It is undoubtedly the case that exposure to the Bible — hearing it, reading it, praying it, meditating upon it — is central to the Christian life. Anglicans, of all people, heirs to the Thirty-Nine Articles, know this: “Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation” (Article VI). Scripture is, we might say, a big deal, so much so that our salvation is caught up with it.
Yet biblical literacy among Anglicans in North America is famously tenuous. Recent research by Forward Movement revealed, for example, that just 14% of Episcopalians surveyed said they reflect on Scripture daily. This bears out anecdotally, as in the time I attended a workshop for local Anglicans and heard someone argue that in order to better know God we should look inward. After all, “the Bible says ‘to thine own self be true,’” said she. (Narrator voice: It doesn’t.)
There are signs of hope, however. The same research by Forward Movement shows a “great spiritual hunger” among Episcopalians, leading the authors of the study to suggest a number of “catalysts for spiritual growth” the chief of which is “engagement with scripture.” Indeed, recent years have seen church leadership take up this opportunity with greater intention from one end of the Communion to the other.
This is all good. It is, however, not simply a greater engagement with Scripture that we are in need of but a certain form of engagement. Just because one can read does not mean that one can read the Bible. Likewise, just because one has read the Bible does not mean that one has understood the Bible.
We must (re)learn how to read the Bible; not because the wisdom which the Bible seeks to impart is secret or requires a certain level of expertise — it is not and does not — but because modern approaches to the Bible have sometimes had the unintended consequence of obscuring what the Bible is.
In a recent interview with Peter Enns, Walter Brueggemann discusses the subject of “Resurrecting the Bible in the Mainline Church.” He suggests, rightly I think, that biblical illiteracy afflicts mainliners in particular because we are no longer confident about what the Bible is for and what we ought to do with it. This is so, says he, because, unlike some other churches, mainliners have been excessively captivated by the historical critical method which “distances the Bible from us and eliminates the hard questions that make faith scandalous.”
After highlighting the benefits of the historical critical method, Brueggemann says that mainliners need to move beyond it, to become post-critical if you will. The Bible is not a set of ideas but a set of practices, “a script that is waiting to be performed.” As such the Bible is “an invitation and a summons to see what my life would be like if I really tried to be deeply and responsibly engaged with what this script is yielding.” Like a compost pile, Brueggemann wants to focus on what the compost produces rather than on the compost itself. The Bible is an ethic that invites fidelity.
Similarly, Enns’s own project depends on distancing itself from the Bible: “The God I read about in the Bible is not what God is like — in some timeless abstraction, and that’s that — but how God was imagined and then reimagined by ancient people of faith.” In other words, the Bible is a product of its time. As such, it is bound by the cultural and conceptual limitations of its human authors. God, on the other hand, is boundless and cannot be confined by human knowing or vocabulary. “God” is whoever we imagine God to be. Therefore, we have “the sacred responsibility…to follow this biblical lead by reimagining God in our time and place” (How the Bible Actually Works, 124-125).
I suspect that for many North American Anglicans this line of reasoning would resonate to some degree. The problem is that it works. If you tell people long enough that the Bible isn’t actually about what they think it’s about and that, well, it’s more important to be “inclusive” or “just” or “loving” anyways (whatever those words mean when they become untethered from Scripture), then you’ll end up with a moralism that is only tangentially related to the Bible, if at all. While a “moral” reading of Scripture may help to alleviate some of the perceived challenges with a “literal” reading, it has the effect of making the Bible about us rather than about God. Given that we are so much less interesting than God, is our current biblical illiteracy really that surprising?
Brueggemann believes that if the Bible is to be resurrected for mainliners then we need to become post-critical. He is right, but we also need to become post-moralist. Simply put, the Bible is not first and foremost about us but about God. To put an even finer point on it, the Bible is about Jesus. And yes, that includes the Old Testament.
Here, at the outset of Advent, I will put my cards on the table. If Anglicans in North America are ever going to sate our spiritual hunger and experience spiritual growth then we need to learn to read the Bible with the faith that Jesus comes to us just here and speaks. Not in the red letters only but on every page and in every story; it all concerns him (Luke 24:27).
Fortunately, Anglicanism is well equipped here: “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ” (Article VII). In other words, the Bible cannot be reduced to an ancient artifact or a moral tract; it is rather the way by which we enter into a living relationship with Jesus Christ himself, the savior.
With respect to the relationship between Jesus and the Bible, I would go so far as to say that there is no daylight between the two. To read the Bible is to be confronted with the crucified, risen, and living Jesus Christ himself. However much biblical content one may know, there is no biblical literacy apart from beginning to apprehend this truth.
According to someone like Origen of Alexandria — who, by the way, I would like to nominate for Patron Saint of Improved Biblical Literacy — this is what it means to read the Bible not just in a historic or moral register but in a spiritual one. For Origen, Scripture — by which he means the Old Testament! — is the flesh of Christ. Thus, Christ is made incarnate wherever and whenever he is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures.”
How we might begin to (re)learn to approach the Bible this way — or rather to be approached by the Bible this way — is the subject of another post, but learn it we must. The subject of Advent is our blessed Lord and his coming to us. How fitting a spiritual practice would it be then to take up a regular practice of reading Scripture with the faith that Jesus meets us there? To in fact receive the Bible as from his own hands and to have him read it to us. To “hear, read, make, learn, and inwardly digest” it so that we might embrace and hold fast to the hope of everlasting life that is offered to us therein by Christ Jesus himself.
The Rev. Jonathan Turtle is rector of the Parish of Craighurst and Midhurst, in the Canadian Diocese of Toronto.