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Wrestling With The Word

by William O’Brien

THE BATTLE FOR THE BIBLE — WHAT IT MEANS, and how we interpret and apply it to our lives and our world–has been waged for at least two thousand years. History is replete with the casualties of that battle. The Scriptures have served as propagandistic fodder for slavery, subjugation of women, even ethnic cleansing. Yet many of us believe the Bible is profoundly life-giving, offering a vision of justice, salvation, peace, and human dignity. While the Bible has been used to justify militarism and nationalism, it has also motivated powerful witnesses of peace and nonviolence. The same Bible sometimes wielded to oppress and exploit has also inspired healing ministries and freedom movements. The Word of God is essentially liberating. But the Word itself must be liberated from dangerous distortions, untruths, and half-truths. To open our lives to the guiding truth of the biblical revelation, we may need to unlearn much of what we’ve been taught about the Bible. For several years, I have been part of an informal, grassroots initiative called the “Alternative Seminary.” The seminary brings together people seeking to unite socially committed discipleship with serious intellectual study of the Scriptures. In weekly classes, we try to grasp the historical, cultural, and literary dynamics of the biblical texts, while also seeking prayerful personal applications of the Scriptures in our lives and our world. We question the text–and let it question us. Along the way, we seek to develop skills of “biblical literacy”–skills that I fear are greatly lacking among many Christians today. Biblical literacy is a dynamic process that includes all of our lived experience of faith and discipleship. While I would hardly claim to offer a full-fledged program of biblical literacy, I believe our study groups have gleaned some lessons that can help other Christians toward a faith more firmly rooted in the living Word.

In our efforts to become more biblically literate, we must begin by naming the factors that distort our vision and prevent us from grasping the scriptural texts in their fullness. I am convinced that the largest single barrier to our understanding is individualism. Individualism is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful force in Western culture, especially in the United States. As a philosophy, a cultural paradigm, and a mode of being, individualism is a bulwark of our political and economic systems, central to many of our most closely held values. Inasmuch as individualism grows out of the biblical teaching that each person is valuable and bears the divine image, it is the fount of human rights and personal freedom. Yet individualism fuels the atomizing and alienating effects of consumer capitalism and quickens the deterioration of community. Individualism has also shaped Western Christianity. We stress individual salvation and speak of one’s “personal relationship with Jesus.” Many Christians bring a consumer mentality to matters of faith, “shopping” for the church that best satisfies their private spiritual needs. Consciously or unconsciously, individualism also shapes our interpretation of Scripture. Whether in private reading or even within communal worship, I usually hear the biblical text addressed to me personally and uniquely. I try to discern its meaning for my life–while the person beside me applies it to her or his life, likewise acting as a private consumer of the text. This individualism would have befuddled biblical writers. Although the biblical worldview certainly values each unique person, the Hebraic culture understood each individual as belonging to and fulfilled in a community. The radically individualized person apart from community would be an anomaly to the biblical mindset. The biblical writings are addressed to a people: in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was the Israelites; in the New Testament, the discipleship communities and house churches of those committed to Jesus. The narratives are part of a culture and history shared and shaped by a people. Scripture’s commandments, teachings, and liturgical practices make sense only within a covenanted community with a common life. Certainly, each individual makes a personal choice to participate and respond. But that choice is not separate from life in the community. Even those sections of Scripture with apparently greater personal emphasis (such as the Proverbs and the “personal” epistles like Philemon and Timothy) were ultimately incorporated into a canon with communal application.

