Seven Ways to Misread the Bible

Seven Ways to Misread the Bible

My aim in this address is to think with you about the nature of the Bible we believe and proclaim.  To give my remarks an argumentative edge, I have entitled them “Seven Ways to Misread the Bible.”   My address will provide answers to the question,  How can we who honor the Bible so highly possibly be guilty of misreading and misrepresenting it?  Let me count the ways, beginning with what may seem the most innocuous.

Viewing the Bible as All One Type of Material

In our circles it is common to act as though the Bible is all one type of material.  It is easy to see how we unconsciously fall into viewing the Bible this way.  After all, the uses to which we put the Bible are religious uses–devotional reading, Bible studies, preaching.  Before we know what is happening, we file this book away under the single heading “religious writing” and do not inquire into how varied the material really is.  Furthermore, the way in which the Bible is handled in these religious contexts tends to be the same, no matter what the passage of study is.  Then, too, we rightly think of God as in some sense the author of this book, and again we can be misled into thinking it is a uniform book.

But the truth is that the Bible is a book notable for its variety.  Listen to four specimen passages to get an idea of what I am talking about.

  • “O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!  For your love is better than wine. . . .  Behold, you are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful” (Song of Solomon).
  • “Now Eglon was a very fat man. . . .  And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into [Eglon’s] belly; and the handle also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out” (Judges 3:21-22).
  • “Then the angel . . . said to me, ‘Lift your eyes, and see what this is that goes forth.’  And I said, ‘What is it?’  He said, ‘This is the measuring basket that goes forth.’ . . .  And behold, . . . there was a woman sitting in the container!  And he said, ‘[Please meet] Wickedness.’  And he thrust her back into the container. . . .  Then I lifted my eyes and saw . . . two women . . . [who] had wings like the wings of a stork, and they lifted up the container” (Zech. 5:5-9).
  • “He who blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing” (Prov. 27:14).

Now I deliberately chose four passages that challenge common stereotypes–chiefly that the Bible is all the same type of material and is serious stuff with no humor in it.

Let me say in passing that the Bible is an entertaining book rather than a dull one and that literary criticism is capable of showing this.

What’s so bad about reducing the Bible to a single type of writing?  To flatten out the Bible to a single monotone is to miss its invigorating variety, to distort the kind of book it really is and the kinds of truth it expresses, and to miss much of the fun that the Bible offers us.  The antidote to shortcircuiting this variety is to develop a sensitivity to literary genres or types.  C. S. Lewis correctly speaks of how “the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are.”

Assuming that Biblical Writers Were Indifferent to the Literary Form

A second common way to misread the Bible is to operate on the premise that biblical writers were almost totally preoccupied with what they had to say and indifferent to how they said it.  Where do we see evidence of this anti-artistic bias?  It is partly an argument from silence:  in all the years that you have sat in the pew–or stood behind the pulpit–how often have you been encouraged–or encouraged others–to think that it is terribly important that the Bible is skillfully and beautifully written?

And then there are those disclaimers that commentators and scholars keep tossing in, lest people actually start to value the artistry of the Bible as pleasurable in itself.  When the NIV translation of the Bible appeared, Christianity Today carried two reviews of it, one on content, the other on style.  Subsequently a minister wrote a letter to the editor complaining about the frivolity of attaching importance to the style of the Bible.  I have no doubt that he spoke for many when he chastised the magazine for “wasting two pages dealing with the ‘literary merit’ of a version of Scripture,” adding that “literary value is [not] any concern of God’s [and should not] be a concern of ours, in his Word!”

We catch the note of uneasiness when a commentator on Psalm 139, after explaining poetic parallelism and chiasmus, feels obligated to add, “The real majesty of the Old Testament, however, which gives it its grandeur, is found primarily not in its literary nature, . . . but in the message which the Old Testament presents.”  But wait a minute:  why do we drive a wedge between the message of the Bible and the form in which that message comes to us?  Surely we don’t think that the message comes to us in anything other than a specific form, or that the message is the same regardless of what the form is.  If literary artistry is unimportant, why did God give us a literary Bible?

Over against the sentiment of the minister who claimed that literary value was no concern of God’s in the Bible, I commend the statement of one of my students who wrote on a test, “If God did not neglect beauty when he made trees [a reference to Genesis 2:9], why would he neglect it in his Word?”  We know from the Bible itself that its writers did not regard the craft of their writing as unimportant to what they were doing.  In fact, the idea of “the Bible as literature” begins in the Bible itself.  Biblical writers speak with technical precision about such genres as proverb, song, lament, gospel, parable, apocalypse, and such like.  Biblical poets took the time and effort to put their utterances into the verse form known as parallelism.  They knew how to invent or discover apt metaphors and similes.  Biblical storytellers knew how to construct well-made plots and portray vivid characters.

