By Janine Warrington
The Bible is a complex and highly disputed entity. Poor interpretations of the Bible have been used in very harmful ways to condone such practices as slavery and domestic abuse. Recently, poor biblical interpretation was used to support the Traditional Plan at the United Methodist Church General Conference, legislation which prevents UMC ministers from performing same-sex weddings and bars LGBTQ+ individuals from ordination in the UMC.
Given that the Bible has been used so often to inflict harm on people and stand in the way of justice, we might ask whether it is responsible to engage with Scripture at all. We might be tempted to ignore it altogether and look to other sources as life guides. So, let’s consider: Should we read the Bible?
First, it is important that we recognize that the Bible is a hugely influential text. It is by far the most read book in the world, and it is often referenced by world leaders, considered authoritative by many individuals, and employed in major policy or personal decisions. Even if we decided that the most responsible approach to the Bible would be to shut the cover and never open it again, there is no way we could curb its influence on our world. Therefore, it is crucially important that those of us who recognize the significance and power of this text learn how to read the Bible well and then help others do the same.
Further, apart from the significance assigned to the Bible by the world, I would argue that the Bible is authoritative in itself, and therefore ignoring it is irresponsible regardless of how else it is being used. The reasoning I’m about to present is circular, but my personal experience with the Bible compels me to believe that it is, in some way, the Word of God, so I will be using the Bible as support of its own authority.
Consider the parable of the Talents recorded in Matthew 25 and Luke 19. In this story, a man is leaving on a trip and puts three servants in charge of his wealth while he is away. When he returns, the servants report back to him on their investments and earnings. The first two invested and doubled the wealth that they had been responsible for, and their master praises them saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” The third, fearing his master, simply hid the money rather than investing it and returned it to his master exactly as he had received it. This servant is deemed wicked and lazy by his master and chastised for not doing anything with what he had been trusted with.
Consider also the response of Rabbi Akiva when asked by Turnus Rufus why he was circumcised. Rabbi Akiva presents Turnus Rufus with sheaves of wheat (the work of God) and fresh-baked rolls (the work of humans), and then with raw flax (the work of God) and exquisite clothes (the work of humans), the point being that God provides us with the raw materials but expects us to use these materials creatively. Turnus Rufus asks, “If God desires circumcision, why doesn’t the baby leave the womb already circumcised?” and Rabbi Akiva replies, “Because God gave Israel the Torah in order to shape them through fulfillment of the mitzvot.”
I find these two stories incredibly helpful in shaping my own understanding of what the Bible is. The Bible is a resource created by and belonging to God which God has entrusted to humanity to invest in meaningful ways. The Bible is a source of wealth that can produce even greater riches if invested well; it is raw wheat which can be ground into flour, mixed with other ingredients, and baked to produce fresh rolls or cakes or cookies.
That God trusts us with God’s Word is incredible. Reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible is a weighty responsibility that can be daunting. It can be tempting to hide the Bible in the ground and wait for God’s return to dig it up the way the wicked and lazy servant did. It can be frustrating that God doesn’t make things easier for us, having us born already circumcised. But God asks us to engage with God’s Word in a way that shapes us as people and produces good in the world.
Here is your assignment: Think about how you tend to engage with the Bible in your daily life, and then step it up a notch. If you never read the Bible, plan to start reading the Bible regularly for a few minutes at a time. If you have read part of the Bible, pick a book of the Bible you’ve never read and work through it. If you’ve read the Bible lots of times and study it in depth but don’t often take time to mediate on it, pick one passage to meditate on over the course of several days, considering what it means to you personally. In other words, identify a meaningful way to engage with this text that God has entrusted to you and then do it.
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