This past Sunday churchgoers were confronted with one of the hard sayings of Jesus. The occasion called for a bible study as much as a sermon. The misinterpretation of sacred scripture has led to lots of misfortune.
I’ll never forget my first thorough reading of the bible. Believe it or not I was already enrolled to study at Virginia Theological Seminary and had read, in a “how to get ready for seminary” letter from VTS, a suggestion from a professor who eventually became and remains a mentor for me: Read the bible!
After reading that letter I spent the summer waking at 5, going to my iron-working studio, and sitting at a huge fabrication table reading the bible. I started at the beginning and read to the end. Somewhere between Samuel and 2 Kings I was thoroughly engrossed by the words and stories of Holy Scripture, like never before, and thought, “There’s enough truth in this book to last me the rest of my life.”
On those mornings I decided that the bible was the book for me; that hidden within its pages was a truth that I could spend the rest of my life deciphering. And also that leaving the task prematurely or trading in a sacred text for an easier, more immediately enlightening or more contemporary spiritual guide would be selfish.
Anyone who has ever tried to read the bible can tell you that it’s no easy read and anyone who says anything different hasn’t really read it. The bibles rendered in English that most of us read are translations, of course, and not always “right.” Some passages were written to shock the reader like hip-hop might shock the sensitivity of a lover of classical music. When translated into English the rhyme and the meter of the biblical poet can render the rap and make it sound like easy-listening. The bible is also a book that comes as an assembly of parts – part poetry, part prose, part narrative, part genealogy, part lyric. Most of it has been cut and pasted by multiple editors. As important as it is to see the bible as one piece we must also learn how to take it apart; to see what the producers have done with the session tapes.
We could start by taking a seminary class in the history of biblical interpretation. We might also learn biblical Hebrew and Greek or at least the respective alphabets… learn how to use a lexicon and purchase an interlinear bible. And the list goes on.
Be that as it may, as I sat at a steel table in my studio reading the bible those many years ago I hadn’t been to seminary and knew nothing about biblical languages. I couldn’t have told you that the four gospels were variations on a theme. And yet, the NSRV translation of the good book lit a fire in me.
Sometimes I wonder why. Q: What was I doing? A: I was searching for something greater than myself and the place I looked was the Holy Bible.
Maybe I could have looked at other books. But I didn’t. What happened that summer, I think, was that I had not found the bible but it had found me; as much as I was reading it, it was reading me.
My favorite English translation of the Bible is the NRSV. I like The New Oxford Annotated Bible and The Harper Collins Study Bible (the translation is the same but the notes are surprisingly different). In an earlier post not long after I arrived at St. Alban’s I submitted a Daily Cup suggesting that the Billy Collins poem Introduction to Poetry contains the finest instructions for finding one’s own biblical hermeneutic (the art of seeing or interpreting Holy Scripture). I’ll redact Collins’ poem below, exchanging the word poem with the word bible.
Our Wednesday bible study at St. Alban’s ended a few weeks ago and as a leader in that group, as much as I needed a break, I already miss it. I miss the demand it asked of me – to read the bible and wrestle with it. Perhaps your reading this summer might include a book that you place your faith in… but have never read?
Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins – redacted
I ask them to take a bible
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a bible
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the bible’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a bible
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the bible to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
Happy Monday… tolle lege!