Monday, August 8, 2011

What is the Bible and how we "read" it?

During the last couple of weeks (and pretty much for the last few years) I have been involved in a lot of discussions about the Bible. From classes to chats with friends, I have heard a lot, a lot of answers to the following question: what is the Bible and how we "read" it?

My discussions have included Christians from many denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Pagans, and many other people from different traditions. Lately, the discussion has included people from the Atheists/Agnostic tradition. And let us not forget those that refuse to identify as anything...even the "Other" label may not be accurate enough.

Here is a list of some terms that come up when talking about the Bible:

The Word of God.
Sola Scriptura or "Scripture Alone".

I am guessing that you can probably come up with more terms than that. As I was thinking about it I decided to look at how (as of right now) some Christian denominations see the Bible.  If you belong to a particular denomination (or non-denomination) as a Christian, try looking up the details that apply to you.

Here is the one from the Southern Baptist Convention, as found in their "The Baptist Faith & Messsage" of their website:

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

Now, look at the two sections called The Bible isn't a book. It's a library and Know what the Bible is – and what it isn't from the Roman Catholic Church, as found in the Bible section of the USCCB or United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website:

The Bible is a collection of 73 books written over the course of many centuries. The books include royal history, prophecy, poetry, challenging letters to struggling new faith communities, and believers' accounts of the preaching and passion of Jesus. Knowing the genre of the book you are reading will help you understand the literary tools the author is using and the meaning the author is trying to convey.


The Bible is the story of God's relationship with the people he has called to himself. It is not intended to be read as history text, a science book, or a political manifesto. In the Bible, God teaches us the truths that we need for the sake of our salvation.

Of course this does not include the many other definitions and statements from other traditions on what the Bible is and how to read it, not to mention the debates on how and when it was written, the books that should be in the Bible, etc, etc.

To me, the Bible is many things, and that can be influenced by the language (if I read it in English or in Spanish), the book from Bible I read a particular day, or simply when I am not reading it and I find myself in silence.

I have been told by some friends to "read it and accept it". I have also been told to "interpret it", to use my sense of reason to "find all the beautiful layers in it". Some other friends will tell me that "you are wasting your time reading it."  Perhaps some of you belong to one of these three groups..or others.  :)

I have found that my way of "reading" the Bible is never the same...then again, who among us is always the "same"?  

Allow me to leave you with one more way of "reading" the Bible, from an ancient Christian thinker: 
St. Augustine.  

I highly recommend that you read his commentaries (he wrote three of them) on the book of Genesis to see how he struggled on how to "read" the Bible; I am not saying that this is THE way to read the Bible but it always fascinating to get an 'opinion' from someone belonging to a time and place different from us:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. 

It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.

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