If I take time to look around my home there is evidence enough to point to an ongoing interest in that book we call the Bible. There is a copy, a Dutch translation with beautiful prints of Chagall paintings, on the shelf in the living room. A study Bible dominates my desk.* Another Bible, a small well-worn paperback, goes with me everywhere I take my backpack, including to work. And on my bedside table is a modern translation of the collection of Gospel materials which scholars are fairly certain actually happened (more on this in upcoming blogs about the person of Jesus).
The scriptures remain for me a source of inspiration and a way in which God speaks to me. Is there anything in literature more beautiful than the story of Ruth and Naomi, or the poem we know as Psalm 23, or the words of St. Paul describing what true love really is? These passages, and many more, are what draw me back to the Bible for wisdom, solace, guidance and comfort.
This “book”, however, is really a small library, and an eclectic one. It was written over a period of several centuries by dozens and dozens of writers, some of whom severely edited the works of those who went before them. Many of the individual books, or their parts, are attributed to authors who had nothing to do with them. Multiple literary styles and devices are employed to convey sometimes quite disparate messages; some of it is masterfully written, other bits are disappointingly shoddy. The Bible contains myths and legends, embellishments and falsehoods, and more than one whale of a yarn – although the whale yarn itself is quite a good one.
Telling the truth about the Bible doesn’t make it any less of a tool in God’s hands, or any less “holy”, set apart for divine purposes. The record of how our spiritual ancestors understood God, their growing awareness of God’s attributes and character, their struggles with the perplexing questions of life, and their conviction that God acts in history – most especially in the life of Jesus of Nazareth – all of these experiences reduced to mere words and presented to us on the printed page can, by God’s Spirit, become life to us, nourishing our souls. Even, I might add, the parts we know to be made up. Just because something is made up doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
I am happy for the place at which I have arrived: I no longer read the Bible literally, but I do continue to take it seriously. My journey with the Bible, which began long ago with an Air Force soldier huddled over a pocket-sized Gideon New Testament in cold and lonely Alaska, continues along its unpredictable path. It will be with me to my end and no doubt have the final word at the marking of my passing.
*The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha, NRSV. The best study Bible I’ve ever had, in part because it is careful not to promote a particular strain of theology and only includes comment that is essential to understanding.