly referring to particular passages. And it is indeed difficult to imagine studying and discussing the Bible without such a helpful tool.

Their work has, unfortunately, had the unintended side effect of altering how we approach the Bible. Those chapter headings and verse markers that make it so easy to pinpoint specific items also make it more difficult to see the books of the Bible as organic wholes. When a chapter ends, we stop reading until our next study session. We memorize individual verses or sets of verses as though they were self-contained units of instruction. The Bible's broader themes may not be entirely lost on us, but it becomes far more difficult to keep sight of the forest when one's attention is repeatedly diverted toward specific trees.

Taken as individual units, many of the Bible's verses begin to look like encyclopedic entries. Our longing for a life free of uncertainty and difficult choices spurs us to recombine those verses into a rulebook that, properly followed, might release us from the burden of personal responsibility and the consequences of ill-chosen actions. The verses that don't fit into our new encyclopedia are allowed to remain, but we pay little further attention to them.

When application of those rules produces mixed results, or even harm, it becomes the fault of those harmed, since the rules themselves were "biblical" and therefore beyond reproach. Thus we reap the consequences of our dream of a life free from consequences, as the faith of many is battered and destroyed by the dictates we proclaim as God's commands.

The Bible, once a God-breathed (and therefore living) vessel, becomes a Frankenstein's monster of dissected and recombined parts, the life that once flowed through its words long gone. The role of the Holy Spirit is reduced to that of a glorified tour guide, the Infinite constrained from doing anything that isn't sanctioned by the finite. The book meant to point us toward the one we worship instead becomes the subconscious object of our worship.

Not that our idolatry and legalism can all be laid at the feet of those Medieval men who simply wanted to make it easier to study the Bible. Their work may have enabled us as we acted on tendencies that were already within ourselves, but ultimately only we are responsible for our actions, even if we did invoke God's name in the process.

Changing the way we view and study the Bible may entail a lifetime of learning (and unlearning). Truly knowing the Bible is so much more than being able to recite its verses, more than being able to discuss -isms and -ologies constructed from its teachings, and certainly more than being able to wield it like a club against those we view as sinners. Getting to know the Bible is not unlike getting to know a person; it happens slowly over time, through hundreds of conversations and often in defiance of any formulas intended to build relationship. Mere recitation of biographical facts says little about how well one actually knows a person.

And just as each person we meet can teach us a little more about God, so can each book of the Bible. But not in the declarative, authoritarian way we so often wish it would. There's beauty and untold mysteries waiting to be discovered, if we're willing to set aside our own agenda and take the time to find them.


Doorman-Priest said...

In total agreement here.

JJ said...

I've had these thoughts as well...

wrote about them here: The Sweetest Thing