By Jonathan Malone
“If this weapon were to ever get into the wrong hands it could be destruction for us all.”
I love that line. It is one of those lines that you wait to hear whenever you are watching an action, adventure, spy, aliens, kind of move. It is a line that sets up the conflict and the importance of the movie. It is most often a forced and contrived line and I love it when I hear it. I have a dream that in one movie a character holds up something and the camera zooms in. You see the character holding nothing less than the Holy Bible hear him or her say “if this ends up in the wrong hands it could be the end for us all!”
The point is that the Bible can be a very dangerous book. It can be seen by many as a dangerous weapon that in the wrong hands can be destructive to the reader and to many others as history has demonstrated multiple times.
The Bible is at best a tricky book to read. It has been the source of inspiration of bigotry, prejudice, war, greed, racism, oppression, and poor decorating tastes. It is a book that has been used to push segregation, capitalism (for better or worse), socialism (again for better or worse), monarchism, patriarchies, and being just plain mean; known by scholars as “meanism or jerkism.” In the wrong hands, read the wrong way, the Bible can be a book that can lead to sorrow and suffering. In the wrong hands the Bible can be a dangerous book.
Yet it also has the potential to be a powerful book of life, hope, and freedom. Just as many who have used the Scriptures to justify so much pain and sorrow, many more have found justification a foundation for helping people in need, people who are hurting, and people who are at risk of being forgotten. The Bible need not be a negative book.
A large part of the challenge and the difficulty is in how we read the Bible. Many of the negative, dangerous, and oppressive interpretations of scripture comes out of a literal reading of the text, and usually it is the King James Version of the text that is being read in that hyper-literalist way (hooray for the critical-literal method gone awry!). In my humble opinion (hah!), I believe this is a close-minded way of approaching the Bible that is not open to the continued movement of the Holy Spirit. Peter Gomes writes in his work TheGood Book that the Bible is a living, dynamic, alive work pulling us into a faith that has offered life and hope and liberation to multitudes. The Baptist preacher and scholar Ralph Elliot writes that the word of God is a witness to faith. The Bible is a witness to a people encountering and trying to understand their relationship with God. It is alive, dynamic, and needs to be read with an ear for how God is continuing to speak.
I am not saying there is one right way to read the Bible (but there are definitely wrong ways). It is a complex text that cannot be read with a monolithic lens and each person needs to discern they ways to read the Bible that leads them to engage the divine through the text. What I am saying is that the Bible should not be read alone. It is when someone reads the Bible alone that one often comes to dangerous and harmful interpretations. The community can serve as a corrective, as a guide, and as a support to one who is listening for God’s eternal word. That is why we need a faith community and why we all should be going to church. Yup, you should feel a little guilty right now, because outside of the church you do not have the witness of others to lead upon as you strive to engage and understand this complex and often confusing book. Inside a church it is too dark to read (thanks Groucho Marx).
The Bible need not and should not be a weapon. It can and should be a guide, a star, a testimony, and a comfort. But in the wrong hands, read in the wrong way it can be damaging to many. In closing, I would like to offer nine “thesis” of reading the Bible from The Art of Reading Scripture edited by Ellen Davis and Richard B. Hays:
1. The Bible tells God’s story of creating, judging, and saving the world
2. The Bible is a coherent dramatic narrative
3. The Bible requires engagement with the entire narrative
4. To read the Bible on must use multiple, complex senses just as scripture reflects multiple, complex senses
5. The Gospels narrate the truth about Jesus
6. The Bible invites and presupposes participation in the community/church
7. The “Saints” of the church (the leaders and pillars of the community) provide guidance in interpretation
8. Christians need to read the Bible in dialogue with diverse people outside the church
9. The Bible calls us to ongoing discernment and a fresh reading again and again in light of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world
I should say that this is not a quoted list, but paraphrased – you get the idea. In case you don’t get the idea, the idea is that the Bible something that pulls us into a faith that is not static, but moving and pulling us to a deeper relationship with God. Read your Bible, but only with others and always open to the movement of God’s inspiration through the Holy Spirit. And remember this simple rule: if your interpretation leads you exclude, hurt, or dismiss others than maybe it is a misguided interpretation.