Monday, April 25, 2011

Reading the Bible Like A Photo Album

I love door to door missionaries. I can't deny that part of my love for them is that I like the conflict, but I also love to talk religion, and those folks are literally asking for it.

A recent evangelist told me that I needed to read the bible with an open-heart. 'I have.' I said. 'I've read it twice'.

That's true. I've read the bible twice. Once when I was seventeen--it took a year--and once in my early twenties, when I took a series of bible classes at the University of Cincinnati that covered the bible from beginning to end, in a more academic spirit. Both times I was a Christian. Both times I was reading to learn more about my faith. Open heart.

But then, is that possible? I mean, the christian bible has saturated the culture that I live in, and has saturated the culture of many folks. Is there another work of literature that more people have spent their entire lives gaining a 'deeper' understanding of? Don Quixote? Hamlet? The Tale of Genji? Beowulf? Hardly. There are people who commit themselves to those books, but not like they do the bible. And not as many.

I know it's possible to argue that we can't come to any work of literature objectively, because we always carry our own expectations and experiences with us; as Montaigne puts it, 'there's no escaping our perception; we can walk only on our own two legs, and sit on our own bum'.

But at least these biases are our own; unless we spent our entire life living with wolves in the woods before we first picked up a bible, we've got all kinds of thoughts about what it is and what kind of information is in it. While humanists like myself may want to say that our country was founded on secular principles--and while that may be true--we do not live in a secular country. We live in an aggressively christian country, and our history and culture is aggressively christian. We grew up--most of us--in families that had some loose kind of belief in god at least, and even if we grew up in secular households, we grew up in neighborhoods full of believers. It has affected all of our art and literature. By the time we casually flip through it the first time around, or really get down and dirty to read the thing with a serious mind, we already know what to expect. We have either been programmed, or have programmed ourselves to seek out the fulfillment of our own expectations in it.

While it is beyond argument that the bible is a book written by men (sans divine inspiration), it is still a magical thing, at least metaphorically. I read it the first time while other boys my age were taking road trips with Jack Kerouac and discovering the great morality of Kurt Vonnegut, and I forced meaning from the thing. I squeezed the psalms for everything they were worth, and went to C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton to find out interpretations I had missed. The result of my biblical juicing--in retrospect--tasted a lot like me. It's possible to glean objective details from the bible, but the way we feel about it at any time in our life, in a way, is predestined from birth. Just like us Americans may never fully appreciate the full humanity of someone like George Washington, so too are those of us who live in christian districts bound to forever be evaluating (and sometimes re-evaluating) our relationship with the book, rather than evaluating the book itself.

The missionary at the door asked me to read the bible again. I told him honestly that I didn't have the time or interest to invest in it.

If I could revise my answer, I would say this instead: "I read it every day before I met you, and I will be reading it every day after you step off my porch, until I die".


Lodo Grdzak said...

I'd have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that conversation.

Spencer Troxell said...

I'm always unfailingly polite. How do you deal with door to door missionaries, Lodo?

Willie Y said...

I just tell them "I'm a devel worshipper."

Steve Perry said...

Hey Spencer,
I'll just make a few comments here. I think you stand in a unique position that is increasingly becoming less the case. Many people today say we live in a post-Christian society. Whereas your upbringing brought you into contact with religious language and ideas, that is becoming the exception rather than the norm. I'm not saying there aren't pockets of Christian cultural influences (Bible Belt anyone?) but I think it is becoming less and less so as our cultural becomes increasingly secularized. The open heart issue brings up the question of hermeneutics, what we bring to the text heavily influences what we'll find. If someone is looking to appropriate biblical passages based on an empirical, objective frame work I believe they will misinterpret it frequently. It is a foreign approach being read into the text. Each genre has its own subtleties and nuances often missed by modernistic practices of reading. For example, read Macbeth lookging for empirical only observations and what do you get, a rather uncompelling piece of literature. Its slice and dice reading. I think our expectations of the text i.e. if we believe creationist interpretations of Genesis 1 for example are the only way to read the Bible, then we arrive at the conclusion the Bible is silly. Yet, if we don't assume that and let ancient near eastern view of the text in which it was written guide our understanding, it provides a completely different reading.

Lodo Grdzak said...

New York's apartment buildings are too hard or secure for door-to door missionaries. But they try to get you on the street. And every other month or so you get treated to some sort of sermon while riding the train.

Spencer Troxell said...

Lodo: You have to love the street preachers. We have them here too. They can be pretty colorful.

Steve: Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that it deepens your experience with a piece of writing if you're able to take things like historical context and culture into consideration when you're reading it, and to approach it on it's own terms.

The closest analogy I guess I can make is that coming to the bible with an open mind (or open heart as it were) is like discovering The Beatles in your mid-twenties (which I did). There's so much commentary already, and they're work has infused our culture so much, that it's a much different procedure than, say, discovering some random indie band. I'm sure it's possible to get a decent reading, but it's much harder. Popular and important works are victims of their own success to a certain extent.

the elegant ape said...

I think were are become less post religon than post critical thinking as a society.
example: twice as many people believe in the rapture in their lifetime then evolution...