The biblical writers’ respect for the craft of their writing is mainly something we infer from the works they produced, but one biblical writer becomes their spokesperson and tells us flat out what his theory of composition was.  The passage comes near the end of the book of Ecclesiastes and reads as follows:  “Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging proverbs with great care.  The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.”  Here is the picture of the biblical writer as conscious composer, as someone preoccupied with artistry and beauty of expression, as stylist, as someone writing in a distinct awareness of literary genres, in this case the collection of proverbs.

Claiming that the Bible Is a Totally Unique Book

A third way to misread the Bible is to act as though the Bible is a totally unique book.  Often this is an issue laden with apologetic overtones, with the truthfulness of the Bible made to depend on its uniqueness.  I find this bias in comments on student papers as well as published sources implying that the Bible is somehow better or truer at those points where it differs from ordinary literature.

The Bible is actually both like and unlike other books, which is a way of saying that it is not totally unique.  We would make so much more sense of the Bible if we simply applied to it what we know about other books.  A metaphor in the Bible works just like a metaphor in Shakespeare or Wordsworth.  A story is a story, no matter where we find it.  Plot conflict moving toward resolution is as much a part of the Old Testament stories of Joseph and Ruth as it is of the latest novel you read or movie you saw.  I cannot overstate how much mischief I think has been done by sealing off the Bible from the rest of our reading.

As for the bias that the Bible is somehow truer where it is different from ordinary literature or ordinary history or ordinary language and grammar, I see no basis for it.  God communicates his truth by common grace and natural revelation as well as by special revelation.  In fact, the truth revealed by these two is often the same truth, coming, after all, from the same source.  This is not to deny that the Bible has much about that is unique, even from a literary viewpoint.  My point is rather that if we begin with the presupposition that the value of the Bible depends on its uniqueness, we will skew our reading and teaching of the Bible to fit the fallacy.

Viewing the Bible as a Theology Book with Proof Texts Attached

The most common way to misread the Bible consists of viewing the Bible as a theological outline with proof texts attached.  Oh, but we don’t do that, you say.  Yes we do.  In our circles we automatically slip into viewing the Bible this way.  After all, we organize the content of the Bible into a system of theology, and to some degree we all prove the accuracy of our theology with proof texting.  I think we should do this, but there is a problem with doing so.

The problem is that it distorts the kind of book the Bible is.  The Bible is not a theological outline with proof texts.  In its external form, the Bible is an anthology of literature–a collection of stories, poems, proverbs, visions, letters, satires, orations, and treatises.  A relatively small percentage of the Bible is straight expository or informational writing.

What’s so bad about viewing the Bible as a theological outline or handbook?  Well, what’s so bad about treating a camel as though it were a car, or sitting in a classroom behaving as though you were lying in your bed?  The answer is obvious:  things work best and yield optimum results if they are approached in terms of what they really are.  The Bible will yield most if it is approached in terms of what it is.  The literary parts of the Bible lie relatively neglected because our main approach to the Bible is designed to deal with the parts of the Bible that are theological exposition and not with the narrative and poetic parts.

Viewing the Bible as a Book of Abstractions

Another fallacy is the common assumption that the Bible is a predominantly left-brain book, that is, a book of abstract propositional truth.  My terminology here comes from recent brain research, with its findings that the two hemispheres of the brain respond differently to different stimuli.  The left hemisphere becomes active when we engage in abstract reasoning, logical thinking, and conceptual analysis.  The so-called right brain processes physical sensations, concrete images, feelings, metaphors, humor, and whole-part relationships.

If you listen to how the Bible is typically handled in sermons and Bible teaching, you will get the impression that the document being discussed is an essay.  What we hear is a series of propositions.  But in fact the Bible shows a preference for image, character, and event over proposition, for concrete language over abstract langauge.  The Bible is also a very affective book that communicates its truth partly by getting us to feel a certain way toward characters and events.  Being literary, the Bible presents a type of truth that is commonly ignored when we deal with the Bible, namely, truthfulness to human experience.  Let me just say flat out that seminaries are very conceptual places–almost idea factories–that I think need to find ways to balance an almost inevitable overemphasis on the conceptual with an influx of the imaginative and the affective.

Refusing to Use Imagination in Reading and Interpreting the Bible

Because the imagination is strongly associated in the popular mind with the making of unreality, it is often viewed with suspicion by fact-oriented people who are devoted to daily life in the real world.  Additionally, because with literature and the arts the imagination is the human faculty that makes things up to produce fiction rather than recording facts, it seems inappropriate to think that we should use our imagination when reading and interpreting the Bible.  Perhaps to our surprise, an excursion into how the imagination has been defined in scholarly and aesthetic discourse for the past two centuries can be of great practical help in thinking about the uses of imagination in assimilating the Bible.

