As a pastor serving in an evangelical church, I am aware that other believers in Yeshua have certain expectations of me. One of those expectations is that I will never say a phrase like “four reasons not to read your Bible,” because part of my job is to get people to do the opposite—that is, to read their Bibles every day.
So I purposefully chose the title of this blog series (and the message series on which it is based) to be a little bit fun and provocative. Naturally, as a pastor, I want people to read their Bibles, right? So one would assume that I must have some other message. And I do. The tagline of my series, and the conclusion of my last blog post, completes the title: “Four reasons not to read your Bible: a shameless clickbait series title.”
Wait no—sorry. It’s “Four reasons not to read your Bible, but to study it instead.”
Now, imagine the absolute glee I felt upon hearing about the firestorm of Facebook comments about Part 1 of this blog series. Our social media coordinator informed me that many of these comments were responses to the title, and not the content, of my post—as if I really advocated the abolition of Bible reading.
Nothing could have better proven my point. Take a few of someone’s words out of context, and you can make them say anything you want. This happens in politics all the time—in case you’ve ever wondered, this is why most politicians so carefully choose their words during election campaigns, reading or reciting talking points verbatim. This is a perfectly rational response to what we all do to them, which is to parse their words for meanings, opinions, and intentions that don’t exist. We do the same thing in religious arguments, as sentences ripped from someone else’s faith text are used to demonstrate that the religion based on that text must advocate unsavory beliefs or actions. In fact, this phenomenon can be detected anywhere people argue. It is easier to take a sentence out of context, interpret it however you want, and continually guide the discussion back to that single misunderstood idea—whether it has been unintentionally or purposefully misunderstood—than it is to have a real discussion about real beliefs and ideas.
Unfortunately, the human habit of ripping ideas out of context is not limited to polemic and argument, spheres of communication that can almost always be safely ignored. We do our own holy texts the same injustice.
Danger, Will Robinson!
The four reasons I mentioned in Part 1 of this series are four barriers to understanding any given verse, sentence, chapter, or book of the Bible. These barriers—time, language, culture, and geography—come between us and the meaning of the text that we are reading.
These barriers are what make Bible reading dangerous—not simply because we misunderstand the Scriptures, but because we act on that misunderstanding, often with disastrous results.
Consider Eric Rudolph, who bombed several abortion clinics back in the nineties. His actions killed several and injured many more. The people he harmed—regardless of whether their actions were justified or merited some kind of divine punishment—had not been convicted of any crime or judged by any court to be worthy of death. Eric felt justified in taking on the role of judge, jury, and executioner because of his gross misunderstanding of the Bible he believed in, the very same Bible we believe in.
“That’s not fair,” you might be thinking. “There is no way to justify that sort of wanton murder from the Scriptures.”
Yes. That is it exactly.
Most of us are not thrown so horribly off course when we misinterpret the Bible. Yet when fervent belief is mixed with failed interpretation, anything can happen. Even the most horrific actions—from the Christian Inquisition to Islamic Jihad—appear justifiable when cloaked in a divine mandate. And indeed, the sweetest sin is that which one believes God has sanctioned; it comes free, without guilt or apparent consequence.
Christian anti-Semitism can be traced back to this same sort of mixture. Christians misunderstood the gospel narratives and the epistles; they came to believe that the Jews were corporately responsible for the death of Christ, and that God had consequently rejected them, cursed them, and replaced them with the Christian church. From there came persecution, torture, pogroms, ghettos, and wholesale slaughter of Jews throughout Europe.
When we consider ourselves above such horrendous actions, we plant the seeds of our own self-deception. For by the time we are so led astray by our own misplaced zeal, it is too late—we cannot be convinced otherwise; after all, God is on our side, so to abandon our path would be heresy and betrayal.
There is only one way to guard against this darker side of faith: We must learn to cross the four barriers. We must learn how to properly interpret our own holy text. We must learn to study the Bible, so that we can understand it in its context—so that we can read the letter to the Galatians as a first-century Galatian Gentile believer in Yeshua would have read it, so that we can hear the words of Jesus as a first-century pious Jew would have heard them. By the way, an excellent resource for understanding Galatians from a first-century, messianic viewpoint is D. Thomas Lancaster’s Holy Epistle to the Galatians.
Yet before we tackle these four barriers, we must answer an important question—but that will have to wait for my next post.