Our church is Cape Town is running an Alpha Course. While these materials are great of exploring Christianity with interested people, the materials also have their shortcomings. One that stood out for me so far was the lack of community-focus when talking about Scripture.
Today the ideal way to read the Bible is considered to be reading in solitude. I beg to differ with this. While I agree that reading the Bible is a healthy undertaking, the interpretation of Scripture is the community’s, not the individual’s. Why do I think that?
Books of the Bible were owned by churches and rich people who shared it with their church. Reading thus became a communal activity. Becoming part of God’s story by hearing someone read that story therefore became a group activity.
Only in the last quarter of Christianity has the Bible become widely available to read for everyone. This accessibility was something people like Martin Luther fought for because a lot of clergy had made the Bible an elitist document that only the religious top in society could access, which is obviously also not reading in community, so the Reformers – by translating the Bible – changed this exclusivism.
However, Evangelicalism has often taken it to the other extreme, wherein the Bible has become exclusive to private spaces; it’s about the individual and God. And this also has it’s dangers.
The Alpha Booklet here quotes Mark 1:35, which has no reference at all of Jesus reading. The likelihood of Jesus reading is very small as documents were rare and expensive and a carpenter would have not been able to afford a copy of even one book of the Old Testament.
Though reading and studying the Bible is an amazing activity, it’s also a challenging one. Some passages are difficult because of their cultural references, some because of their challenging ethical calls, some for other reasons.
When I read the Bible, there are often passages that I don’t understand or at first even disagree with. At those moments, I do not have an easy solution ready. It helps to reread it and struggle with the passage, but it only goes so far.
And interpretation is necessary. Even if we believe that the Bible is God’s Word depicting an objective truth, we are humans and that by definition means that we have a subjective viewpoint (we are all subjects). As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee next to me. My view and understanding of this cup is different than that of my wife, because we’re viewing it from a different angle, but it is still the very same cup of coffee. As humans we’ll never be able to see all sides at ones; we always have a subjective perspective.
The same goes (and even to larger extent) with the massive volume that is the Bible. We will always have unique perspectives and it is only when we start discussing those and learning from each other that we will come to a fuller understanding of the whole.
So how can you read in community? Well, it already starts with the fact that you’re reading a translation (or for the theologians reading this: a version of the original texts) of the Bible. Translation cannot be done without some level of interpretation. If I want to translate the word “education” English to Dutch I have to understand the context (or: interpret it), because the English word has a broader application than the Dutch equivalents.
Second, use a booklet or commentary to read the Bible. However, be critical towards this and don’t just accept what the author is saying. Otherwise you’re not reading in community; you’d be simply reading the other’s individual interpretation.
Third, read the same passages as someone else you know (or maybe a few people). Since Kim and I started dating we’ve read the same passages. That makes that we struggle and wrestle with the same chapters and verses and can ask each other for input.
Fourth, read in group. Find a group of people to gather with on a regular basis and dive into the text. Pro-tip: don’t just read with people who have exactly the same understanding/interpretation as you do. Reading with people of different gender, culture, age, profession … will add so much richness to your understanding.
Fifth, read artistic interpretations. Just studying and analysing the Bible can lead to a very dry understanding of texts that are poetic, adventurous, foundational, etc. Visit old churches and look at the art on the walls and ceilings and be overwhelmed and intrigued by the artists’ interpretations. Visit art galleries and let the interpretations challenge you.
All By Yourself?
So does this mean you should never read the Bible while being by yourself? Of course not. The Bible is a beautiful book filled with wisdom and riches. Explore it and read it when you have the chance. I’m not at all saying you should stop reading the Bible by yourself, I’m suggesting you should give more attention to reading it in community.
God as the Trinity is community in himself and modelling this intimacy and opportunity to deeply connect to one another and live in deep relationship with other human beings. Including when it comes to reading God’s Word and venturing into his story.
- Merold Westphal, Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church
- Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
- James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic
- I’ve also written a more academic paper compiling some of the above ideas, which can be read here
© Photography by Nicholas Swanson