The Problem with Reading the Bible

Originally written by Frederick Buechner in his book, ‘Beyond Words’

“THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO SAY we should read the Bible as literature. The advice has a pleasantly modern and reasonable ring to it. We are all attracted. Read the Bible for the story it tells. Read the King James Version especially for the power of its prose and the splendor of its poetry. Read it for the history it contains and for its insights into ancient ways. Don’t worry about whatever it’s supposed to mean to religious faith. Don’t bother about the hocus-pocus. Read it like any other book.

The trouble is it’s not like any other book. To read the Bible as literature is like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or The Brothers Karamazov for its punctuation.

Like The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, or Proust, the Bible hangs heavy on many a conscience. One ought to have read it—if not for religious reasons, then simply because it has left so deep a mark on Western civilization. One usually hasn’t. Some parts of Genesis maybe, a handful of Psalms, a sampling or two from the Gospels. And that’s about it.

There are good reasons for not reading it. Its format is almost supernaturally forbidding: the binding rusty black like an old tuxedo, the double columns of a timetable, the print of a phone book, cluttered margins, and a text so overloaded with guides to pronunciation (“Je’-sus came from Naz’-a-reth of Gal’-i-lee and was baptized of John in Jôr’-dan”) and so befouled with inexplicable italics (“Nô’-ah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark”) that reading it is like listening to somebody with a bad stutter. More often than not the poetry is printed as prose, and poetry and prose alike are chopped up into entirely arbitrary chapters and verses, so that one of the major poems in the Old Testament, for instance, begins toward the end of Isaiah 52 with (in some versions) nothing to suggest that Isaiah 53 is a continuation of it or that it is a poem at all.

There are other reasons for not reading the Bible. It not only looks awfully dull, but some of it is. The prophets are wildly repetitious and almost never know when to stop. There are all the begats. There are passages that even Moses must have nodded over, like the six long chapters in Exodus (25-30) that describe the tabernacle and its workings all the way from the length, breadth, and composition of the curtains down to the color and cut of the priest’s ephod and a recipe for anointing oil. There are the lists of kings, dietary laws, tribes, and tribal territories. There is the book of Leviticus and most of the book of Numbers. There are places where the parallelism of Hebrew poetry (“Pour out thy indignation upon them / and let thy burning anger overtake them. / May their camp be a desolation, / let no one dwell in their tents”) becomes irresistibly soporific. There is the sense you have that you know what the Bible is going to say before it says it. There are all those familiar quotations. There is the phrase “the Good Book.” Give me a bad book any day.

There are still more reasons. The barbarities, for instance. The often fanatical nationalism. The passages where the God of Israel is depicted as interested in other nations only to the degree that he can use them to whip Israel into line. God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and then clobbering him for hard-heartedness. The self-righteousness and self-pity of many of the Psalms, plus their frequent vindictiveness. The way the sublime and the unspeakable are always jostling each other. Psalm 137, for example, which starts out “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept” and ends “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Or Noah, the one man left worth saving, God’s blue-eyed old sailorman, getting drunk in port and passing out in a tent where his son Ham beholds his shame. Or the book of Deuteronomy, where there are laws thousands of years ahead of their time, like the one that says a newly married man is exempt from military service for a year so “he can be happy with the wife whom he has taken,” side by side with laws that would make Genghis Khan blush, like the one that says Israel is to destroy conquered peoples utterly, making no covenants with them and showing no mercy. Or even Jesus of Nazareth, the same Jesus who in one place uses a Samaritan of all people—a member of a hated tribe—as the example of a man who truly loves his neighbor, and in another place is quoted as telling a Canaanite woman who came to him for help that it was not fair for him to throw the children’s food to the dogs.

In short, one way to describe the Bible, written by many different people over a period of three thousand years and more, would be to say that it is a disorderly collection of sixty-odd books, which are often tedious, barbaric, obscure, and teem with contradictions and inconsistencies. It is a swarming compost of a book, an Irish stew of poetry and propaganda, law and legalism, myth and murk, history and hysteria. Over the centuries it has become hopelessly associated with tub-thumping evangelism and dreary piety, with superannuated superstition and blue-nosed moralizing, with ecclesiastical authoritarianism and crippling literalism. Let them who try to start out at Genesis and work their way conscientiously to Revelation beware.

