Beyond Criticism: Learning to Read the Bible Again

Article excerpt

A CARTOON IN the New Yorker shows a man making inquiry at the information counter of a large bookstore. The clerk, tapping on his keyboard and peering intently into the computer screen, replies, "The Bible? ... That would be under self-help."

As the cartoon suggests, in postmodern culture the Bible has no definite place, and citizens in a pluralistic, secular culture have trouble knowing what to make of it. If they pay any attention to it at all, they treat it as a consumer product, one more therapeutic option for rootless selves engaged in an endless quest of self-invention and self-improvement. Not surprisingly, this approach does not yield a very satisfactory reading of the Bible, for the Bible is not, in fact, about "self-help"; it is about God's action to rescue a lost and broken world.

If we discount the story of God's gracious action, what remains of the Bible is decidedly nontherapeutic. We are left with a curious pastiche of ancient cultural constructions that might or might not be edifying for us, in the same way that the religious myths of any other ancient culture might or might not prove interesting or useful. Indeed, some postmodern readers have come to perceive the cultural alienness of the Bible and find it dangerous and oppressive.

The difficulty of interpreting the Bible is felt not only in secular culture but also in the church at the beginning of the 21st century. Is the Bible authoritative for the faith and practice of the church? If so, in what way? What practices of reading offer the most appropriate approach to understanding the Bible? How does historical criticism illumine or obscure scripture's message? How are premodern Christian readings to be brought into engagement with historical methodologies, as well as feminist, liberationist and postmodernist readings? The church's lack of clarity about these issues has hindered its witness and mission, so that it fails to speak with wisdom, imagination and courage to the challenges of our time. Even where the Bible's authority is acknowledged in principle, many churches seem to have lost the art of reading it attentively and imaginatively.

In order to address these problems the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey; convened a group of 15 scholars mad pastors who met periodically over a period of four years (1998-2002) under the collective name "The Scripture Project." The group's individual members contributed expertise in the fields of Old Testament, New Testament, systematic mad historical theology and parish ministry.

Our aim was to overcome the fragmentation of the theological disciplines by reading scripture together. As one member of the group remarked,

at one time the church's great interpreters of scripture (such as Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Luther) did not think of themselves narrowly as specialists in Old or New Testament or in theology or church history; for them, interpretation of the Bible was a seamlessly integrated theological activity that spoke directly to the needs of the church. Thus what we were doing, he joked, was assembling 15 specialists to function corporately as a "complete theologian."

The joke captured something of the truth, and it became for us a working description of the ideal we were pursuing. In seeking to explore, exemplify and nurture habits of reading scripture theologically, we hoped to recover and extend the church's rich heritage of biblical interpretation in a dramatically changed cultural environment.

In the course of our consultation, the conviction grew among us that reading scripture is an art--a creative discipline that requires engagement and imagination, in contrast to the Enlightenment's ideal of detached objectivity. In our practices of reading the Bible, we are (or should be) something like artists. This conviction entails some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is that, like every other true art, reading scripture is a difficult thing to do well. …