I was listening to some Bruce Springsteen the other night, and thinking about the Bible (funny how that happens). In particular, to the third song off of my very favorite album, ‘Devils and Dust’. Now, upon first glance at the lyrics, it might appear that the Bible entered into my consciousness because it would roundly criticize such sentiments. And I grant you, looking at the lyrics, one might liken ‘Reno’ to unabashed pornography. It’ll certainly part your hair, as they say in the land of my birth.
But listen to the song, and hear the vocals, and it tells a different story. “This is probably the most powerful call to sexual fidelity I’ve ever heard,” is the way the thought went through my head. Because Bruce relays the charged lyrics with dis-passion, sadness, and emptiness. Even before he comes to the telling final line, you realize that a scene that might seem arousing is in fact a flat and uncomfortable and wholly depressing experience.
But my thought about the Bible is broader than just listening (or reading) to hear the proper ‘tone’ or ‘voice’ from the author. My thought is not only about allowing the authors of the Bible to write in the voice of someone else (something Bruce does all the time, as he speaks through a variety of fictional and actual characters, which doesn’t make the stories any less true, and maybe even more true). My thought is about reading the Bible with enough literary sophistication to allow irony, sarcasm, and satire. My thought is that we should read the Bible with at least as much attention, intelligence, and creativity as we grant the reading of any other book.
Those who see the Bible as a handbook of guidance, it seems to me, are forced to read everything as exemplary– that everything between the covers is on the ‘recommended’ list, except for those things which are clearly denounced. But not everything we say or write is something that we commend, and plenty of us decry things about which we’re clearly enamored.
The best example of this is Song of Solomon, a book widely understood as a love letter from Israel’s king Solomon to his newest bride. In some circles, it is touted as a quite literal guide to sex and marriage (even though it takes some wrangling to get it to fit into that mold). But one interesting theory that a professor shared in seminary is that it is pseudonymous, and is in fact a sarcastic assessment of the King, who though he has hundreds of wives and concubines (a fact that must be glossed over in those weekend marriage encounters) is still trying to act all randy toward his latest acquisition. The theory is that this mystery writer is suggesting that the King is a sham, and so is his Kingdom (a sentiment shared by many of the Biblical prophets, priests, and judges). That all of this work of alliance and politics and wealth is only hurting the people that it purports to help, and practically enslaving a whole harem of women and servants, and leaving the King morally bankrupt besides. Of course, that’s just one theory of authorship– it could be written by the guy who signed it, as some kind of triumphalist, self-promoting pro-empire propaganda. Who can be sure?
That’s just one example among many others. But I’ve got mental meanderings that run elsewhere, too… Maybe the scenes of almost unspeakable violence in the Hebrew Bible are in fact (negative) commentaries on violence (anyone ever see Unforgiven?). Maybe when Jesus says, “the poor you will always have among you,” he’s not giving us a pat on the back. Maybe when Jesus says, “Render to Caesar,” he’s delivering an audacious insult to the most powerful person in the world (self-proclaimed). Maybe the division of labor enacted by the Apostles in Acts is not some positive development, but the beginning of the end of the salad days of the church (HT: DP). Maybe Paul’s uncomfortably qualified denouncement of slavery and his famously doublespeaking commendation/silencing of women in churches are in fact a wink and a nudge that will topple the entire social order. Maybe the violence and wrath expressed in Revelation is not God’s preferred future, but a visceral promise of justice to a people long oppressed.
Maybe the Bible is a lot more challenging and a lot more nuanced than many of us realize (which isn’t to say that we need a degree in literature to read it– it’s message is simple, and direct). Perhaps our first impression of its message– that living after God is both intuitive and illogical, all while being a very good thing– was right all along.