The Bible with a side of fries

I think I have now discovered the two, very best places in the entire world to engage in complex theological dialogue:

1) a hidden burger joint in a fancy midtown hotel with greasy fries and really cold beer

2) on the Q train from midtown to Brooklyn with its typical crowd of theater-returnees, drunk happy-hour-goers, lost tourists, and transient entertainers

Last week, I found myself in both places on a single night, with a conversation partner who actually made my brain ache with her clear and pointed questions. She didn’t beat around the bush: What am I supposed to do with stories like the rape of Tamar, or Paul’s injunction against women in ministry? How do I reconcile the awful bits? How do I avoid throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water?

My first response rolled easily off my tongue: Well, you have to read the Bible with an understanding of its historical and theological context. Read commentary, use a study Bible, create a list of secondary resources that can offer additional enlightenment, I suggested.

Really? she answered, Is everyone supposed to have a PhD or something in order to ready the Bible? Does that make sense? Is it even possible? Because, if that’s true, you’ve made it pretty inaccessible to most people.

She is absolutely right. What happens when I insist (or a traditionally intellectual denomination makes it the norm) that Bible study can never really be just between the reader and the text- that there must always be an intermediary, either in the form of a teacher/scholar or a commentary? And who vets these intermediaries, anyway? Not all scholars and pastors are created equal. Some might even have the potential to wreak exponential havoc on the unsuspecting reader.

No wonder the Presbyterian Church and similar denominations are hemorrhaging members every year. We might as well return to the medieval era when the ‘common folks’ were barred access to the Bible, except as it was doled out at the discretion of the priests.

The beer may have loosened my tongue a little, but my companion kept me honest. I feel complicit in an apparatus that creates strata of access. The ‘simple’ people read the Bible all by itself and come to their own, uneducated conclusions. The ‘mature’ readers approach the Bible like detectives and archaeologists and snotty know-it-alls, dissecting Scripture until it is nothing but dust between the fingers. Is there an alternative? Because this is neither true nor acceptable.

“Our” tradition- progressive/liberal/intellectual Protestant- needs to experience a ‘come to Jesus’ moment about access to Scripture. We cannot continue to look down our noses on those who prefer to read their red-letter Bibles on the subway without the accompanying notations about textual irregularities or the ‘cultic ministrations and royal benefactions’ of King David’s monarchy.

There are as many ways to approach the Bible as there are people to read it. I like to read my Bible with a side of French fries and a commentary. That’s what works for me, and in all humility, I acknowledge that it’s not the only way, and it’s not even a ‘better’ way than any other. The structure I have created for myself works- and I know it works because it is self-perpetuating. The more I read, the more I want to read. I get stuck sometimes, and angry, and disheartened, and more often than not, I feel inspired, comforted, intrigued, and challenged.

But have I answered my conversation partner’s question? Where is the compromise position on Scriptural interpretation that values the text as it stands alone but finds vigor in the critique of scholars? Have I addressed the pain that can come from reading parts of the Bible that just don’t line up with our understanding of a loving and merciful God? Have I offered a middle path?

Anybody have the answer? I’ll meet you on the Q train and we’ll discuss…

About RevMcC

I am a pastor, licensed clinical social worker, consultant and workshop leader. I live in Brooklyn, NY, (the greatest place ever) with my husband and two children (the greatest people ever). I am an unqualified extrovert and lover of God. I try to live my life with gratitude, wonder, curiosity and intention.
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1 Response to The Bible with a side of fries

  1. Erin Blanton says:

    I have been mulling my response to this for a while. As I have expressed to you before, my journey with the bible has been a lot like a relationship, then it dawned on me that it actually has a lot of parallels with my relationship with New York City.
    Before I moved here 13 years ago I had an idealized view of the city ,so much so that when I arrived I hated it. I was overwhelmed and disappointed with what my life was actually like – the tiny expensive apartment full of mice, crowded subways, insane working hours – this sense of disillusionment was exactly how I felt the entire way through the Pentateuch having had such high expectations of the Bible from the stories I was familiar with.
    For NYC, I gave myself two years to tough it out and then I promised myself I would move, for the first five old testament books I let myself read a gospel book between them and that got me through. Knowing I would get to experience the familiar passages of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John enabled me to read the 100,000 ways to sacrifice animals.
    Then after 2 years in NYC I was committed to staying, I had accepted the city for its harshness because the good outweighed the bad. Likewise with the Bible, by the time I got to Judges I was actually enjoying most of the reading and I was also used to it not being perfect. It struck me that if we put 10 people in a room today to retell an event they just witnessed – we would get 10 highly differing accounts. So I could not expect a higher level of consistency from the multitude of people over thousands of years who wrote and translated the Bible.
    Then I read book of Ruth and it was just beautiful, just like discovering a small community garden in the city and sitting down for a moment of peace and reflection.
    I am committed to this bible journey now, just like I am committed to NYC being my home. Some mornings in August when I walk to the subway and get a whiff of trash that has been sitting out in the heat all night, I believe the city is a foul disgusting place and I must be insane to stay here. Just like certain parts of the bible repulse me and make me question why I decided to tackle it but I carry on regardless. I guess the city can appear to be be inaccessible to most people too so maybe by learning to live here I have tried to take that same “warts and all” approach with the Bible.
    As to your question about how to read it – I have stopped looking at the historical context around the passages and am just focusing on reading it as a stand alone text. I want to see what I can take from it on my own. I guess I don’t feel a need to reconcile anything anymore whereas at first I did. Now I chalk up the bad bits to a particular writer or scribe with an agenda that made sense to them at the time and try to move on from it. Once I am finished with the old Testament, I would like to read the rest of my Kugel “How to Read the Bible” book. I am interested to see how the scholars have interpreted the Bible and how that shapes my understanding.

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