Why I still study the Bible
For my birthday I gave myself a HarperCollins Study Bible. It’s quite a tome of scholarly commentary running alongside the text of the Old and New Testaments. Yet I don’t actually enjoy reading the Bible; after about 16 years of intense grappling, I found the whole thing to be tiring, disjointed, and just downright difficult to grasp. Despite this, I’ve bought this thing, a book that is either highly revered or detested, considered to be either the Word of God or just another ancient religious text. So why am I choosing to torture myself in the confusing and sublime text of Christian scripture?
For me, the purpose is to unravel the text in the light of contemporary Christian and religious experience. I do this from a critical and skeptical viewpoint, taking nothing for granted. Doubt is probably the most beneficial tool here, for it seeks not merely an alternative understanding, but rather an understanding that is shaped by how I perceive and experience the world. This really puts me at odds with many Christians, who perceive that we must approach the Bible from a viewpoint of faith. It is only by faith, they say, that we can truly understand the words of scripture. By faith, we can hear the voice of God speaking through the words and directly to our heart.
It is that notion of faith that we must apply doubt first of all. For if God truly did speak through the words of the Bible to his faithful, why then do we have such multiplicity of interpretation? So many ideas have arisen from individuals who claimed that God gave them a ‘revelation’, and in many cases these ideas are in conflict. Either God is actually the centre of the conflict, or those who claim inspiration really just imagined the experience. It’s pretty obvious that a conflicting God would not be terribly popular, so that notion falls flat. So how do we then explain the multitude of individuals who truly believe that the Holy Spirit illuminates scripture, so that they receive ‘aha!’ and ‘I get it!’ moments?
I get the same ‘aha!’ experiences from all sorts of texts. It’s really just a paradigm shift, a different way of seeing. It’s like the demonstration in my psychology lecture of ambiguous images – you know the type, where a picture looks like a face, but if you look at it from another perspective, it becomes a head. It’s simply a matter of perception rather than any kind of spiritual revelation. I don’t mean to put a damper on anyone’s experience, but really we’ve got to understand human experience in a very logical way.
Now I could go on forever about faith and doubt, but I’m supposed to be explaining why I still study the Bible. It’s now come down to a real picking-apart of the belief system that I once took for granted. I’ve become a critic of my own experience, as well as the experience of others. In this sense, my Bible study is far more interesting, since I no longer have to try to discern certain things or worry about how different parts fit into my experience. Instead, from a critical perspective, I can read the text with an eye to the cultural and historical forces shaping the message. I mean, what makes this text so much more authoritative than all other ancient texts describing a people and their god/s?
What does make it important comes back to the influence of Christianity on our culture. What also makes it important to me is asking how it informs my experience now. What can I make of Jesus now? Is he really as important as Christians believe, or am I misinformed? I’m more concerned with existential truth than with arguments to the existence of God, and this shapes my questions and inquiry.
Just as an aside, I wonder if any of us here went through this very phase of biblical inquiry that I am describing, and if so what was your inevitable conclusion?