Recognizing this communal emphasis can help us overcome distortions in our readings of Scripture. For instance, the “hard sayings” of Jesus (turn the other cheek, take no thought for what you are to eat or wear, leave your family behind, love your enemies) strike us as unrealizable ideals. In fact, such teachings are absurd within an individualist paradigm. But Jesus is imparting an ethic for disciples who are to witness to the world not as isolated persons but as a community. Similarly, we cringe at the story of the rich man whom Jesus counsels to sell all his possessions (Mark 10:17-22). Only a handful of saints could ever do that, we think. But we miss that this story is part of Jesus’ teaching on a new way of communal economic sharing (10:28-31), a way of living that Jesus insists is both practical and possible. Gospel economics are not a matter of heroic individualism but are rooted in ancient covenantal practices. Paul’s writings have been particularly skewed by the individualist paradigm. As Krister Stendahl and other biblical scholars have argued, we moderns read Paul through the lens of Augustine, Luther, and the “introspective conscience” of Western individualism. As a result, Paul is diluted into a theologian of personal salvation with a minimal or even conservative social viewpoint. Yet scholars like Neil Elliott, Elsa Tamez, and Ched Myers have helped increase understanding of Paul as a builder of communities very much rooted in Jesus’ radical vision. How can we begin to put aside this filter of individualism so endemic to our own culture? A primary way is to situate ourselves within a community as the context for our Bible reading. Within our Alternative Seminary, we’ve encouraged study group members to covenant together as community. (In fact, a small house church grew out of our first study groups; other groups have formed prayer circles or have continued to meet for more life-sharing and discernment.)

Structuring our lives so that we read Scripture within a committed community of fellow believers and disciples is a fundamental challenge to our cultural values. Whether such groups happen through a church, an intentional community, or some other structure, they would ideally include serious life-sharing, reflection on our social context, mutual accountability, and prayerful attention to the presence of God’s Spirit. The core biblical image of covenant is itself a guide for our Bible study.

A second obstacle to biblical literacy is our tendency to overspiritualize scriptural texts. For centuries, the Christian church has struggled with the theological tension inherent in the doctrine of Incarnation, which was colored by the early influence of Greek thinking. Unlike the holistic understanding of the Hebrews, in which the natural and divine were interactive and indivisible, the Greek mind tended toward platonic separation of spirit and matter. The undertow of this spiritual-material split has often led to a diminution of the material and a belief that the Christian life is primarily about the realm of the Spirit, as opposed to our fallen, earthly life. As this dualistic theology evolved, church leaders stressed symbolic and allegorical understandings of biblical texts. Scriptural images drawn from ordinary human life and the created order were read as pointing to “heavenly things” and matters of the soul. As a result, the overwhelming biblical testimony regarding matters of money, power, possessions, justice, violence, and community relationships is often marginalized, allegorized away, or rendered invisible. This overspiritualizing of Scripture has often played into the hands of ecclesiastic powers that blatantly pervert and trample on biblical ethics and practices. We see church leaders taking on the secular trappings of hierarchy and princely supremacy, “lording it over” the people, in direct violation of Jesus’ teaching about power among the disciples (Mark 10:42-45, John 13:12-16). Churches and denominations amass great wealth, defying New Testament community practices, while entreating the poor to look for “riches in heaven.” Jesus’ own prayer is instructive: “on earth as it is in heaven.” The complex narratives about covenant and kingship in the Hebrew Bible are not mere foreshadowings of the heavenly reign of Christ, but genuine struggles over power dynamics in human governance and community. Jesus’ parables, while yielding many textures of meaning, fundamentally address basic issues of land and food as expressions of God’s will–in complete continuity with the covenantal and prophetic traditions of the Israelites. Jesus’ crucifixion, though it is theologically understood as part of God’s salvific plan, was also very clearly the execution of a political rebel who challenged the imperial status quo. Modern “liberal” Christianity has opted for an equally problematic approach. Seduced by post-Enlightenment rationalism, many liberal Christians have rejected much of the spiritual underpinnings of the biblical world. Embarrassed by miracles and theophanies, angels and demons, we want to downplay or explain as “symbolic” anything but the material and moral in the Bible. We reduce Jesus to little more than an enlightened sage, a noble ethicist–not someone filled with and offering us the incomprehensible power and Spirit of God. Thus, much of our Bible reading is trapped between simplistic overspiritualizing and vapid materializing. We lose both the Bible’s very real challenges to our social and communal practices, and the possibility of genuine spiritual power. We must recover a worldview that is more biblical, one in which both the spiritual and material dimensions are potent, real, and compelling. Our biblical literacy is also compromised by limited familiarity with the broad arc of biblical narrative. More often than not, we consume the Bible in fragments. We know a few famous stories, some choice passages and quotes. But we are far less aware of how the revelation of Scripture functions as a whole. In many churches, we experience the Scriptures only through the piecemeal quality of the lectionary. While the lectionary is a powerful tradition, if we depend on it for the entirety of our biblical understanding, we run the danger of receiving a splintered and distorted Scripture. In academic biblical scholarship, we sometimes find a similar pitfall. Valuable tools such as source criticism, form criticism, and textual criticism can lead to the Bible’s being dissected into pericopes, literary units, and fragmented threads. In either case, we lose the meaning, truth, and power of the story: a fundamentally coherent unfolding of divine revelation and the saga of communities responding to that revelation. Such fragmented biblical reading increases our tendency to interpret passages outside their broader context. A telling example of this is the traditional interpretation of the story of “the widow’s mite,” recounted in both Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4. On its own (as we usually hear it), the story lends itself easily to moralizing about the heroic sacrifice of this poor woman, who gave of her subsistence. Yet this story occurs within Jesus’ “Jerusalem ministry,” in which he has been confronting the abuses of the Temple system and the corruption of the religious leaders who wield power in violation of God’s will. This specific passage immediately follows Jesus’ excoriating of the scribes for–among other things–financially exploiting vulnerable widows, and it immediately precedes his announcement of the destruction of the Temple. Were we more attuned to the flow of narrative and the broad biblical story, we would see how this account fits into the pattern the Gospel writer is weaving. We would hear echoes of the Torah’s constant concern for widows, as well as the voices of Hebrew prophets like Isaiah and Amos, who condemned the religious establishment for exploiting the vulnerable. So is the widow’s mite a story about boundless generosity and self-sacrifice–or is it poignant and tragic evidence undergirding Jesus’ judgment against the Temple state? Preached once a year, extracted from its context, this widow is offered as a model to encourage giving to the church. Yet in its context, it suggests a very different reading: nothing short of a condemnation of the use of religion to victimize those who are powerless.

