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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 15, 2011

How to Read... a Bible (?!)

Don't worry about the title. I won't go all proselytizin' on ya! After all, while committed evangelicals would probably consider me lapsed or even apostate, hardcore atheists would still call me a theist. (I'll go with whatever God thinks, myself).

Today's focus is actually upon reading, reading for meaning and comprehension that is. And whether you think the Bible is an elaborate selection of fairy tales or God's Inerrant Word I think you'll agree that the Bible has had the most profound impact of any text on Western culture (although it probably holds greater currency in terms of daily affairs outside the West these days). And if so, it is worth understanding what it is all about, right?

Insular and incestuous reading habits

It also serves as an excellent model to show how many people these days fail to read carefully or with insight or depth; how prejudices and false expectations colour our reading. As a result, subsequent praise or critique often miss the point. You can see this occur in numerous forums. With the advent of the internet in particular more and people read only a limited number of genres, often by periodicals or pundits they are familiar with and thus who they are likely to agree with. Reading in an intellectual echo chamber is a by-product of the vast selection the internet allows for. The problem is that the style one exposes oneself to can become insular, the content incestuous. Preaching to the choir is part and parcel of modern polemical exegesis.

There is also the likelihood that people will read superficially, as attention spans decrease. With so much available to titillate many scan only headlines or the first paragraph. Should any twist, irony, or subtlety occur thereafter it is likely to be overlooked.

Genre- readers with 'blurry vision'

Many also fail to catch on to the appropriate genre of a text-- we all know members of the seemingly perpetual "they don't get it" crowd. We wouldn't normally start reading a horoscope with the same schema that we use when reading a phone book, a court document, or a love letter. But some people clearly have blurry vision, if not outright diplopia, when it comes to adopting the correct reading schema (and I'm not just talking about second language learners here, native speakers seem less and less adept in such tasks). They can't really read.

For example, I've had people assume that this very column is supposed to be a place for presenting research. Some have written to the Daily Yomiuri newspaper (where I have a monthly column) chastising me for not reporting the facts or conducting interviews-- which always gives the editorial staff a bit of a laugh considering that everything about the layout, location, and tenor of the column screams, "COMMENTARY!"

Tenor- and an 'IQ above the level of a Crustacean'

Speaking of tenor, this is another area that many readers fail to grasp. The archetype is probably Dave Barry's old 'Mister Language Person' humour 'advice' column where, as Barry put it, anybody with an IQ above the level of a crustacean should be able to see that it is all a joke. Yet, Barry regularly received hundreds of angry letters questioning his so-called language expertise pointing out his dubious 'explanations'. (Closer to home, I once wrote a parody to which someone objected that the target of the parody had not in fact said those things that I had parodied. Hmmmm).

Sometimes of course, the onus is also upon the writer to be cognizant of the conventions of the genre (both schematic and stylistic) that help the reader identify both genre and tenor. The lame 'I was only joking' response in cases where readers are left perplexed or even offended by the 'joke' doesn't cut it if the writer has failed to lay sufficient ground for humour-- if the writer hasn't used the signals and conventions that savvy readers might be expected to know. Regardless, the ability of many readers to accurately focus and interpret a text, particularly anything with complexity seems to be in a downward spiral.

Regent College (not Big Ed's School O' Bible Learnin')

Hence the Bible. Now, you might well be wondering if I have any authority to expound upon this topic. Well in fact, I did complete a Master's of Theology at a very well-known and highly-regarded place called Regent College, which is on the campus of UBC in Vancouver, is affiliated with UBC, and shares some faculty, credit and students. (Veteran readers of the Uni-files will know why I am stating all this-- because some people would like it to be believed that my degree was awarded by the academic equivalent of Big Ed's School O' Bible Learnin' and Transmission Repair).

Because of my interest in theology, I also developed an interest in language, interpretation, communication, translation, exegesis, and hermeneutics and, towards the end of my degree, I began taking several linguistics courses at UBC proper (some of which counted towards my Master's in Theology and others of which went towards gaining an ESL Teacher's Certificate from UBC proper). This was also my main field of interest when getting a later MSc in Applied Linguistics. So, I'd like to think that this is a field I know something about.

