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Reading the Odd Bits

June 11, 2012

I’ve just wrapped up an exceptionally long series on Job.  A while back I wrote an article on Ecclesiastes.  It’s not infrequent that I talk to Christians who have read neither of these books.  For that matter, a lot of Christians seem not to have read Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Hosea, Amos, Habakkuk, Obadiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Jude, 2 John, or a bunch of others.  Even more infrequently I’ll talk to a self-identified Christian who doesn’t even fake remorse about this.  “Why bother?” they say.  “I know the gospel.  Those books are just confusing and weird.”  Now, as much as I dislike that response the question is worth asking.  Why bother?  All of those books are confusing for modern readers with modern expectations about what the Bible is doing and some of those books are decidedly weird.

Actually, the justification for the question contains within it the seed of the answer: those books are confusing to modern expectations.  To be clear, it is impossible not to have some sort of culturally-shaped expectations of the Bible.  Many people seem to believe that they have no preconceptions whatsoever.  Not too long ago the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door and I invited them in for a chat.  I asked them what I considered to be some basic framework questions.  In return they insisted that they had no philosophical preconceptions whatsoever and they just read the Bible for how it is.  Because of this our chat ground to a screeching halt.  Claiming that you have no preconceptions about the Bible before you read it is like claiming to be a flying pink lemur who breathes neon: it’s wrong and it’s very strange.

Take one of the smallest pieces of information you could have about the Bible, that it’s a book.  You already know what a book is.  You got that information from your culture.  There.  You have a cultural expectation that someone will hand you a stack of writing bound together at one edge.  More than this, you expect the material in the book to be linked together in a theme.  You may admit that there could be a book in which a short poem about washing machines was followed by an essay on computer programing which was followed by a two hundred-page fantasy story but you would find such a document very strange.  In fact, your expectation that books are united by a theme if not a consistent thread of narrative or thought is strong enough that if you received a book of randomly-selected topics you might actually find some commonality and assume that this was the intended theme of the book.  Let me reiterate that: even in this simple example there is already reason to believe that your preconceptions could cause you to read the text in a distorted manner if it were enough unlike what you expected.

In reality, our expectations of what the Bible will be like go much further than “it’s a book”.  We probably believe one of three things about the Bible: that it is an authoritative book or that it is a book of non-authoritative but often nice moral teaching or that it is a book of crazy made-up stories.  We probably also believe that the Bible is about God (whether or not we believe that God exists outside of people’s heads).  Each of these beliefs sets up expectations.  If we believe that the Bible is crazy made-up stories we probably won’t recognize any coherence or wisdom we run across because we’re primed to assume that’s not what’s there.  If we believe the Bible is nice moral stories we’ll find the doom and smiting parts quite confusing.  If we believe that the Bible is authoritative we will tend to assume that the Bible looks like other authoritative books we have read which, in Western culture, tend to be textbooks or at least textbook-like.  This is a theme I’ve hit on often but we don’t have authoritative poems or narratives any more.  So if we believe that the Bible is an authoritative book about God then we will probably initially expect it to be a textbook about God.

Given all of this, it’s often quite hard to figure out why we would read something like Jeremiah.  Sure, prophecy buffs like to read the prophets to try to determine the future1 but the prophets are not a well-organized theology text.  They are mostly Hebrew poetry which keeps the pacing slow and the points obscured.  Job, of course, is far worse.  Other books are confusing in completely different ways.  God is barely mentioned in the book of Esther.  Ecclesiastes is depressing.  Leviticus is dry and what are we supposed to do with it, anyway?  Isn’t the Law over and done with?  This itself is another major point: isn’t it enough to get the basics of the New Testament?  Can’t obscure books of the Old Testament be left in the Iron Age?

Of course, the New Testament talks about the Old Testament.  Jesus identifies with the Old Testament, even the bloody bits.  This is part of the reason some people stay away from the Old Testament.  It’s hard to hold the Old and New Testaments together.  We have a particular expectation about what the Old Testament should look like given the New and it doesn’t match.  More expectations.

The first Christians went the opposite way.  They had a particular expectation of what a Messiah was and they got someone who didn’t fit that expectation but clearly was the Messiah anyway.  They read the Old Testament and didn’t expect the New.  It might be worth asking why they concluded that Jesus was the Messiah and why they continued to read the Old Testament.  In fact, if one thing is obvious it’s that some people did hold the Old and New Testaments together.  It can be done.  If it could be done we would probably understand Christianity better.

Ultimately, we should read the odd stuff because it’s odd.  We come to the Bible with preconceptions.  That’s unavoidable.  However, the Bible can also teach us how to read it.  Every time we think “That doesn’t belong here!”,  we are having a preconception challenged.  There are two ways to respond to this.  The first is to say, “So the Bible is wrong or confusing,” and stop reading.  The second is to say, “I don’t think this should be here but it is.  How would my thinking need to change so that I felt like this belonged here?”  This is why we read the odd bits, so that we challenge our notions of what is odd.

This isn’t something that you do once and finish with.  I didn’t write a series on Job because I thought Job made perfect, obvious sense.  I wrote a series on Job because I didn’t get Job and I wanted to grow.  Obviously, to not get Job I had to have read it.  I’d read it several times, in fact, and yet it had never clicked for me.  Doing the careful reading and thinking to write a series on Job helped me with that.  One of these days I’ll have to tackle Proverbs and Revelation as well, two books I could do without.  Proverbs first.  Revelation is a bear to figure out but it’s fun to read if you don’t have to figure it all out.  Proverbs, on the other hand…..but it’s in the Bible.  Why?  Well, I should read through it again, maybe several times, and figure out why it belongs there.  I should let it transform me.

This is the part that goes on forever.  We all have favorite topics.  Heck, I keep wondering when you’ll all figure out that I have only about three ideas to write about.  Whether we are bloggers, preachers, theologians, casual Bible-readers, or small group leaders we’d rather read the bits we like.  What we need, though, is to read the bits we don’t like that will make us grow.  We need to read the odd bits because our sense of oddity needs fixing.

[1] Which, given what the books of the prophets are actually about, is also a lot like claiming to be a flying pink lemur who breathes neon.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom/Susan permalink
    June 11, 2012 12:42 pm

    This is a particularly wonderful article! Yes, the odd bits are challenging… Mom

  2. June 11, 2012 1:04 pm

    I wonder if part of the reason they don’t read much of the Old Testament is because their understanding of the Gospel itself doesn’t require anything more than a few letters from Paul. Most of the Old Testament (and heck, even a good portion of the New Testament) isn’t relevant to a Gospel that teaches you that Jesus died so you can just go to heaven.

    • Eric permalink
      June 11, 2012 1:29 pm

      Yes, the Gospel that doesn’t find even the gospels particularly relevant may be part of the issue.

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