And yet—

And yet just because it is a book about both the sublime and the unspeakable, it is a book also about life the way it really is. It is a book about people who at one and the same time can be both believing and unbelieving, innocent and guilty, crusaders and crooks, full of hope and full of despair. In other words, it is a book about us.

And it is also a book about God. If it is not about the God we believe in, then it is about the God we do not believe in. One way or another, the story we find in the Bible is our own story.

But we find something else in it too. The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth says that reading the Bible is like looking out of the window and seeing everybody on the street shading their eyes with their hands and gazing up into the sky toward something hidden from us by the roof. They are pointing up. They are speaking strange words. They are very excited. Something is happening that we can’t see happening. Or something is about to happen. Something beyond our comprehension has caught them up and is seeking to lead them on “from land to land for strange, intense, uncertain, and yet mysteriously well-planned service.”

To read the Bible is to try to read the expression on their faces. To listen to the words of the Bible is to try to catch the sound of the queer, dangerous, and compelling word they seem to hear.

Abraham and Sarah with tears of incredulous laughter running down their ancient cheeks when God tells them that he is going to keep his promise and give them the son they have always wanted. King David, all but naked as the day he was born, dancing for joy in front of the ark. Paul struck dumb on the road to Damascus. Jesus of Nazareth stretched out between two crooks, with dried Roman spit on his face. They are all of them looking up. And listening.

How do twenty-first-century men and women, with all their hang-ups, try to see what they were looking at and hear what it was they heard? What follows are some practical suggestions on how to read the Bible without tears. Or maybe with them.

1. Don’t start at the beginning and try to plow your way straight through to the end. At least not without help. If you do, you’re almost sure to bog down somewhere around the twenty-fifth chapter of Exodus. Concentrate on the high points at first. There is much to reward you in the valleys too, but at the outset keep to the upper elevations. There are quite a few.

There is the vivid eyewitness account of the reign of King David, for instance (2 Samuel through 1 Kings 1-2), especially the remarkable chapters that deal with his last years, when the crimes and blunders of his youth have begun to catch up with him. Or the Joseph stories (Genesis 39-50). Or the book of Job. Or the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Or the seventh chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which states as lucidly as it has ever been stated the basic moral dilemma of humankind, and then leads into the eighth chapter, which contains the classic expression of Christianity’s basic hope.

2. The air in such upper altitudes is apt to be clearer and brighter than elsewhere; but if you nevertheless find yourself getting lost along the way, try a good Bible commentary that gives the date and historical background of each book, explains the special circumstances it was written to meet, and verse by verse tries to illumine the meaning of the difficult sections. Even when the meaning seems perfectly clear, a commentary can greatly enrich your understanding. The book of Jonah, for instance—only two or three pages long and the one genuine comedy in the Old Testament—takes on added significance when you discover its importance in advancing the idea that God’s love is extended not just to the children of Israel, but to all humankind.

3. If you have even as much as a nodding acquaintance with a foreign language, try reading the Bible in that. Then you stand a chance of hearing what the Bible is actually saying instead of what you assume it must be saying because it is the Bible. Some of it you may hear in such a new way that it is as if you had never heard it before. “Blessed are the meek” is the way the English version goes, whereas in French it comes out, “Heureux sont les débonnaires” (“Happy are the debonair”). The debonair of all things! Doors fly open. Bells ring out.

4. If you don’t know a foreign language, try some English version you’ve never tried before—the more far-out the better. Nothing could be further out than the Bible itself. The trouble with the King James, or Authorized Version, is that it is too full of familiar quotations. The trouble with familiar quotations is that they are so familiar you don’t hear them. When Jesus was crucified, the Romans nailed over his head a sign saying “King of the Jews” so nobody would miss the joke. To get something closer to the true flavor, try translating the sign instead: “Head Jew.”

5. It may sound like fortune-telling, but don’t let that worry you: Let the Bible fall open in your lap and start there. If you don’t find something that speaks to you, let it fall open to something else. Read it as though it were as exotic as the I Ching or the tarot deck. Because it is.

6. If people claim that you have to take the Bible literally, word for word, or not at all, ask them if you have to take John the Baptist literally when he calls Jesus the Lamb of God.

If people claim that no rational person can take a book seriously that assumes the world was created in six days and humankind in an afternoon, ask them if they can take Shakespeare seriously, whose scientific knowledge would send a third-grader into peals of laughter.

7. Finally this. If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior’s Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.

Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a holy bore and those who see it as the Word of God, which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves.

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