Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Politics of Bible Study

Children are guileless readers and hearers of stories. They don't tease apart narrative structures or ponder the historical forces that shaped a work or question authorship. They listen, they enjoy, they often fixate on inconsequential details. We grow older and we learn to read for instruction, for analysis, and quite often, for political purposes. There is a strange kinship between academic literary scholars and some conservative Christians in that they place a strong emphasis on political reading. "One ought to read and laud only those works that are likely to reaffirm values that one already holds, so as to reinforce them, and make oneself a better soldier in the good political fight."

Now, there is some validity to this instruction with respect to the Bible, a book that Christians regard as authoritative on all matters of faith and practice, and that ought to be personally transforming. The problem is that a strong emphasis on the instructional aspects of Bible study often brings bad consequences: a reduction of a literary text to a series of propositions, bad exegesis from a failure to understand the literary aspects of the text, and a discarding of parts of the text whose personal value isn't immediately apparent.

I recently reread the patriarchal narrative of Genesis, which, for my money, is the most satisfying narrative in the Bible. As I read through Robert Alter's translation, I was dumbfounded by Jacob's character arc. I saw a man of cunning and physical means deceived into a marriage he did not want, raise a family whose violent honor he could not control, lose his dearest son, and an old man stripped of his smarts and virility left to cries of self-pity, and die in a land that was not his own. What is the practical purpose of this story's inclusion in the Bible? How can it be a cautionary tale, when its events are so dependent on specific details? Is it a theological treatise? There is theology, but it is buried. No, it is an account of Israel's history, of a unique family whose particular method of unhappiness is difficult to replicate, and of God's faithfulness in using such a family to father His chosen people. What value is that to me? The fact that I still ask the question means that I still harbor suspicion of apolitical reading.

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