Another way to describe this blind spot is our lack of adequate understanding of the “intertextuality” of biblical writings. The authors of Scripture and their audiences were steeped in the narrative traditions and unfolding history of a common people. All the writings, particularly in the New Testament, are filled with allusions to that tradition, and depend on a deep awareness of it for argumentation and exposition. We see this most clearly in the epistles, where Paul and other writers explicitly quote Torah and the prophets (or make implicit reference to them). The writers call forth layers of meaning and understanding that their audiences would have grasped, but which we might miss unless we too are steeped in the broad narrative of Scripture. In describing Scripture’s intertextuality, I sometimes think of the modern technological phenomenon of hypertexting on the Internet. Many words, phrases, and images in Scripture function like hypertext, linking the hearer or listener to other passages and narratives and meanings. In the gospels, for example, Jesus’ “forty days” in the wilderness clearly link to the Israelites’ forty years of wandering in the desert. That simple reference situates the entire Gospel story within a broader context of God’s relationship with Israel. Similarly, when studying Jesus’ feeding of the thousands, we might fail to see what would have been starkly obvious to the early listeners: These stories of “feeding in the wilderness” explicitly evoke the Exodus 16 account of manna, which is both a tale of divine provision and the beginning of divine instruction on economic principles and practice of the covenant community. If we are serious about being biblical people, we must immerse ourselves in the whole Bible. We cannot afford to settle for a splintered version of God’s revelation. We must gain a fundamental understanding of the broad arc of the biblical story, so we can be more open to the power of the biblical revelation for all aspects of our lives.

