So, most readers know my social location by now. Today you need to know my medical location. I was stung the day before I'm writing this, my left hand (the one I write with) is swollen, and both the venom and the medication I’m on to reduce the swelling may cause irritability. Like Marley’s ghost being perhaps nothing more than a bit of undigested gruel in Scrooge’s stomach, this crotchety post may simply be a product of the imbalance of my body’s chemistry.
I’ve been reading through Matthew once more and today I resisted (though I did read another chapter) simply because reading the Bible includes parts that are unintelligible or off-putting. I thought of the fun riff I did for the More Light Update (the newsletter of More Light Presbyterians) ages ago parodying the title of the Beach Boys song, “She Had Fun, Fun, Fun Till Her Daddy Took Her T-Bird Away.” It was titled, “She Had Sin, Sin, Sin Till Her Daddy Took Her Bible Away.” It was about one who, reading the Bible literally, did and said things that were just plain wrong because the Bible seemed to endorse them.
The teenage protagonist in one of my unpublished novels felt compelled to sneak out of a Bible store a copy of the first Oxford Annotated Bible because the mores of his community did not allow it to be sold to minors. He did not steal it, however—he snuck it out while placing the exact cost plus tax on the counter for the owner to find. Reading it with all its footnotes, his eyes were opened for the first time to biblical scholarship. His fundamentalist, biblical literalist upbringing was challenged by his new understanding that even the biblical writers were not writing literally, but with symbolic intent.
Nikos Kazantzakis wrote of Jesus reading a disciple’s gospel account of his birth, admonishing something like, “That’s not the way it happened.” The disciple said, “But an angel of the Lord told me this is how it was.” “Then it must be true,” Jesus said. For Kazantzakis, spiritual truth was deeper than a literal story.
All this is to say, reading the Bible requires help.
When I was a child, our Baptist preacher liked to tell a joke about someone who would open the Bible and blindly point to a verse for spiritual uplift. One day his finger pointed to, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Unsatisfied with this thought, he opened the Bible to a different passage, his finger pointing to, “Go thou and do likewise.”
Context is needed to understand any biblical text, but not just its location in the Bible. The writer’s social location must be taken into account, certainly, but interpreting the Bible requires more. It is best understood within a tradition, not just the tradition that preceded it, not just the tradition of its time, but the tradition of how it was interpreted since and even how it might be interpreted in the future.
What struck me when I acquired my first Greek New Testament was the discovery that, though it is the product of ancient manuscripts, it could become outdated as earlier manuscripts are discovered. This could serve as a metaphor for discovering the truth of scripture. Future generations hold the key to understanding all that a sacred text has to offer.
In the original manuscript of my book, Come Home! Reclaiming Spirituality and Community as Gay Men and Lesbians, I wrote that “not all scripture is created equal.” What I meant was that some stand the test of time, and other scriptures do not. A gay reader of my original text suggested saying so might play into the hands of anti-gay readers who believed LGBT Christians were dissing scripture. My friend advised modifying the statement.
The funny part for me is that those who opposed the full welcome of LGBT people had what is called “a canon within a canon”—in other words, they only literally read, followed, and employed the texts that they wanted to and chose to read other texts symbolically or ignore them altogether.
Thomas Jefferson famously cut out the texts of his Bible that he felt should not be there. I would like to think of him among the first of the Enlightenment’s progressive Christians, but he did “own” slaves, so I wonder how he handled the texts related to slaves as fellow members of Christ’s body.
In The Gospel of Solentiname, Ernesto Cardinal documented the conversations of campesinos and campesinas (“peasants”) about scripture. Reflecting together on sacred texts is an ancient spiritual practice utilized by Liberation theologians to empower the disenfranchised of Latin American countries. As I have found in other settings with everyday people encountering scripture, their simplicity led to profound questions and insights. I experienced that too in the years I led a weekly Bible study for LGBT people and our allies for the Lazarus Project of West Hollywood Presbyterian Church.
Reading the Bible can be a bumpy ride. With the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah whom Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” we may also reply, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
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