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Why I Love the Bible

To give reasons for one’s love feels awkward. You might be able to give reasons for your choices, but before I fell in love with the Bible, I never went to the library to read the Holy Qur’an, or the … Read More

By / January 6, 2008

To give reasons for one’s love feels awkward. You might be able to give reasons for your choices, but before I fell in love with the Bible, I never went to the library to read the Holy Qur’an, or the Bhagavad Gita, or even the Book of Mormon. That’s not how love happens—because love does happen; it happened to me.

What else can one do—what else can I do—but tell my story, the story of my love for the Bible: how to read, to study, to ponder, to preach the Bible; how it became my professional, even professorial, career, as that study watered, even lubricated, my soul.

For the longer I live, the less adequate and less useful become all those stifling distinctions between academy and church, faith and reason, the intellectual and the spiritual. There is such an interplay between those fabricated distinctions that one cannot live without the other. So here is the story, the story of my love relationship with the scriptures.

PART 1: GETTING HOOKED

Somehow it did not start with the Bible. In my home, the Bible was supposed to be a little too Methodist. It started with Jesus, mainly as he had come to me through the hymn book, which is used as a spiritual guide in the piety of the Church of Sweden, and which we read a hymn from on Sunday morning. To go to church was a dangerous sliding into Phariseeism, as I was brought up. Somehow, what I had gathered about Jesus spoke to me, fascinated me. The image I had was of an incredibly interesting mixture of strength and kindness—strength so different from the bully world of the school yard.

Jesus became not my hero, but rather my friend. I guess I was 12 or so when I sneaked away to church on Sunday mornings—in spite of the risk of Phariseeism—to be where Jesus was supposed to be. But then in fall 1935, I was invited to something called a Bible study group. And I was given a pocket New Testament, both as a symbol and as a text, and I was told to read it as if it was all about me—my life, my conscience, my duties to God and to my neighbor. I was hooked, for life.

The old principle tua res agitur—it’s all about you, or, it is your case—carried me for a long time. And I got a language for my faith; I got words for my feelings; I got pictures for my dreams. And my image of Jesus became more multifaceted.

When I thought I understood, there was always more and more and more. I had begun to feed on the mysteries of God. And it was intellectually a most stimulating awakening. That way of reading served me well, for a while. This was the time when I was naïve and arrogant enough to identify with the people I read about, or whose writings I read. I felt like Peter and I felt like Paul—especially when they had negative feelings. I felt like all the disciples. I felt like the Prodigal Son—I had not yet learned that the story in Luke 15 was actually about the older son, who is the one who is like church people, those who stayed on the farm (somebody has to), but couldn’t take it unto himself to be grateful when his brother came home. I wanted to become more like Jesus, wondering what he would say or do had he been where I was.

That way of reading lasted for a while, and who would say that it isn’t the way I still read and feel from time to time. But my love for the scriptures led me to ways of reading that were so much less ego-centered. The Bible was really not about me. It was many other things—in the long run, much more interesting things. It was about many things in distant lands, from many distant ages.

I came to read it more and more like a book, perhaps more as a “classic.” Now it spoke to me from a great distance, of centuries and cultures deeply different from my own. And it began to be, just by its difference, that the fascination grew, that it had a way of saying to me, there are other ways of seeing and thinking and feeling and believing than you have taken for granted. And it just added to my love—for love is not just fascination.

When I short-circuited my reading in those earlier days of having it just be about me, I slowly learned that this was a greedy way to deal with the richness of the scriptures.

PART 2: FIVE WRONG WAYS TO READ THE BIBLE

So let me share with you as a tribute to the Bible—and perhaps in a strange way—five “no” statements. It is usual when one is describing love to describe it in positive and glowing terms. But my friendship with the Bible gave me the joy, and the courage, to express my love in five statements of “not.” The first one I have pointed at: It is not primarily about me. Second, it is not always as deep as we think. Third, even Paul isn’t always totally sure. Fourth, don’t be so uptight. And fifth, it is probably not as universal as we think.