For six years, our alternative Seminary groups, guided by the Spirit, have become more attuned to reading the Bible. We have had powerful, exhilarating, disturbing, and transformative encounters with God’s Word in Scripture. And we have been reminded that loving God with one’s whole heart and mind includes the intellectual work of serious Scripture study. We need to make appropriate use of biblical scholarship–but in a careful, circumspect, and self-critical way. An awareness of the historical and cultural context of a text can shed light on how we might apply our faith in our own historical context. Familiarity with the varying styles of literature within Scripture can prevent misreadings. Consider, for example, how modern scholarship has shaped our consideration of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ healings. We traditionally read these as acts of deep compassion for individuals in distress–which they are. But historical scholars have highlighted the cultural issues around “cleanliness” and “uncleanliness” in Second Temple Judaism, calling us to a more complete understanding of Jesus’ ministry. In addition to healing the disease, Jesus also liberates people from an oppressive social bondage and prophetically challenges a whole socio-religious system that marginalizes certain classes of people. This broader understanding has profound implications for our own discipleship. Scholarly tools must not be the exclusive domain of professional academicians. Lay readers and communities of committed disciples can and should make use of them–remembering, though, that intellectual Scripture study must always be balanced by a listening of the heart and by the faithful commitment of our whole lives. We also must recognize the importance of scriptural interpretation that comes from the margins of society, far from the world of formal scholarship and intellectualism. Much of Scripture itself is voices from the margins–so we must read with an attunement to the margins. Bible study groups among persons who are homeless, in prison, in recovery programs–all bring different and exciting dimensions to understanding God’s Word. I am also convinced that Christians must approach the New Testament with a greater understanding of its essential Jewishness–including the Jewishness of Jesus, his ministry and teaching, and the earliest communities. We would do well to avoid an overly Christological interpretation of the “Old Testament.” By reading the Hebrew Bible on its own terms, rather than projecting Jesus backward into the earlier testament, we can better understand how Jesus represents a continuation of the Israelite traditions. Our Alternative Seminary has had rich experiences of interfaith courses, where Jews and Christians together study and reflect on Hebrew biblical texts. We have had to learn to free ourselves from assumed readings and meanings, practicing a “hermeneutic of suspicion” toward the standard interpretations of well-known passages. As difficult as it can be, we have much to gain when we approach even the most familiar biblical texts (Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, the Good Samaritan) as if we’ve never heard them. We must probe for fresh aspects, listen for new voices (including the silent voices), let ourselves be surprised. Occasionally, our Alternative Seminary groups include participants who were raised without religion or church and have never heard some of the most famous Bible stories. Invariably, such persons offer astonishingly fresh reactions that open us all.

I do not mean to suggest that if we follow these suggestions for studying the Scriptures, we will finally “get it right.” Our goal must not be to simply substitute “progressive” interpretations for “traditional” ones. I do believe, though, that our efforts toward greater biblical literacy can lead us to a more profound faith. And while we may have just as many disagreements and varying interpretations, I am convinced that our efforts to grasp the biblical witness more completely can lead us to a more authentic discipleship. Of course, the real test of any biblical interpretation is in the very lives of Christians, in our active discipleship. Jesus himself defied simple answers as to whether he was or wasn’t the Messiah–he simply told people to look at the fruit of his ministry and decide if it conveyed truth and power. As activist-scholar Wes Howard-Brook has said, we must “stake our lives on the reading.” For me, the ultimate clue to how we discern power and meaning in the Bible comes from Scripture itself. Genesis 32 gives us the cryptic but compelling story of Jacob wrestling with a shadowy figure who is–a human adversary? An angel? The Lord? This story becomes the foundation of the people who will undertake the great faith journey in history. Through this ancestor and his divine fisticuffs, the people are named “Israel”–those who wrestle with God–a people simultaneously blessed and wounded. The truth of the Bible comes through a wrestling with the revelation. That wrestling happens with our minds, our hearts, and, ultimately, our lives within a community of committed disciples. A truthful wrestling will both bless and wound us. We take that blessing and wounding into the uncertainties of history and humanity, empowered to live as the people of God. Back to the Table of Contents

>From The Other Side Online, © 1999 The Other Side, November-December 1999,

Vol. 35, No. 6.



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