I have a small alter on the dresser in my bedroom. The purpose of the alter is to remind me of my intent to listen to that still small voice where that Mysterious Other I call God speaks to me and gives me guidance, strength, and courage, and to be obedient to that voice as I go through the events of my day. Each time I walk past that alter I make it a point to take just a second or two to center myself and to be present to myself, to check in with that still small voice, and to my current thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Essentially I check to see if I am currently being obedient to that leading. Among the items on that alter is a bible that is currently open to the first page of the Gospel of Mark. As part of that process I often just run my hand across the pages of the bible.
On one level this practice seems a bit hypocritical. I seldom actually read scripture, and I haven’t for years. As I reflected on this situation recently I realized that while the traditional approach to scripture I have been exposed to through Sunday school and church over the years does not speak to me at all. In fact it turns me off. Sometimes when someone is trying to push that approach on me it makes me downright defensive, and sometimes even angry. It offers me “an opportunity to practice”, to center myself and let go of the judgements that are behind the defensive reaction, and have compassion for the other person. Sometimes that effort is successful and sometimes not.
I know that there are other ways of reading and understanding scripture. Periodically I have picked up the Bible with the intent of reading it again from that other perspective, but each time I do it either boors me or makes me frustrated or angry. I simply cannot get past all of my negative reactions to the traditional teaching that has been drilled in me over the years in order to see anything new.
Yet at some deeper level scripture still speaks to me, even without reading it. I still include it on my alter, and I still run my hand across it to center myself. I have a very strong sense that there is something much deeper there if only I could let go of the traditional teaching and connect with it. I know that, but in the end it still doesn’t work.
Jacob Needleman points to my own dilemma when he says:
…in my own academic work as a professor of philosophy and religion I had begun to perceive things in the Bible that I had never dreamed were there. I was beginning to understand that everything I had seen in the Eastern teachings was also contained in Judaism and Christianity, although the language of the Bible was practically impossible to penetrate, because it had become so encrusted with familiar associations.”*
For me the language of the bible really is “practically impossible to penetrate, because it [has] become so encrusted with familiar associations” (read traditional associations). I sense that I need to get passed those “familiar associations” so that I can connect with that deeper meaning that I know is there and that leads me to keep that bible on my alter and run my hand over it as I pass by during my day. I know that but so far I have not been able to actually do it.
In an effort to be obedient to that calling I have started reading the book Reading The Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally by Marcus J. Borg.
Much like Needleman Borg captures my issue:
“The key word in the title of this book—Reading the Bible Again for the First Time—is “again.” It points to my central claim. Over the past century an older way of reading the Bible has ceased to be persuasive for millions of people, and thus one of the most imperative needs in our time is a way of reading the Bible anew.”**
I honestly don’t remember that “older way of reading the bible” was ever persuasive to me. A critical issue for me is captured in the subtitle of the book: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally. When I reflect on my own struggle with the bible over the years it is clear to me that this is at the heart of my issue. I very much want to take the Bible seriously, yet I do believe it is counter productive to take it literally. We will see if Borg’s approach can take me past my deep seated resistances.
I believe that the bible is a book about people and about how they understood and related to God in their own time and in their own culture. It is not a book about God. I do not believe it was somehow dictated by God. I believe it was written by fallible human beings, and it should not be taken literally. In our efforts through traditional bible study to interpret scripture literally we often miss the real point, and what is worse, we do a great deal of harm in the process trying to live that “truth” and force it on other people. Some times we fight among ourselves, and sometimes we fight wars over those meanings. I believe that many of the stories in the bible are metaphoric and have much deeper meanings when those metaphors are penetrated and understood. I believe that there is much in scripture which is simply lost to us today, and we need to be open and accepting to that mystery. I look forward to whatever insights Borg’s book can offer.
*Needleman, Jacob, Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery. (Pinguin Publishing Group, 2003) Chapter 1, Paragraph 4. iBooks Edition. https://itun.es/us/hyyvv.l
** Borg, Marcus J., Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, (Harper Collins eBooks, 2009), Chapter 1, Paragraph 1. (iBooks Edition. https://itun.es/us/EFNFv.l)