The Bible- not a self-help book by Dr. God

Now, on to the Bible. We might want to start with a 'big picture' question, that is, what genre is the Bible? I'll answer this first by stating what it is not. It is not an apologia for itself. I've never understood the Christian witness' logic of telling skeptics that if they would just read the Bible they'd get it, or that the answers to all the problems in life are all there like it's just a big, black self-help book by Dr. God. I can't imagine anyone sitting down with it, in an attempt to decide if they believe it or 'agree' with it or not, and upon completion saying, "Yeah, that sounds about right to me!" The Bible is not trying to prove its own veracity-- it is the story of God and God's relationship with his people.

Nor is it a handy-dandy rule book for living (save for bits of the Epistles, which were again written for very specific audiences) or some sort of cosmic legal treatise. The very Western (North American?) habit of prooftexting as to whether something is 'good' or 'right' or not by turning to some reference in the good book and using that to underscore God's alleged views regarding the issue of the day is, to my mind, often an abuse of the Bible. It could even be considered a light form of idolatry-- re-making God in man's image. No, Mabel, the book of Habakuk will not inspire you to know if carrot cake is the right item for the church bake sale or not.

And, as many know, by treating the Bible in this piecemeal, de-contextualized, read-what-I-want-to-read fashion it is easy to find passages that seem to contradict other passages. This is because the Bible was never meant to be a moral rule book. It certainly deals with themes of morality and sin (and much more so than sins- plural) but much more in a holistic sense than a list of, say, swimming pool regulations. It is supposed to be after all, God's Word (singular) not God's words (which also raises some interesting analyses regarding the relevance of the whole 'inerrancy' argument-- but which I won't get into here).

Yes, it is a narrative-- but is it 'historical?'

So the Bible is, first and foremost, a narrative (although yes, other genres-- such as the aesthetic song-poem of Song of Solomon make appearances-- so the reader does have to make a few schematic shifts). It is a narrative about God's interaction with his creation-- the breakup and reconciliation between God and mankind (God's people). This also raises the importance of intensive reading themes such as audience, idiom, and intention. If, for example, the idiom and intention of the Bible, or of a particular section, was not to be literal then treating it as so would, for the believer, be an inaccurate or even abusive approach to God's Word.

And, is it historical? It depends what you mean by history. Certainly the Bible refers to times, events, people and places that are real and does thus emphatically not take place in a Harry Potter-esque fantasy realm or some nether-bode of the Greek or Hindu Gods. Many of the references do correspond to what we know with certainty about history and geography. However, if you think of history of meaning, bluntly, a factual report of exactly what happened-- the truth and nothing but the objective truth etc. etc. Joe Friday School of Discourse model, then in fact almost nothing in the subject of history as a humanities discipline would meet the criterion, nor would the Bible. The bigger question is, does the Bible actually intend to be 'historical' in this sense?

Can you read a stained glass window? Can Walter?

In fact, the Bible begs to be read more with an understanding and appreciation of the development and realization of certain key theological themes (the lamb, kingship, purity, sin etc.) in tow-- much like a good movie or piece of music develops key themes, but often in a subtle or indirect manner, so as to have a more profound effect upon the viewer or listener. This can be difficult for modern readers much as 'reading' the stained glass windows of a great European cathedral is nearly impossible for most modern folks. We are, in this sense, illiterate. It could be said that, in a way, the Bible was not really written for Walter Steamkettle of Ames, Iowa (and his lovely wife Buelah).

On the other hand, even the modern, Western reader knows that Jesus' parables are stories, that they are fiction used to make a point. We know that Revelations is an allegory. We adopt those reading schemas for such passages because they are presented according to that idiom. We don't take the parables 'literally'. The big question then is whether or not this applies to other aspects of reading the Bible too, such as the creation story (I say, 'yes'-- the Jewish idiom of that time regarding a 'day-- as just one example--' is far, far removed from the motifs of twenty-first century Western legal speech or television reportage).

