In my youth group right now we are talking about how to read the bible. On our Zoom meeting for week one, I began by asking them a question. “Have you ever read anything in the bible that created tension for you between what the text says and what you know about God?” At first, I got a lot of sideways stares. So I rephrased the question, “Have you ever read anything in the bible that you didn’t agree with?” Suddenly, I could see lightbulbs start going off. They unanimously agreed, “yes.”
I said, “Can you give me an example?” They all looked at each other, looked down, and there was another long silent pause. We are still fairly new to each other in my group and I realized that the students were internally asking themselves if this type of conversation was really allowed. Is it really OK to ask questions of the Bible?
Once they realized it was safe, they begin to answer. It went something like this.
“I don’t agree with what the bible says about slavery.”
Another said, “I don’t believe what it says about women not being able to preach.”
Another student spoke up and said, “Doesn’t it say to stone someone if they get caught cheating?”
“What about wearing clothes made up of two different kinds of fabric?”
I affirmed that all of these questions were good ones and then I asked them, “What does it feel like to question the bible?” They shrugged, “Kind of strange, I guess.” “Maybe a little guilty.”
I went on, “what if I told you that the bible was meant to be questioned? What if I told you that part of your responsibility as a bible-believing Christian is to question, doubt, wrestle with, talk to and ultimately interpret the bible for your place and time? What if your relationship with the Bible was always meant to be one long beautiful and complicated conversation? Would that change things for you?”
“A little,” they agreed.
The Bible as a “Talking Book”
Emerson Powery and other African American scholars have given us a great resource in referring to the Bible as the “Talking Book.” In this, Powery describes how many Christian slaves (especially in the years leading up to Emancipation) thought about the Bible. These slaves established a new hermeneutic that led them to reject the notion (intentionally handed down to them by their white owners) that God ordained them to be slaves because they were created as less than human. (The Genesis of Liberation, Powery).
This hermeneutic developed as more and more slaves gained the ability to read. He writes, “…literacy meant the beginning of basic freedom. Biblical literacy allowed these black interpreters to “talk back” to the “talking book” and thereby to engage in a critical hermeneutical challenge to the widespread oppressive use of Scripture on the side of the peculiar institution” (slavery) (pg. 29).
Gaining the ability to read allowed the slaves (and former slaves) to talk back to the talking book and this is how they read and interpreted the Bible. This “talking back” is how they determined that the Bible was not a book that reinforced the institution of slavery (despite the many commandments taken literally and used to justifying the institution of slavery) but instead was a book of liberation.
Learning to Talk Back
This “talking back to the talking book” is a skill that has been lost in evangelicalism today. One reason is because we have lost the freedom to ask questions of the Bible. We have mistaken “sacred” for “literal” and mistaken biblical descriptions for prescriptions. We have bowed down to the illusion of certainty and made “right believing” a pre-requisite for belonging. All of this has led to the continual utilization of the Bible to oppress and marginalize entire people groups. Which is one of the greatest reasons why this “talking back to the talking book” is a skill worth recovering for all of us. How can we start “talking back to the Talking Book?”
To start with, we can be honest about the texts in the Bible that create tension within us between what we read and what we know about God. We can do this in community with other Christians.
We can, as my teenagers did, ask good questions and be honest about our doubt and confusion when it comes to the Bible. We can write them down and journey with these questions instead of fixing or forcing or ignoring them.
We can consult a variety of biblical interpreters about the texts that cause tension. For example, we can read people who may see the text in a different way than we do such as liberation or womanist theologians.You could start with the “Genesis of Liberation” by Emerson Powery.