The use of imagination by the writers of the Bible undergirds the entire Bible-as-literature enterprise.  There are multiple legitimate ways in which we can speak of the Bible as a work of imagination.  That is not the subject that I am about to address.  My topic of the moment is the uses of imagination in reading and interpreting the Bible.

The first definition of the imagination that I will note is a counterpart to the writer’s creation of fictional elements in a literary work.  Readers don’t create in that way, but as they read, they call into being what the text places before them.  This is a close parallel to what the author has done.  It requires a very active reader to rise to the task, but it is within everyone’s grasp—even a child’s.

The concept of imagination has also carried the meaning of imaging forth the subject matter of the text concretely rather than abstractly.  This idea has been around since classical antiquity, but the terminology dates from the romantic movement of the early nineteenth century.   Romantic poet William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the image of man and nature” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads).  His contemporary Percy Shelley similarly called literature “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth” (Defence of Poetry).  A century later, Dorothy Sayers wrote that “what the artist is doing is imaging forth something” (“Toward a Christian Aesthetic”).  It is obvious that readers need to follow the path laid down by writers and activate their imagination to call forth not only the words of the text but the images and pictures and feelings that are embodied in it.  Readers, too, need to image forth the content of a text in their imagination.

Additionally, in aesthetics for the past two centuries, the imagination has been regarded as the human faculty that sees connections between things.  The analytic intellect is adept at finding differences, and the imagination is adept at synthesizing.  To cite an obvious example, metaphor and simile are based on seeing a similarity between two different things—a rock and God, or the beloved’s eyes and doves.  Similarly, in order to see recognizable human experience in a text, we need to draw a connection between something in the text and our own experiences in the world.

Assuming that the Bible Tells Us Only What Happened

It is a truism that whereas history and the daily news tell us what happened, literature tells us what happens—what is perpetually true for all people in all times and places.    Modern American poet Ezra Pound said wittily said that “literature is news that stays news” (The ABC of Reading [London:  Faber and Faber, 1951]).    The Bible is both historical and literary, but a common way of misreading it in our circles is to slight the universal dimension.  In the process, the Bible becomes an ancient book only.  In fact, biblical scholarship has shown itself very adept at sealing off the Bible in a world of its own, unconnected to life today.  The formula of “recognizable human experience” is a central focus of all the literature courses that I teach.

To cite an example, the story of Cain is filled with recognizable human experience.  In fact, John Steinbeck called the story of Cain “the symbol story of the human race,” adding that it “is everybody’s story” (East of Eden).  In my courses, I stand at the white board and record a growing list of recognizable human experiences in this story from my students.  Here is an arbtirarily chosen list of recognizable human experiences in a story that occupies only sixteen verses in Genesis 4:   violence, and specifically domestic violence; sibling rivalry, including the spectacle of siblings who are temperamental opposites;the model child and the problem child; the guilty child; lying to a parent; the domineering older sibling and the put-upon younger sibling; lack of self-control; self-pity; harboring a grudge; giving in to an evil impulse; the futile attempt to conceal a crime; anger at having gotten caught; the attempt to evade responsibility (“am I my brother’s keeper?”); moral indifference; the criminal without regret; the judge; arrest, trial, and sentencing; the appeal of a sentence and modification of it; making a bad decision and having to live with the consequences.

The Bible is a book of universal, recognizable human experience.  We are selling ourselves and our audiences short if we do not practice the command enshrinted in a book title:  see yourself in the Bible.

Implications for Preaching and Teaching the Bible

It remains to say something about the implications of the literary nature of the Bible for preaching and teaching the Bible.  I myself am alarmed by what I regard as the troubled state of the sermon in evangelical churches.  Our leading preachers and homiliticians apparently disagree with that verdict.

Several years ago I and a colleague in the communications department at Wheaton submitted a book proposal and specimen chapters on the subject of preaching.  When the publisher was unable to reach a verdict, I suggested with naive optimism that the editor submit the manuscript to leading preachers and teachers of homiletics.  He did.  The overwhelming majority of the respondents (a) derided us for thinking that we knew anything about preaching when we weren’t even preachers, and (b) rejected the very notion that the sermon is in trouble in our circles.

As for the first of these, let me just ask you:  if you wanted to know what was good and bad about the state of classroom lecturing, would you ask a group of professors or a group of students?  I think the time has come to ask people in the pew what they think about the sermon and to conduct an inquiry into the listening habits of churchgoers and exactly what they carry away from a sermon.

