Thursday, July 02, 2009

How are we supposed to read the Bible?

Well, we have knock down, drag out discussion on Biblical interpretation going on in the comments section of a previous post. So, while we're on the topic, maybe the chief combatants, Lee and Thomas, could address something that I have been chewing on for a year or two, which is encapsulated by some things Wendell Berry said in his essay "The Burden of the Gospels." It is well within the parameters of the discussion on the other post, and might help to focus things a bit.

Here's the section that interests me:
I need to say also that, as a reader, I am first of all a literalist, as I think every reader should be. This does not mean that I don’t appreciate Jesus’ occasional irony or sarcasm ("They have their reward"), or that I am against interpretation, or that I don’t believe in "higher levels of meaning." It certainly does not mean that I think every word of the Bible is equally true, or that literalist is a synonym for fundamentalist. I mean simply that I expect any writing to make literal sense before making sense of any other kind. Interpretation should not contradict or otherwise violate the literal meaning. To read the Gospels as a literalist is, to me, the way to take them as seriously as possible.

But to take the Gospels seriously, to assume that they say what they mean and mean what they say, is the beginning of troubles. Those would-be literalists who yet argue that the Bible is unerring and unquestionable have not dealt with its contradictions, which of course it does contain, and the Gospels are not exempt. Some of Jesus’ instructions are burdensome not because they involve contradiction, but merely because they are so demanding.

The proposition that love, forgiveness and peaceableness are the only neighborly relationships that are acceptable to God is difficult for us weak and violent humans, but it is plain enough for any literalist. We must either accept it as an absolute or absolutely reject it. The same for the proposition that we are not permitted to choose our neighbors ahead of time or to limit neighborhood, as is plain from the parable of the Samaritan. The same for the requirement that we must be perfect, like God, which seems as outrageous as the Buddhist vow to "save all sentient beings," and perhaps is meant to measure and instruct us in the same way. It is, to say the least, unambiguous.

But what, for example, are we to make of Luke 14:26: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own also, he cannot be my disciple." This contradicts not only the fifth commandment but Jesus’ own instruction to "Love thy neighbor as thyself." It contradicts his obedience to his mother at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. It contradicts the concern he shows for the relatives of his friends and followers. But the word in the King James Version is "hate." If you go to the New English Bible or the New Revised Standard Version, looking for relief, the word still is "hate." This clearly is the sort of thing that leads to "biblical exegesis."

>My own temptation is to become a literary critic, wag my head learnedly and say, "Well, this obviously is a bit of hyperbole -- the sort of exaggeration a teacher would use to shock his students awake." Maybe so, but it is not obviously so, and it comes perilously close to "He didn’t really mean it" -- always a risky assumption when reading, and especially dangerous when reading the Gospels. Another possibility, and I think a better one, is to accept our failure to understand, not as a misstatement or a textual flaw or as a problem to be solved, but as a question to live with and a burden to be borne.
It is from his book, The Way of Ignorance, but you can read the entire essay here.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I don't think the Bible contradicts itself, Martin. Otherwise, I have no problems with his method of reading the Bible. It seems fitting.

I have never said the Bible contains no allegory, or things that are true at a higher level.

But when a narrative runs along, reading very much like a journalistic account of events, and then something happens which we may find incongruous with what we think we have learned from other parts of scripture, it seems we're a bit quick to pull out the allegory tag.