It is perhaps odd to express my love in such negative terms. But it is also perhaps in the line of that wonderful word of Jesus in chapter of John: I do not call you any longer servants, but I call you friends. Somehow I became friends with the Bible. In the biblical tradition, and in the Jewish tradition, to be called the friend of God, you had to be one who argued with God. Abraham, arguing about Sodom and Gomorrah, was called a friend of God. Job was called the friend of God. To me, Jesus is the friend of God, because he argues with God. And so, these five “no’s” of mine I bring to you as a sign of love and friendship.

The first “no” is the one which became the watershed in my love story with the Bible: It is not about me. In Galatians 3 it says that the law became, as many people translated, the tutor unto Christ. And I had learned, in good Lutheran theology—and John Wesley was on that line, too—that the law was for the preparation of my conscience. The law was the tutor, and tutored me so that I could fully understand not only what I should do, but also that I couldn’t live up to it, and hence needed a savior. The law was a tutor unto Christ, preparing, tendering my conscience, so that my need for forgiveness would become so great.

Then I learned Greek. That sometimes has its value. And it seemed to me very clear that the text actually said something quite different. It said that the law for the Jewish people had been a kind of harsh babysitter who saw to it that they did not raid the kingdom until it was Gentile time, so that the Gentiles could also be in on the deal. That’s what the text actually said: The law had been tutored until it was time for the Gentiles to come in. That was confusing. Then I looked in my concordance, and I found that what the preachers had been preaching about when they preached about Paul, the forgiveness of sins, was never mentioned by Paul in either Galatians or Romans.

I started to recognize that when Paul spoke about justification by faith, he was really giving the argument in favor of his Gentile converts. He had to come to grips with how, in God’s word and God’s mind, his mission to the Gentiles fitted into God’s total plan. It was about the Jews and the Gentiles and not about me. What an awakening. And I read in Romans 7: I cannot understand that I act as I act, because the good things I want to do, I don’t, and the bad things I do not want to do, I do. I, wretched human being—who is going to rescue me? And I thought that at least it was about me. I mean it was psychologically sound and easy to show that that’s the way it is. But then I found that Paul said: If I act as I do not want and I do not act act as I want, then it isn’t I who do it. That’s what the text says. Then he said: Then I agree to the law that it is good. This sounded strange. He wasn’t very bothered, was he, by his inner conflict. He described something quite different. He used this wonderful psychological example to prove that the holy law and the commandment was holy, righteous, and just. I hadn’t cared about that, because I thought it was about me. And then I read: We have the God who justifies the ungodly. And Abraham believed, and it was counted him unto the righteousness (Rom. 4). And I thought that this had to do with God’s grace, by which we are forgiven. But it seemed that the point here was quite simply that Abraham was a gentile when he believed, because the circumcision didn’t happen until chapter 17 of Genesis and we were only in chapter 15.

So, Paul had found a wonderful exegetical key to the mystery of his Gentile mission. It wasn’t about me. And I read in Chapter II in Romans where Paul says: You Gentiles had gotten a little uppity toward the people of Israel, and I’ll tell you a secret, lest you be conceited, and that is that all of Israel will be saved, so that’s none of your business. So it was about Jews, about people.

And, imagine, I read these things during the end of the Second World War, when the camps in Auschwitz and Dachau opened up, and I still thought that Romans was a theological tractate about my soul. And I didn’t feel that it was about people. And I didn’t feel that Paul had fathomed that this Gentile condescension toward the Jewish people had started to happen already in his own time. How come the greatest missionary of the Bible warns his converts of missionary zeal? Isn’t that strange? Or, is it not so strange? Paul had been burned once. It was out of religious zeal that he had committed his only sin-—no, perhaps not his only sin, but the only sin he ever mentioned that he committed, namely, that he had persecuted the church. And he saw that now perhaps it started all over again with the Christians toward the Jews. Oh, that we had listened to him instead of to the tradition that didn’t see the Jews, but just made them a kind of brick in the game of interpretation.

I learned that it was not about me, but it was teaching me about God’s way of dealing with the world, with people, with tensions between people of different faiths. What an insight. What a wonderful book that I had claimed for my own soul game instead of feeling the big drama of God, in which I was very little.

PART TWO: How Not to Read the Bible 

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