In part because I was lucky enough to receive an excellent theological education from grade school through seminary, I wince when I hear someone start a sentence with, “God says…” or even, “The Bible says…” Quoting the Bible does not mean quoting God, and even quoting the Bible has to be done with great care and reflection. These phrases can stunt conversation and dialogue, two things I’m in the business of promoting. I call it playing the God card, or throwing Bible bullets. The God card and Bible bullets are difficult for many people to argue, even though they so often used inaccurately.
Inevitably, during election season, the Bible gets dusted off to do the work of promoting person and political agendas. My instinct, backed by my deep respect of the Bible and its power to be used or abused, is to tread very lightly here.
Years ago, I had one professor who had been studying the Hebrew Scripture his entire adult life. He seemed to know God through his studies in a way I only dared to hope. He started the course by sharing some guidelines, some things to consider when approaching the sacred biblical text. I found it exceedingly helpful, so I put them in my own words. Every time I teach the Bible, now, I start out by sharing them, too. Students always seem to find it a helpful place to start. I find it a helpful place to come back to and revisit. I hope you do, too:
Be mindful of how who you are changes how you read the Bible.
The text is not the same as the interpretation of the text.
We are reading a translation, and every translator carries a bias.
No passage has a single meaning.
Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. It was written in a time long ago, in a place far away.
Talking about the Bible with people who think and live differently than us will make the truth more complex, richer and more full.
The Bible contradicts itself and never attempts to be consistent. It interprets itself.
There is a difference between believing in the Bible and believing in the God of the Bible.
Reading the Bible literally is a fairly recent phenomenon.
There are several different genres in the Bible– poetry, myth, genealogy, law, parable– that deserve to be read with different lenses.
Not everything in the Bible happened, but that does not diminish the story’s truth.
Context is key. Taking a verse out of context limits the power of the passage. We must study the passage by looking at what comes before it and after it, by putting it into the context of the whole Bible, and considering the historical and political context the passage is set in. This takes work, challenging us to not just read the Bible, but study it.
Not every Bible passage is equal in its influence over our faith life.
The Bible does not have answers to all our modern-day questions.