Why Study the Bible? A Progressive Case for Biblical Literacy

This Sabbath, I began leading a seven-week exploration of the Gospel of Mark in my church. Sunday morning at 9:30, many of us with coffee in hand, about a half dozen fellow congregants and I shuffled into our church parlor, sat in a circle, and looked at one another. Bibles were opened and situated on laps; some were stacked on the coffee table sitting in the center of the circle. As I felt all eyes on me, I realized something horrifying: I’ve sold this class as “Bible study for people who don’t like Bible study.” Have you really thought about what that means, Aaron? I asked myself as I circulated handouts outlining background information on Mark and highlighting central themes that emerge in the first chapter. You’ve really done it this time, I thought as I opened my mouth to begin the class.

People in my church are incredibly well-educated and smart. Even if they do not have advanced degrees, they are intellectually-curious, thoughtful people. So part of my approach is to lead the discussion in the same way I do when I am teaching my university courses: I point out critical details, and then ask for interpretation. This approach worked well in the church class, for everyone spoke and seemed engaged. But my internal voice was shouting, You’re letting them down, Aaron. You’re not offering anything new or exciting. Then, as we were wrapping up, one of the participants–a loving saint of the church who has quickly become a dear friend–turned to me and said, “I was expecting something different.” Uh-oh, I thought. This is what I feared. “This is supposed to be Bible study for people who don’t like Bible study. So, maybe next time, we can discuss why we should study the Bible. I mean, why not some other text? Why this?”

I must admit that I was taken aback, not because of the content of his question but rather because he has a point. Why the Bible? Why not more updated texts, ones that don’t require hours of associated study and information? If one does not have an appreciation for the contours of Roman occupation during the first century, one will most likely miss key aspects of the Gospels. So what is the point for us in the 21st century–especially those of us who find parts of the Bible to be very difficult to interpret or accept–studying this text? I left the class a bit shaken, but smiled to other congregants, claiming that the meeting went well and that it is off to a good start. Inside, though, I was wrestling with the question. Why study the Bible?

I believe that I have an answer. We study the Bible because is links us, across space and time, to the billions of Christians that have preceded us. When we open up the Bible, we are connected with billions of fellow Christians who are practicing their faith simultaneous to us. We draw from the same well; we drink from the same cup; we are nourished by the same Living Waters. We read it because it is the basis of our tradition; further, we read the Tanakh because it reminds us of our Jewish roots. This is something Christians too often forget.

But we also study the Bible because the stories belong to us as well. I make no secret that I have great difficulty with biblical literalism. Along with being a rather new form of exegesis, biblical literalism reduces the Scriptures to a false paradigm: true or false. The “God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it approach” pays little respect to the depth and beauty of biblical texts. Must the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son be “real” people in order for Jesus’ parables to have meaning? Of course not. So why do we put it past the power of the Bible’s authors to use metaphor, simile, and figurative language? The Scriptures invite us into relationship, with ourselves, with others, with God. The Bible is a brilliant–and, yes, frustrating–collection of texts that chronicle the greatest of human questions: Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? How should I live? What does God expect of me? If there were only one answer to each of these questions, there would be only one religion, one church, one denomination. But there are not. Religions are Legion, as are interpretations, especially within the Christian faith. So while we Progressive Christians are lambasted for desacralizing the Scriptures, we are doing nothing of the kind. We are following the lead of Origen, who believed that a literal reading of the Bible would drive a person mad. Allegory, he argued, is part and parcel of biblical hermeneutics.

But I do not want this to descend into another “culture wars” discussion. And I most certainly don’t want to say, We read Scripture so we can triumph over those with whom we disagree. That leads nowhere.

Ultimately, we read Scripture because we seek transformation; we desire to see how living in a new way can bring about healing, can produce a more authentic way to love, and can bring us into meaningful relationship with an increasing number of people. We read Scripture because a passage from Romans changed St. Augustine’s life. We study the Bible because Martin Luther was so convinced that God was communicating to him through Scripture that he nailed 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, setting into motion the Protestant Reformation (or Protestant Revolt, depending on the side one takes). This same collection of texts inspired Henry Ward Beecher to oppose slavery; allowed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to utilize biblical principles in order to change the minds of people, as well as to demand a non-violent approach to change; and has been the source of inspiration for people around the world to speak truth to power. We read Scripture because in the pages of the Bible, we encounter the Living God. We see how commitment to love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness produces an alchemical response: We can turn lead into gold by changing hearts. If one loves one’s enemy, that person ceases being an enemy. This is a lesson that never, ever is outdated.

As a member of the United Church of Christ, I ultimately answer that we read the Bible because God is still speaking. And God speaks through the Bible, with stories, eloquent language, and challenging requirements that cause all of us who believe to interpret ourselves. Where am I in this story? Because we are there, and sometimes in very surprising ways.

So, to quote the child Augustine heard chanting as he sat in the garden, “Take it up and read. Take it up and read.”

4 thoughts on “Why Study the Bible? A Progressive Case for Biblical Literacy

  1. Another great entry. We read the Bible because it is the story of us, of all humanity. It is like asking why families get together and share their old stories of long past relatives, we do it for connection, for identity, for wisdom. Thank you for another insightful article!

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful and impassioned post Aaron. I pray that more of us at Cross Creek and the wider progressive Christian movment would find a sense of wonder and adventure in Bible Study! And who knows, maybe we, too, may even discover those nudges toward transformation, renewal and justice that so many have great leaders have found through the study of the sacred scriptures! For sure, Bible study is one important way that we are “on the search” as we look for, and listen out for, our Still Speaking God!

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