...not concerned with objective 'accuracy'

In this sense the Bible as a whole is not really concerned with providing detailed, objective 'accuracy'. In terms of providing the narrative (and the genre of the Bible is almost completely narrative) accuracy is subsumed by the need to make a theological point-- one that would not be lost on its original intended (Jewish in the OT) audience.

The genealogies are a good example. You might well ask, "Why are these boring lists even there?" The point is to establish the kingship lineage of the Messiah, Jesus. If you try to read it as a standard, modern, family-tree genealogy it doesn't make logical sense-- both in terms of the various who-begat-who scenarios or in terms of historical time frames. But again, that was never the point-- and the originally intended readership would have understood this. A modern, Western legalistic-based society doesn't.

Synoptic inconsistencies- not a problem

This is also evident in the famous so-called 'synoptic problem'. What is the synoptic problem? The problem actually refers to questions regarding the development of the Gospel texts but what I'd like to focus upon here are the alleged inconsistencies found between the first three (synopctic) gospel testimonies-- recounting the life of Christ. Now, if this really was a problem, the Nicean Council, and other early councils involved in the establishment of the Biblical canon would certainly have noted these apparent inconsistencies and alleged contradictions-- if they were modern lawyer-types they would have done their best to smooth out or otherwise harmonize all the details. After all, we're talking about people who knew every jot and tittle of scripture, people who scrupulously studied every minute detail.

But they didn't-- because that was never the point of the Gospels, the writers of which were concerned with different themes and angles from a theological perspective (read: different emphases). It is only 'the point' if your schema for understanding the notion of truthfulness is based upon that of alibis procured from suspects in a crime-- if they aren't consistent then, yes, someone's story is fishy. But in fact the Bible is not concerned with getting all the time, place and word details exact. It is more interesting in telling the story to make a theological point-- which was how it would be read at that time and place. The issue of complete and full accuracy is moot.

This also explains why the Gnostic Gospels and other texts were never accepted into the (standard) Biblical canon. Theologically they don't cohere. It's like having a tuba player in a string quartet. It's similar to the Halloween Simpsons episodes, where the rules of Springfield animation are broken (but at least the Simpsons' audience understand this once-a-year-we-make-an-exception idiom).

The Bible: A movie trailer

Most people would also tell you that, based on the Bible, Christianity presents a model in which good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. This popular reduction is intriguing because most of the Bible in fact presents something quite different. If the story were to be written as a movie-of-the-week trailer it would probably read something like this:

God (Morgan Freeman) makes mankind, a perfect creation, in God's image but mankind, using free will, rebels against God. This state (sin, played by Justin Bieber) becomes the cause of man's distancing from God and the source of all man's troubles on earth. Mankind tries to make his way back into God's good graces through acts of goodness and sacrifice but stained by that original rebellious act, mankind always falls short. Therefore, it is up to God to reconcile the relationship, which God does by making himself into a human (Jesus-- played by Johnny Depp) who becomes the sufficient sacrifice for all mankind (since he is not tainted by sin) through being killed, and thereby ultimately transgressing death, man's usual fate. Through this act, mankind is now reconciled to God, since faith in this man-God Jesus, whose act of sacrifice opened the door to all mankind.
P.S. No, I'm not going to explain the Holy Trinity.

It actually sounds like a decent science-fiction flick--- and I don't mean that in a derisive sense at all. All the meaningful human themes are there and on a grand, cosmic scale. It is actually very deep and complex yet something that connects to the human condition of all people.

Personally, I gave up on professional Christianity a while ago because there was so much in its modern manifestations and practices that was at odds with my... well, my spirit. But I still retain a sense of the mystical, the spirituality of things, and a lasting sense that behind this confusing, exasperating book-- there is something real and profound (although it would be a lot easier for me psychologically if I believed that life and mankind was just physics and chemistry).

Go ahead and ask me your theological questions and I'll do my best to answer-- as someone who has struggled with the big book both spiritually and analytically. And next week I'll be back on track talking about the ESL classroom again.

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