Back in 1981 my parents gave Bibles as Christmas presents to all six of us kids. I was 26 at the time - I think I would have preferred the usual underwear and socks. It sat for years, pretty much unread. I still have it. (Friends will not say this odd; they know that I never throw anything away.)
As an adult I was all set to dismiss the Bible as a complete work of fiction…bizarre fiction at that. I mean, some of the chapters of the Old Testament just don’t make any sense, nor are they applicable in any way to life in the 21st Century. For instance, remember David of “David and Goliath” fame? Take a look at 1Samuel 18:22-27, the very disturbing tale of King Saul, David and the 100 (or 200) Philistines. I challenge you to read that story without going, “That is some pretty sick shit.” Because, let’s be honest, it is. The word “foreskin” meant the same thing then as it does now. But not only is it the product of a twisted mind, it simply did not happen. The hard part is getting to the point where you can admit that. At least, it was for me.
Before I summarily tossed my Bible into the trash, I decided to read more of it. I began in the beginning, which is always a good place. The Catholic Bible (New American Standard version) has pages and pages of instructions in the front. First there is the “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation.” Then there is a chapter called very simply, “How to Read Your Bible.” These were written by the bishops of the Vatican Council II under the Pope. What they say is very illuminating.
For one thing, the bishops tell us very clearly that the Old Testament contains things that are “incomplete and temporary.” They tell us that there are numerous different literary styles in the writings: Everything from poems to history to historical novels, beast fables, allegories, parables and fiction of a type called midrash (coyly described as “the edifying interpretation of events”). To fully understand the Bible, one must know what kind of story you’re reading; that way you can keep it in the proper context. Are you reading actual history or merely a historical novel? A poem or a parable?
Catholics are cautioned to not take the Bible too literally – that it is not scientific fact, nor does it purport to be. Two people (Adam and Eve) did not sire every subsequent man, woman and child that makes up the entire population of earth. Instead, the bishops call Genesis is a “beautiful poem on creation.” They repeatedly tell us that the Bible is not the direct Word of God, but rather the inspired (guided) word. Inspired, as an artist creates a painting from his inspiration. We are told to not think of the Bible as something dictated by God as a businessman would dictate a letter to his secretary. We are told to take the meaning and the point of the stories, not the words themselves.
As for the New Testament, the Catholic Church admits that the writers of the Gospels may not have actually known Christ! Here’s exactly what it says: ”What did the authors of the Gospels do? In the congregations, mainly in the cities around the Mediterranean, they found scores of narratives about Jesus, the beloved Founder of the Christian faith. The writers took those narratives and frequently even remolded and refashioned them to bring out the lesson they wanted to teach.” The Church also admits that it is hard to know whether the quotes attributed to Christ are exactly as he said them.
If I were still a teenager hearing all this news after only hearing the Scriptures quoted over and over with such absolute conviction, my reaction would be something along the lines of, “Gosh!” (As a pilot, the phrase I would use is “WTF, over.”)
Finally, we are told that in reading the Bible we must strike a balance between those who take it too literally and those who interpret it too loosely. This is where the Church comes in, providing the guidance necessary for a better understanding of this hodgepodge collection of books (which aren’t even in any kind of systematic order).
I’m fine with that. The Bible was not written in 2008 English. It wasn’t even written in the same consistent language. I could not pick up any such translated book written so long ago by any author (Shakespeare comes to mind) much less a whole array of different authors and expect to understand it without some guidance of people who know more than I.
Reading the preface and introduction to my Bible was revelatory. Instead of chucking the book, I decided to keep it. Because I realized that the Bible is about me and what it means to me and how it applies to my life. It’s a first-person kind of thing.
At its core, our faith is intensely personal. I cannot tell you what to believe, or vice-versa. I just hope you believe in something. As Christians we should not be judging others but be witnessing about our own personal experiences with our faith – what God and the Bible mean to us...to me, individually. And I can do that!
Where religions fail, I think, is that they force you to believe in and adhere to a specific set of rules. “THIS is what we believe…what we ALL believe. And you better believe it too if you want to remain a member of our congregation and stay out of eternal damnation in hell!”
Well, okay. But maybe not.
It is strange, in a way, that in challenging the authenticity and veracity of the Bible, I have become more attached to it and at the same time more reconnected with the Catholic Church. While I have had many adult opportunities to join other churches, I’ve always resisted for reasons I could not explain, even to myself. But now I understand. And I like how the living, changing Catholic Church uses the Bible more as a guidebook instead of a hammer or club.
I believe now that if you read the Bible, you must ultimately draw your own conclusions from it. I cannot tell you what the stories mean to you. By the same token, you can’t tell me what this or that Scripture means. No one can. It might not mean anything in today’s world, as hard as that may be for you to accept. Nor can you force me to live by your interpretation. And as for judging me and my relative “Christian-ness,” or “heavenworthiness,” well, I’ll let Someone Else be the final authority in that regard.