Loving the Bible for What It Is, Not What We Want It To Be
By acknowledging that all our readings [of Scripture] are located in a cultural context and have certain prejudices, we understand that engaging with the Bible can never mean that we simply extract meaning from it, but also that we read meaning into it. In being faithful to the text we must move away from the naive attempt to read it from some neutral, heavenly height and we must attempt to read it as one who has been born of God and thus born of love: for that is the prejudice of God. Here the ideal of scripture reading as a type of scientific objectivity is replaced by an approach that creatively interprets with love.
Rachel Held Evans isn’t really a philosopher – that would be Peter Rollins who I just quoted to open this post. Rachel’s approach is, for the average reader, something far better than that. Many philosophers/theologians, like Rollins, have said this concept abstractly, yet it is unlikely to stick with the majority of the population. Rachel draws on techniques that are far more relatable: humour, emotional vulnerability, storytelling, and a gentle and humble attitude throughout it all. I’ve now reached the end of A Year of Biblical Womanhood and I have to say that the core points were not really intellectually surprising to me as somebody who is maybe closer to Rollins that Evans in my approach. But this book moved me in ways that no other I can remember ever has.
So with that said, I’m going to take Rachel’s brilliantly moving text and over-intellectualize it so that half of you don’t even understand and the other half of you will process it in a cold and analytic way similar to how I usually process things. It’s kinda what I do. Sorry. But whichever half you’re in, read Rachel’s work because she will be able to take you past that to something far better.
My main point is something that I’ve seen Rachel say often on her blog since finishing the project: “we need to learn to love the Bible for what it is, not what we want it to be.” Obviously, the main focus of A Year of Biblical Womanhood is on how we understand gender roles but it is a great general principle. We all have a tendency to read into the text what we want to see. If you’re an egalitarian, you will find ways to interpret the text that way. If you’re a complementarian, you’ll find ways to interpret the text that way. If you’re a Republican, or a Democrat, or a Socialist, or a Capitalist, or an Arminian, or a Calvinist, or an Open Theist, or you want an angry god or you want a peacemaking god… you’ll find it. As Rachel puts it, we all pick and choose. Everybody decides which texts to interpret as literal commands for all time, which texts to dismiss as cultural context, which OT texts to say have been over-ruled by the New Covenant, which to hold on to, and much more.
What I am saying is that there is no such thing as a neutral reading. This is a lie of modernism which conservatives and liberals alike have bought into. The main difference is that they’ve come up with different and often-opposing “neutral, objective readings.” That should be a sign in itself, but instead of acknowledging the flaws in the thinking, they instead usually prefer to say that clearly the other side is ignoring the neutral, objective reading which is blatantly obvious to everyone. Then they get to label anyone who disagrees as a heretic and not feel bad about it because they’re not just disagreeing with another part of the church – they’re disagreeing with the Holy Scriptures themselves! Maybe the real problem is that we want to find ways to show that we are better than those other people and modernism just gave us the excuse. In that case, I’m going to keep arguing to take away that excuse.
I’m not saying that Scripture doesn’t have things to say about all of those issues I mentioned above – I think it does and that’s why I do have my own opinions on all these issues and do blog about them. But the question is one of hermeneutics: what is the interpretive lens that you are using to decide on all of these peripheral issues? If your interpretive lens is that 1950’s white suburban America is the ideal society at least in terms of gender roles, you will find ways to support that in Scripture. We want the Bible to be a modernist textbook – a book of rules, historical facts, literal words of God divinely dictated. But it isn’t. It is only the last 500 years at most that Christians have thought this way, yet those who still do are determined that this is the only real form of Christianity.
The Bible is a grand story with a lot of little stories inside of it. It’s messy. It’s sometimes (often?) confusing. We won’t get far by reducing the beautiful story to a list of rules or doctrines. A lot of people have left the church for this exact reason. But what if we reclaimed Scripture for what it is? What if instead of looking for and arguing about proof texts to meet our modernist ideals, we embraced the beautiful ancient story that calls us to embody new life? What if we loved the Bible for what it is instead of what we want it to be?