When I was an evangelical, I was taught that the Bible was easy to understand.
All you had to do was pick it up and read it and you would know what God wanted you to know. We were taught to read it every day, to memorize large portions of it, and to teach it to others. One of the ways that people would evangelize was to hand someone the Gospel of John, tell them to read the whole thing, and then come back and pray with them.
I no longer recommend that people simply pick up the Bible and read it. That might seem strange to say, but it’s the truth.
Here’s the thing: The Bible is a beautiful, amazing, challenging, profound, and inspirational collection of books, letters, poetry, parables, and more. It’s also confusing, difficult, at times boring, and complex.
Certainly you can pick the Bible up, read it cover to cover, and get a ton out of it. But what I’m finding, more and more, is that it’s generally not that easy for people.
Here are some common stories I hear from people about the Bible:
- You get bored or confused and so you stop reading.
- You don’t know where to start so you never even pick it up.
- You were raised with a very fundamentalist lens on the Bible and haven’t unpacked that.
- The Bible was used as a weapon against you and so you don’t trust it.
But it’s not just people who were raised fundamentalist or evangelical that have trouble with the text.
In some traditions, lay folks aren’t encouraged to read the Bible at all. In other traditions, even liberal traditions, people tend to react to conservative readings of the Bible. For instance, even liberal folks who would never read the Bible literally get caught up in discussions about the so-called “clobber passages” used against gay people. They interpret Scripture in opposition to conservatives (while still letting the conservatives set the rules for reading). Or, I’ve heard liberal folks tell others to simply ignore the Hebrew Scriptures because Jesus came to abolish all of that! (Nope. He didn’t. Not at all.)
If I’m being honest, it wasn’t until I went to seminary that I was really able to love and appreciate the Bible in all its complexity. Do I think you need to go to seminary in order to read and understand the Bible? Absolutely not! For me it was in seminary that I was given actual help in reading the Bible and introduced to scholars and preachers who were able to give me the information I needed to understand the text.
The key to really enjoying and getting something out of the study of the Bible is to have some good background information.
Until I really understood some of the historical context, the types of literature collected in the Bible, some tools for understanding it all, every time I read a passage all I could really read was the conservative interpretation of it that I had been taught as a child. I didn’t know that there were other ways to understand these texts. I was reading my conservative theology back onto the texts and honestly, most fundamentalist theology is fairly new; it’s a way of understanding these texts that hasn’t been a part of church tradition until very recently.
Do you need to be an expert on history to get something out of the Bible? No. But, for example, it certainly helps to know that Cesar was called Lord and “son of God” when you are reading in the Gospels that people are calling Jesus those titles. It helps to understand the contexts of exile and empire found through the Scriptures.
So what is the solution for folks who have no interest in going to seminary but still want to read and learn from the Bible?
- Do some background reading (I’ve recommended some books below).
- Listen to sermon podcasts from teachers you trust who you know will teach the texts with a good dose of historical information.
- Do some reading about how we came to have the Bible that we have so you can make educated decisions about what translations to read (The Rise of the Bible by Timothy Beal is a great book on that topic).
Here are several books that I’ve found really helpful:
- What is the Bible? by Rob Bell
- Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg
- Matthew and Empire by Warren Carter
- The Power of Parable by John Dominic Crossan
- The Greatest Prayer by John Dominic Crossan
- Binding the Strong Man by Ched Myers (on the book of Mark)
- In the Shadow of Empire edited by Richard Horsley
- The First Christmas by Borg and Crossan
- The First Paul by Borg and Crossan
Most of these books are on the Gospels (although some are about Paul and others are about reading the Bible more broadly). I’ve found that it’s helpful to start with the Gospels because they are more familiar and based more in story. If you’re looking for a translation to read, I highly recommend the Common English Bible. It’s not perfect, but it’s fairly readable and the translation is pretty good overall.
I absolutely believe in the power of the Jesus story (and the biblical narrative as a whole) to change lives and change the world. I just think it’s better understood when you can get the whole picture.
The Bible isn’t a collection to be afraid of, nor is it something to avoid. But it’s also better understood and appreciated when you do a bit of work around background and context. When you’re well-informed about the context you can appreciate how radical it all is even more. Dive in to the richness of the story!
How a queer perspective can you help you read the Bible better
In the Bible, time and time again we find God in the margins. That means God is with LGBTQ people and in the midst of our experiences.
Did you know that bringing a queer perspective to the Bible can help you see God more clearly?
We put together a multimedia course on how to read the Bible queerly called Reading Queerly. It’s chock-full of videos, lessons, workbooks, a few homework assignments (don’t worry, no one is grading you!), and comes with a supportive, interactive community of LGBTQ Christians and straight, cisgender supporters from around the world.
It’s all inside of Sanctuary Collective, our online community and collection of premium resources. Learn more about Reading Queerly and join Sanctuary Collective here.