Sunday, March 08, 2009

Engaging God

David Plotz of Slate Magazine blogged the Bible for two years, starting "In the beginning" right through to the end.

He was surprised to learn that many people of faith do not read the Bible. As any one who listens to or preaches from the lectionary knows, most traditions like to read only snippets...the "good stuff."
Should you read the Bible? You probably haven't. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I've ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.
Plotz says that every literate person, religious or not, should read the Bible thoroughly.
Maybe it doesn't make sense for most of us to read the whole Bible. After all, there are so many difficult, repellent, confusing, and boring passages. Why not skip them and cherry-pick the best bits? After spending a year with the good book, I've become a full-on Bible thumper. Everyone should read it—all of it! In fact, the less you believe, the more you should read. Let me explain why, in part by telling how reading the whole Bible has changed me....

...You can't get through a chapter of the Bible, even in the most obscure book, without encountering a phrase, a name, a character, or an idea that has come down to us 3,000 years later. The Bible is the first source of everything from the smallest plot twists (the dummy David's wife places in the bed to fool assassins) to the most fundamental ideas about morality (the Levitical prohibition of homosexuality that still shapes our politics, for example) to our grandest notions of law and justice. It was a joyful shock to me when I opened the Book of Amos and read the words that crowned Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Just as an exercise, I thought for a few minutes about the cultural markers in Daniel, a late, short, and not hugely important book. What footprints has it left on our world? First, Daniel is thrown in the "lions' den" and King Belshazzar sees "the writing on the wall." These are two metaphors we can't live without. The "fiery furnace" that Daniel's friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions' den, sealing in a holy man who won't stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus. Daniel inspired the novel The Book of Daniel and the TV show The Book of Daniel. It's even a touchstone for one of my favorite good-bad movies, A Knight's Tale. That movie's villain belittles hero Heath Ledger by declaring, "You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting"—which is what the writing on the wall told Belshazzar.

While reading the Bible, I often felt as if I had finally lifted a veil from my eyes. I learned that I hadn't known the true nature of God's conflict with Job, which is the ur-text of all subsequent discussions of obedience and faith. I realized I was ignorant of the story of Ruth. I was unaware of the radical theology of Ecclesiastes, the source of so many of our ideas about the good life. I didn't know who Jezebel was, or why we loathe her, or why she is the painted lady, or even that she was married to Ahab.

Many people start to read the Bible cover to cover and can barely get past the begats. People try because they are looking for answers. They hope they will grow spirutually in the excercise. But will reading the Bible cover to cover as Plotz did deepen your faith? That depends on what you mean by "deepen."

On the one hand, Plotz found himself very disappointed in God when he really got into the stories of the Hebrew Bible.
After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.
But something happened. He discovered that his very questions caused him to engage God in a new way.
The Bible has brought me no closer to God, if that means either believing in a deity acting in the world or experiencing the transcendent. But perhaps I'm closer to God in the sense that the Bible has put me on high alert. I came to the Bible hoping to be inspired and awed. I have been, sometimes. But mostly I've ended up in a yearlong argument with God. Why would He kill the innocent Egyptian children? And why would He delight in it? What wrong did we do Him that He should send the flood? Which of His Ten Commandments do we actually need? Yet the argument itself represents a kind of belief, because it commits me to engage with God.
Diedre Goode, Professor of New Testament at the General Theological Seminary says:
That's exactly the point! Its not so much where you end up as your commitment to the reading, the thinking, the engaging, the arguing and the discernment. This is what its all about...
And I would take it a step further. The thinking, the engaging, the arguing, and the discernment also engages us in a moral dialogue. When we engage all the stories of all different people--the scoundrels,  the innocent sufferers, the poets, the observers, the ones struggling to remain faithful and the good people gone bad in the Bible--we find our selves in a moral conversation with Scripture itself. We want to correct them. We find ourselves asking "what would I have done?" We ask questions like "What was God thinking when God did this or called out that person?" Even more important, we begin to ask what it means to be a people of God.

If God can work through this vast array of frail, imperfect, implusive (and sometimes repulsive) characters, then maybe God is present and working through me and the people around me, too.
As I read the book, I realized that the Bible's greatest heroes—or, at least, my greatest heroes—are not those who are most faithful, but those who are most contentious and doubtful: Moses negotiating with God at the burning bush, Gideon demanding divine proof before going to war, Job questioning God's own justice, Abraham demanding that God be merciful to the innocent of Sodom. They challenge God for his capriciousness, and demand justice, order, and morality, even when God refuses to provide them. Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.
The Bible is meant to be engaged and debated and listened to and argued over. Just like the whole Bible itself, somewhere in that strange messy process we discover God and we get to know ourselves.

Read: What I learned from reading the Bible
Also: On Not Being a Sausage: The Payoff from Reading the Bible?


Peter Carey said...

Great post, Andrew!

Just terrific, I need to read that book (the Bible, again and again) and also Plotz's!

Peter Carey+

Lisa Fox said...

Thanks for this, Andrew. We were discussing similar issues just yesterday in our Bible study session. There's a lot not to like about the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.