Contents: UU World Back Issue

Why bother with the Bible?

... Interpret, or others will do it for you

by John Buehrens

The influence of the Bible remains pervasive in our culture. It not only functions as authoritative scripture for our largest religious communities, both Christian and Jewish, but its language and stories also still resonate throughout our literature and public rhetoric. Many contentious political debates in our public life—over issues of sexuality, economics, even foreign policy—disguise sharply divergent interpretations of the Bible.


We religious liberals and progressive people too often simply cede our power to opponents when we leave interpretation of our religious heritage—or the meaning of our nation, or authentic “family values”—to the reactionaries, the chauvinists, and the bigots. Biblical fundamentalism and literalism are not authentic faith, but disguised fear, reactions against modernity that violate the Bible’s own spirit, “for the letter kills, while spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

All understandings of the Bible are interpretations. But some interpretations are better informed. Some are more useful, edifying, inspirational, or enduring. Some are clearly oppressive, and some are empowering. I say the Bible must be read to liberate—to liberate people, and to liberate the wisdom within the scriptures themselves.

How can we find liberation in the Bible when it is so often used for oppressive ends?

It is all too easy to have a bad experience with the Bible. Authority figures may have offered an interpretation that seems, and is, unjust and oppressive. Those who sit down to read the Bible entirely on their own can also have a decidedly bad experience. Trying to read the Bible through from beginning to end, many people get bogged down somewhere in the patriarchal list of “begats” or in the long historical books, bored and alienated.

Skeptics, seekers, and religious liberals are also likely to bring to our reading questions that easily bring forth negative answers. While these questions are important, they can also set up barriers to a deeper understanding of what is really going on in the Bible. The first set of questions is historical: Did this really happen this way? The second set of questions is both personal and theological: How do I feel about God in this story? Isolating those questions from one another will not help. They are inevitably related.

It is very easy to say, “This didn’t happen!” What we easily forget is how a given legend may both reflect and try to transcend the realities of ancient society.

For the Bible, God and history are intertwined. Human history in all cultures is full of oppression, violence, and cruelty. So it is not surprising that the Bible should have mixed images of God’s role in history. There are two remarkable things, however, about the Bible’s treatment of history and of God. One concerns its honesty about history. Rather than tell only the good side of Israel’s story, the Hebrew Bible often tries to take a God’s-eye view of things and tell the bad as well. The other remarkable thing is that God is most often seen to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed, to be seeking the abasement of the oppressors and the empowerment of those who are being denied their freedom and human dignity. In the Christian scriptures, this means extending hope beyond the tragedies of history and bringing new life out of death itself.

It is also easy to say, “This God is oppressive!” It is a great temptation for us to sit in judgment on the Judge, as it were: to read the Bible as though it were a modern novel, asking ourselves whether we like the protagonist (God) or not. Probably not, at least according to our contemporary ideals and standards.

But we are dealing with a story that is thousands of years old. If God is just a character in the story, then perhaps we should at least notice this about God in the Bible: God gets better. Seemingly arbitrary, unforgiving, judgmental, and even cruel at first, God grows up and mellows. Perhaps as we read, so should we.

The sacred story may have a historical core, but it is not simply history. If we approach it that way, we will end up prejudging too many of its stories negatively. Rather when faced with legends and miracle stories, we would do better to ask, “What was the purpose of this story? What deeper insights was it intended to convey?”

After all, human experience—the raw material of history—must be organized into metaphors—stories, traditions, ideas—that transcend the events themselves, or we cannot interpret what we have experienced. In the biblical tradition, God is, at the very least, the ultimate such metaphor. We may be complete agnostics about God and skeptics about the historicity of events like the exodus from Egypt or the resurrection of Jesus. These, too, may partake of metaphor. But to understand the Bible requires that we try to understand what it is in human experience that brought forth such transcendent metaphors as creation, liberation, and resurrection.

In other words, you don’t need to believe in the God of the Bible to understand its stories. You don’t even need to believe that the Bible is consistent in its image of God; it isn’t. Neither are we. At times, the Bible’s images of God seem tragic, oppressive, punitive, cruel, or destructive. So are we. We violate our covenants with one another and with God, who both judges our failings and constantly offers what the Hebrew Bible calls hesed—steadfast, enduring love. Even if the Bible remains for us only great literature, and not sacred scripture, we should try to approach it on its own terms: as literature trying to tell us of human experience from a transcendent, God’s-eye perspective, trying to remind human beings who had experienced both undeserved goodness and unmerited evil how to remain true to the transcendent source of creation, liberation, and ultimate justice.

Without such an understanding, it is easy to fall into a form of reverse fundamentalism about the Bible. Remember: “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” Rather than focus on particular proof-texts, moralistic judgments, or overly literal readings, a look at any part of the scriptural tradition should be done in the light of the spirit of the whole. And surely there is good warrant for this. In the Hebrew Bible the prophets warn against idolatry—the worship of the part in place of the whole, of the created thing in place of the Creator. They urge a focus on a larger spirit of covenantal justice, mercy, and humility, not on particular forms of purity or piety.

So why should skeptics, seekers, religious liberals, and political progressives bother with the Bible?

The first motivation could be called political: If you can’t or won’t understand the Bible, others surely will interpret it for you. The second could be called cultural or literary: Within this culture you can’t be fully literate or creative, artistically or rhetorically, without an acquaintance with the Bible. But now we come to the third and most personal reason: You also can’t be spiritually mature or wise by simply rejecting the Bible as oppressive. The oppressive uses of the Bible are real, but unless you learn to understand that there are other readings possible, the Bible will continue to be a source of oppression for you, and not a source of inspiration, liberation, creation, and even exultation as you understand it anew for yourself, at a deeper and less literal level.

We know that religious truth did not appear all in the past, that it did not all get sealed between the covers of the Bible. We Unitarian Universalists are spiritual beneficiaries and descendents of the Renaissance humanists who insisted that the Bible is human literature about the divine, not divine literature about humans, and therefore requires the same critical approach as any other literature. We are the spiritual beneficiaries and descendents of radical reformers who insisted that the scriptures should be available to everyone, so that all might claim their powers of interpretation and understanding.

I have sometimes used a simple phrase to describe my overarching perspective on life. It’s shaped, I say, by a “biblical humanism.” In using the term “humanist” I am not refusing to think about God or to search for transcendence. I am identifying with a great tradition of critical thinking about the scriptures, going back to the scholars of the Renaissance and Reformation. They approached the Bible as one would any other human text. What they were interested in was uncovering—revealing—the human experience of the Holy, of God, of enduring truth and wisdom lying behind the veil of the ancient texts.

I am not interested in using my critical skills to tear apart or dismiss the religious experience of others in the name of my supposed “scientific” superiority or cultural modernity. No, I take the term “biblical humanist” from the German Jewish sage Martin Buber. When the Nazi SS came into the home of this great scholar and professor of comparative religion, he was at work on his new translation of the Hebrew Bible into German—the standard one by Luther having contributed to German anti-Semitism. The Nazis demanded that he surrender all his “subversive literature.” Buber handed them his Hebrew text of the Bible. “Here,” he said, “is the most subversive book in the house.”

The Rev. John Buehrens is minister of the First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts, and past president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He is the author of Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers, and Religious Liberals (Beacon Press, 2003), from which this essay is adapted. Available from the UUA Bookstore, $24; (800) 215-9076.

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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