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…