As for the state of the sermon today, let me record without trying to prove that people are often bored by the Sunday morning sermon, that they sit through sermons out of habit and politeness, and that even when people profess enthusiasm for the sermons they hear, the actual content of those sermons is emaciated compared with what it could be.  If the imagination is a valid means of knowing God’s truth, as the Bible shows us it is, then we need to hear the Christian message imaged forth more than we do.

A good starting point is to preach from the literary parts of the Bible.  There is no defensible reason why preachers should gravitate so naturally to the most theological and abstract parts of the Bible.  And when we do choose a literary text, it is important to approach it as literature.  A story or poem asks us to enter a whole imagined world and to get inside it.  It conveys its truth by getting us to share an experience.  Novelist Flannery O’Connor rightly claimed that “the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.”  Our prevailing conception of sermons includes a place for stories that illustrate a truth, but not for stories that themselves embody truth, much as we find a place for music as an aid to worship but not as an act of worship.

I believe that we need to rethink what constitutes a three-part sermon.  What it means to most preachers is to list three propositions or points, to impose that framework of generalizations on a biblical passage, and then to dip into the text for purposes of illustration or catch phrases.  Most evangelical preaching, moreover, is so topical that excursions into the text are virtually bypasssed.  I propose a different version of a three-part sermon.

Part one, in my scheme, is to relive the text itself in terms of its literary genre.  By “text” I mean the whole story or poem, not simply a single verse.  I am at a loss to understand how the single isolated verse could ever have become the customary basis for a sermon.

Part two of my proposed three-part sermon is stating the themes or principles that emerge from the passage.  Stating these principles will not take long.  The process of entering fully into the world of the passage will have prepared the way.

The third part of the sermon that I envision consists of application of principles.  The preaching that I hear is decidedly short on application, to a degree that would have scandalized the Puritans.

The three-part scheme that I have proposed allows a biblical passage to communciate by literary means first of all–that is, as a story, a poem, a wisdom passage, a vision, a paragraph of theological exposition.  And it resists the usual tendency to substitute three abstract generalizations for the passage.

A survey of churchgoers revealed that the most common complaint about sermons was “too many ideas.”  What this really means is too many unrelated ideas insufficiently bound together into a unified and coherent whole simple enough to grasp as a single entity.  If we took fifteen minutes of a sermon to first relive the text as a progressive and coherent whole, we would provide a framework that would make the total experience a great deal more unified than our sermons typically do.

Contemporary preaching has largely followed the model of Paul rather than Jesus.  The writings of Paul tend toward theological abstraction and logical thinking.  The discourses of Jesus are predominantly concrete, poetic, anecdotal.  Jesus was a storyteller and poet supreme.  When asked to define neighbor, Jesus refused and told a story instead.  Evangelical preaching in our day has appealed to the minds of churchgoers and in some traditions to their emotions.  But it has not captured the imaginations of people.

How to Read and Interpret the Bible Correctly

My main purpose has been to say something about the Bible and our handling of it.

While my format has been ways of misreading the Bible, I want to end by phrasing the issues in positive terms.  In place of reducing the Bible to one undifferentiated mass, we need to develop an appreciation for the rich variety of literary genres that we find in the Bible, as well as the rich variety of styles and personalities.  The Bible is a book for all seasons and all temperaments.  This variety should influence our selection of biblical passages for preaching and teaching and our handling of the passage that we choose.

We need also to pay attention to the “how” of biblical writing, not simply the message or content.  I see no reason to question that God inspired the forms of the Bible as well as the content, and that these forms are worthy of attention and admiration.  If the writers of the Bible wrote as inspired and guided by God, it is a plausible inference that the form as well as the content of the Bible has been inspired by God.  The literary dimension of the Bible deserves attention commensurate with its inspiration by God.

I have implied that we would do well to carry over to our study of the Bible what we know about other books, including literary ones.  We also we need to be responsive to the experiential aspect of the Bible, and to its images as well as its ideas.

As for our preaching of the Bible, the sermon is not going to be easy in the television and digital era.  I know that, and I do not wish to be unsympathetic to the problems.  I would wish, however, for a more candid acknowledgment that the problems exist, a little less defensiveness on the part of practitioners, a greater awareness that the person in the pew is a whole person, not a receptacle for theological ideas, and more confidence that a biblical passage itself has power and can be trusted to communicate that power if we will live inside a biblical passage instead of substituting a series of propositions for it.

Leland Ryken

Leland wants to see people growing and reading the Bible as literature. He has been a college teacher of literature for over half a century, authored some sixty books, and now continues to bless the Church through his resources made freely available on this site.

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